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GONE SOUTH

Quick--name three women artists from Latin America.
Well, there's Frida Kahlo, of course, and then there's, uh...er.... That most of us know so little about the art of our neighbors to the south makes a point about how art appreciation in this country can be xenophobic--that is, when it's not being Eurocentric. That this oversight is a particularly egregious one is made clear by the genuinely spectacular exhibition Latin American Women Artists 1915-1995, currently presented in a display splitting 100 works between two venues--the Denver Art Museum and the Museo de las Americas.

As one could expect, Kahlo is the hook that show organizer Geraldine Biller uses. The famous mid-twentieth-century Mexican surrealist is seen at both the museum and the Museo. Biller, a guest curator for the traveling exhibit's originating institution, the Milwaukee Art Museum, brings an astounding breadth of knowledge and passionate interest to her topic. Among her most interesting observations: Kahlo's worldwide fame is very recent--and first developed, ironically, on this side of the border.

By the 1970s, Kahlo was an artist ripe for rediscovery. First of all, her work was already in some museum collections, owing mostly to the power of her celebrated artist husband, Mexican muralist and Marxist Diego Rivera, but also as the result of early support she received from surrealist proselytizer Andre Breton. And aside from the fact that she was already dead and had led a tragic life filled with struggle--two factors that seem too often to be the prerequisites for famous-artist status--Kahlo was a woman and a Latin American.

Thus, in addition to satisfying the romantic demands of the artist's biography, Kahlo also satisfied the political necessities of the time. Pressure was then being placed on art institutions to present more than just the work of white men. And Kahlo's paintings addressed her physical and psychic suffering, a perfect fit with the autobiographical themes being presented by feminist artists in the United States at the time. This confluence of factors has combined to make Kahlo--alone among Latin American artists--a household name in the world of contemporary art.

Included in this show is a 1936 oil and tempera on metal panel by Kahlo titled "Mis Abuelos, Mis Padres y Yo (Arbol Genealogico)." It's a creepy cartoon of her family tree that she has conceived as a retablo, a kind of traditional sacred Catholic painting prevalent in Mexico for centuries. Kahlo's version of a religious folk painting features the tortured compositions and discontinuity of scale that are her hallmarks. More closely related to the densely composed and richly detailed pictures of her husband, Rivera, is the frequently illustrated 1938 oil on masonite masterpiece "Autorretrato con Mono." The subject of this small yet powerful painting is Kahlo herself, seen in a jungle setting with a monkey on her back.

Curator Biller views Kahlo's work as part of a broad surrealist movement in 1930s-to-1950s Mexico that included other women painters such as Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. Both of these internationally respected artists were concerned with rendering a dreamy state while utilizing a traditional approach to painterly technique. Also, both Carrington and Varo were immigrants from Europe.

Carrington studied in Italy and France and worked with Modernist painter Amedee Ozenfant in her native England before coming to Mexico in 1942 to escape World War II. And like Kahlo, Carrington enjoyed the early and continued support of Breton. In a 1947 oil on canvas, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony," the influence of Flemish medieval painting, which Carrington had been exposed to when she was a schoolgirl in Florence, is easy to see. But Carrington adds to the tradition by subtly introducing fantastic elements, such as the three faces she's given the saint.

Varo, who was born in Spain, studied at the San Fernando Academy in Madrid in the 1930s, becoming one of that institution's first female students. In the late '30s she went to Paris, where she became involved with the surrealist movement. Fleeing war-torn Europe in 1941, she settled in Mexico City. Later Varo became involved with many other exiled artists, including Carrington, who became her close friend. The exquisite "El Flautista," a 1955 oil on masonite, has a bejeweled quality created by the inclusion of inlaid mother of pearl and the use of metallic paints. And although rocks float through the air and a ruined tower has been "restored" with mechanically drawn lines, Varo's effect is more clearly associated with magic realism than with surrealism.

The social realism associated with the Mexican mural tradition is the chief concern of two other artists active at mid-century in Mexico City: the native-born Mara Izquierdo, and Olga Costa, who emigrated from Germany as a child. Both attended the School of the Plastic Arts (Izquierdo in the 1930s, Costa in the 1940s) at a time when the faculty included renowned artists Rivera, Rufino Tamayo and Carlos Merida. Izquierdo's 1943 oil on canvas "Altar de Dolores" is a vibrantly colored view of a home altar set for Good Friday. The still life has a flattened perspective, and the objects depicted have been executed in a conventionalized, cartoon-like way. Costa takes a distinctly different approach. Her colors are toned way down in an oil on canvas from 1950, "Nina Con Sandalias." A little girl, full and fleshy in a pink dress, sits in a luxurious garden and shows off her new gray sandals.

 

Curator Biller's selections make the point that Mexico City is the New York City of Latin America, and she has chosen more artists from Mexico--eight--than from any other country. But Biller also wants us to know that art in Latin America is more than just Mexican realism and surrealism.

For example, in Cuba, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and especially Brazil, abstract styles closely associated with the avant-garde art of Europe and North America have found proponents from the early twentieth century up to the present. No doubt the result of the language difference, Portuguese-speaking Rio de Janeiro is, and has long been, the rival of Mexico City as an art center. And Brazil, according to this show, has a wealth of art traditions that stand completely apart from Mexico's representational art.

The oldest material Biller includes in the exhibit are cubist and expressionist paintings made in Brazil in the 1920s and 1930s by a remarkable trio of women. Anita Malfatti, Tarsila do Amaral and Rosa Acle were cosmopolitan sorts who were widely traveled and had studied art in Europe and the United States. Malfatti, generally regarded as the first twentieth-century woman artist active in Brazil, reveals her training with Lovis Corinth in Berlin. In the 1921-1922 oil on canvas "Retrato de Mario de Andrade," a simplified portrait of a dapper man wearing spectacles and a bow tie is placed against a cubist background of zigzagging lines and color bars. The entirely different strategy taken by do Amaral--who merged French avant-garde influences with African and indigenous Brazilian sources--is clearly seen in the very odd "Urutu," a 1928 oil on canvas. Acle adopts a similar, though distinct, approach in her 1938 tempera on paper, "Abstracto."

Amelia Pelaez, who studied briefly in New York, became a pioneer in abstract painting in Cuba. Today she is considered to have been the peer of her much more famous countryman, Wilfredo Lam. Bringing a Caribbean sense of color to her compositions, Pelaez painted simple forms, often suggestive of flowers. Her oils on canvas, such as 1943's "Marpacfico" and 1955's "Naturaleza Muerta (Still Life)," are vibrant and fresh, seeming newer than they actually are.

As the work of these artists illustrates, the Latin American art scene has been spinning out unique variants on foreign styles for years--and is apparently as obsessed with art in Europe and the United States as we are. And as Biller's show makes clear, artists working in Latin America have in recent years been even more thoroughly integrated into international art trends.

Brazilian-born Lygia Clark, whose minimalist and constructivist paintings and sculptures have been exhibited around the world, was actually trained in Paris. Her pieces, which date from the 1950s to her death in the 1980s, are of the highest aesthetic order, displaying unexpected organic components set against sleek geometric ones.

International fame has also greeted the work of Colombia's Fanny Sann, who studied in Mexico and London and, like many of the artists in the show, now lives in New York City. Her abstract-expressionist phase of the 1960s is shown in a 1966 oil on canvas "No. 3." But from the 1970s to the present, Sann has turned to tightly painted geometric abstractions. She divides "Acrylic No. 6," an acrylic on canvas from 1979, into three vertical passages, each of which is populated with crisply painted squares and rectangles. The pattern is symmetrical, the colors dark and transcendental.

Sixties-influenced American color-field abstraction is the signature style of Tomie Ohtake, who still lives and paints in the large Japanese section of Sao Paulo, Brazil. And the same interest in color fields is seen in the oils on canvas created by Mexico's Cordelia Urueta from the 1960s through the 1980s. Over in Colombia, Mara Luisa Pacheco created her own characteristic style--abstractions based on the Andean landscape--from the 1950s until her death in 1982.

Paintings clearly dominate this show, but Biller has also included the work of several remarkable modernist sculptors, most notably Alicia Penalba of Argentina, Marina Nunez del Prado from Bolivia and Venezuela's Gego (Gertrudis Goldschmidt). Penalba and del Prado create gorgeous abstract bronzes based on recognizable subjects like the nude or a bird, whereas Gego takes welded steel rods and turns them into optical illusions.

 

Like so many modern and contemporary art tales, this one does not have a happy ending. The youngest artists included, those who are just now hitting their stride, are the weakest links in this otherwise superb show. The work of Brazil's Leda Catunda is particularly thin and unappealing. The constant annoying and too-loud recording of a beating heart in Venezuelan-American Elba Damast's 1994 installation "The House Within" intrudes into every corner of the DAM portion of the show. These, however, are minor setbacks in an exhibit as chock-full of riches as this one.

My advice: Begin at DAM, where the oldest material is displayed (along with a couple of contemporary installations), and then proceed to the Museo. At both locations, Biller's excellent catalogue is available and is highly recommended as a guide to this long-overdue exhibition.


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