Goodbye, Columbus

As might be expected, given the high level of development of Colorado's Hispanic art traditions, some of the best things in the U.S. section of Conquest and Consequences are the work of prominent locals, including Tony Ortega and Carlos Fresquez. Ortega is represented by two mixed-media drawings done in his signature style, with figures conventionalized into symbolic metaphors. Renowned for his sunny, Southwest-inspired palette, Ortega uses lots of lilac and light-blue pastels in both of his pieces here. In "El Encuentro (The Encounter)," two mounted conquistadors face a pair of severed feet. The images refer to a gruesome practice that Spanish overlords used to punish Meso-American Indians. In spite of the gory topic, Ortega's color sense lends "El Encuentro" an unexpected beauty.

Even better is Ortega's other drawing, this one not so subtly titled "Manifest Destiny or Imperialism?" In this piece, a group of Mexicans on horseback faces off against mounted American cavalry soldiers. Drawn at the surface of the picture plane is a map of the U.S. with the portion taken from Mexico in 1848 outlined in yellow.

It's not hard to see what Ortega's getting at in "Manifest Destiny." More abstract in both style and content is "Tierra y Muerte: A Wound to Heal," by Carlos Fresquez. Using a photo-based silkscreen technique, Fresquez appropriates a 1970s news photo of Chicano activist Reis Tijerana, who seized a New Mexican courthouse claiming the authority of Spanish land grants. Behind and below Tijerana is a cartoonish portait and a collection of photo transfers of milagros, little good-luck charms with mystical and religious overtones.

The Fresquez piece succeeds in conveying political content while remaining an artistic success. It's not shrill, so its message doesn't consign it to the bombast pile like so much politically motivated art. But this rare achievement is hardly unexpected: Fresquez has been walking the line between art and politics for nearly a decade.

At this point the exhibit splits, and the installation becomes downright hard to follow. Many visitors will find themselves in a gallery devoted to the Museo's permanent collection instead of going across to the south gallery, where the Mexican section starts up. Oddly, the tenth American artist has been lumped in with the Mexicans, a disconcerting choice that blurs the divisions between the three sections.

The Mexican section is uneven, but it starts on a high note with "Mitologica No. 1 (Mythology No. 1)," a finely done computer-generated print by Jose de Santiago Silva. In this vividly toned print, Silva captures a meeting of three corpulent nudes--two in blood red, the third in dark blue. Though Silva is quite up-to-the-minute technically, his style harks back to the old masters.

Also blending traditional and contemporary elements is Nahum Zenil's watercolor-and-mixed-media "Prisonero III (Prisoner III)," in which a conservative, representational style is used to portray Zenil himself, naked and bound to a chair with red, white and green ribbon. The unblinking frontal nudity and the bondage give the carefully done painting a shocking visual effect.

Two other Mexican artists, Rodolfo Morales and Jose de Jesus Martinez Alvarez, are each represented by a pair of prints that refer in their own ways to Picasso, surely the greatest of all Hispanic artists. Morales picks up on Picasso's classical phase of the 1920s, a style that also influenced the Mexican muralists of the 1930s. In this style, figures are made to be thick and volumetric, as in Morales's "Nina con Bandera," a brightly hued serigraph of a dancing girl with the Mexican flag obscuring her head. Alvarez looks to Picasso's surrealism for his inspiration in "El Estruendo Surge de Relampago (Uproar Comes From Thunder)," an etching with intaglio.

The final section of Conquest and Consequences is devoted to Spanish artists, who are presented both in the back gallery and on the zigzag of walls that divide the Museo in half. Interestingly, the Spaniards have much less to say about Spanish colonialism and American imperialism than do the Americans and the Mexicans. They'd probably never even thought about it before they were invited to participate in the show, so this section, not surprisingly, is devoted to Iberian variants of international contemporary art with barely any content related to the show's stated themes.

This is even the case with pieces like Pepa Poquet's pair of digital photo compositions, "Valencia 1998" and "Denver 1998," which obviously were created especially for this show. In these pieces, Poquet uses blurred and ghostly self-portraits adorned with full-color, in-focus montage elements. Another notable Spanish entry is Jose Manuel Guellen Ramon, who conjures up the look of mid-century European modernism with two monotypes, "Observador de Tiempo (Observer of Time)" and "La Misma Lluvia (The Same Rain)." These evocative titles might tempt us to try to link the two pieces to the show's topic; perhaps they refer to continuity and change in the New World? But this is too much of a stretch. Instead, both monotypes are enjoyable on purely aesthetic grounds, regardless of their failure to meet the stated parameters of Conquest and Consequences.

In fact, by the end of the show, it's hard to say just what those parameters were--and what message the organizers intended to convey to viewers. In the end, it's best to ignore the politics and appreciate the art for its own sake--no matter who drew it or for what reason.

1598, 1848, 1898: Conquest and Consequences, through July 18 at the Museo de Las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive, 571-4401.

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