Goodbye, Columbus

The new exhibit at Denver's Museo de las Americas has an impenetrable title and an equally confusing outlook.

1598, 1848, 1898: Conquest and Consequences is billed as an exploration of the myriad relationships between the United States, Mexico and Spain. Its title suggests a provocative discussion and explanation of the historic dates of the title. Instead, Conquest and Consequences serves mostly as an interesting if difficult theme show of contemporary political art.

Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the exhibit is the product of a trio of organizers. Museo director Jose Aguayo, who supervised the installation, was joined by two professors, Vincent C deBaca from Metropolitan State College and George Rivera from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Rivera, a sociologist by profession, took the leading role, lining up the artists from Mexico and Spain and including--inappropriately, since he is one of the organizers--his own work in the American section.

The three dates used in the exhibit's title refer to events in the course of American, Mexican and Spanish history. 1598 was the year Spanish colonists first settled in modern-day New Mexico. 1848 is when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo handed over California and much of the rest of the Southwest, including southern Colorado, to the U.S. Finally, 1898 marks the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.

Ten artists from each of the three countries were invited to participate and to respond, says Aguayo, "to some issue related to one of the three events." He need not have added that the organizers gave the artists "a lot of latitude"; the inclusion of several totally abstract works amply reveals an "anything goes" approach.

The pieces here were also supposed to have been created specifically for the exhibit, but that's apparently not the case: It's obvious that some artists submitted pieces that were already lying around the studio. What's more, Conquest and Consequences doesn't really have much to say about history. Most of the pieces refer only obliquely--if at all--to the show's political themes. And in many of the works that do comment on particular events, there are no accompanying explanatory text panels to point this out, leaving historically challenged viewers to fend for themselves.

These drawbacks make it hard to view Conquests and Consequences as the organizers intended. Still, it is possible to overlook the oversights and find things to enjoy in this visually engaging show.

The exhibit begins in the north gallery just off the Museo's entrance, where works by most of the American artists have been assembled. The exhibit starts off with an engaging piece that Aguayo says is the only one that refers to all three dates in the exhibit's title. For this untitled pastel-on-paper drawing, California artist Leo Limon has divided his picture into a grid of images that reveal a childlike yet sophisticated style. The elegant composition is crowded with colorful and crude renderings of birds, animals and plants alongside national symbols.

Fellow Californian Judith Baca also crams a multiplicity of images into her "La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra, II (The Memory of Our Land)," a handpainted digital image. But her photo-transfer technique produces a very different effect, as modern and historic photographs of Hispanic men and women are laid over and into a sketchy view of Colorado's Front Range.

"La Memoria" is a preliminary version of the mural Baca has been commissioned to install at Denver International Airport. That mural is supposed to be unveiled later this summer. It's one of a group of late additions to the DIA art project that were made after First Lady Wilma Webb, noting that minority participation in the DIA art project was low, declared an infamous 1993 moratorium on public art when she became chairwoman of the Mayor's Commission on Art, Culture and Film. Though Hispanics were hard-pressed to claim that they had been excluded from the public-art process--several were awarded commissions at DIA, including two artists in Conquest and Consequences, Patti Ortiz and Luis Jimenez--they benefited from Webb's moratorium anyway, with Baca being added to the roster of artists selected to adorn the airport. Politics aside, Baca's impressive "La Memoria" will be a valuable addition to the motley assortment of art at DIA.

The Baca piece will probably be installed at DIA even before Jimenez's "Denver Mustang," a monumental outdoor fiberglass sculpture seen by some to be a tribute to the Denver Broncos. One of the original airport commissions from 1993, "Mustang" was supposed to be installed in 1995 but has not yet been completed, owing perhaps to Jimenez's ongoing health problems.

For Conquest and Consequences, the Texas-based Jimenez sent up a fabulous lithograph that depicts a closeup of a coiled snake ready to strike. "Cascabel Guerrillera (Guerilla Rattlesnake)" has been subtly tinted with amber, accenting the predominant scheme of black and white that corresponds to the lithographic ink and paper used to make the print. Jimenez is a master draftsman, and "Cascabel" has been beautifully carried out. Using the characteristic diamond-back pattern of the snake's skin as his taking-off point, Jimenez lays in forms suggestive of bullets and knife blades. His commentary about armed struggle is made even more emphatic by the way Jimenez turns the snake's rattle into a hand grenade with its activating pin pulled.

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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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia