In Latin America, la promesa is a sacred concept: in order for your prayers to be answered, you must promise to give something in return. This replenishing philosophy motivates much of the area's folk art as objects of beauty are made to fulfill promises given to family, the community and God.

The spirit of la promesa permeates Visiones del Pueblo: The Folk Art of Latin America. A traveling show organized by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, Visiones is on display in two local venues, the Museo de las Americas and the Denver Art Museum, in a particularly felicitous partnership. Although severe space limitations at the DAM account for its disappointingly small selection, the Museo's lavish share of the exhibition provides a welcome boost for a relatively new cultural institution that's eager to become an educational mainstay for its Latino neighborhood as well as the entire region.

A scholarly text by curator Marion Oettinger of the San Antonio Museum of Art details the background of Visiones's 250 pieces from seventeen countries. More supporting material comes in slick, bilingual educational handouts for families and teachers, along with a professionally produced video (funded by the Ford Motor Company, a tour sponsor). Viewers will appreciate the help; this exotic field of art collecting is dizzyingly complex.

With a few exceptions, most of the art is under eighty years old and its artists unknown. Its inspiration is easier to identify: Many pieces are derived from Indian/ African/Catholic-influenced religious ceremonies, including voodoo. The striking paintings, sculptures, toys, masks, textiles and other crafts might seem naive and crude, characteristics often cited when defining the difference between folk art and the civilized art of urban society. But a grouping of six versions of "Dr. Jose-Gregorio Hernandez," a Venezuelan folk hero, amply demonstrates why folk art cannot be pigeonholed as merely primitive: Some of the "doctors" are rendered with exquisite skill, while others are stick-figure simple. And all fully accomplish their creators' goal--to do honor to an admired personage.

What really distinguishes the objects in this exhibition from what's commonly accepted as "fine" art is how they function: Essential gears in the movement of community life, their purpose is quite distinct from the passive, sequestered role of so much Western art. Unlike the conceptual or abstract art of Western society, these items have a naked emotional appeal--they're intended to tell a story, to be dramatic, to persuade the gods. The audience for this art may not read or write, but its members share a dense oral tradition; the same symbols and characters appear over and over in different guises. Even urbane urban artists are beginning to get the message: Despite its raw qualities (or perhaps because of them), Latin American folk art is becoming a powerful influence on modern art.

Besides the homage to Dr. Hernandez, the exhibition is crammed with myriad interpretations of the human form. One of Visiones's few "name" artists, Venezuelan Jose Belandra, creates carved wooden people that are as elegantly stylized as his countrywoman Marisol's contemporary figural sculptures. Unlike Marisol, however, Belandra works out of a tiny shed in a poor suburb, not a posh New York studio. And an unknown artist working in Ecuador in the Forties produced one of the most riveting figure-based pieces: a delightful pair of realistically carved boxers who look as if they might actually throw punches. The biggest characters of all are "Los Gigantes," who survey the show from a stiltlike height. Enormous papier-mache and fabric representations of saints, local politicians and devils, these whimsical puppet effigies sometimes are stuffed with explosives and blown up at the end of pre-Easter festivities.

Other works involve fewer pyrotechnics but are no less entertaining. Visiones boasts unusually fine examples of weavings from Bolivia and Peru, molas from San Blas, Haitian drums and walking sticks, and pots and fabulous metal and wooden toys from everywhere. Many of the folk-art forms are obscure and zany; encountering these eccentricities is perhaps the most pleasurable part of an exhibition full of endearing traits.

It's a promising start for a new museum.
Visiones del Pueblo: The Folk Art of Latin America, through September 4 at Museo de las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive, 571-4401, and the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-2793.

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Hart Hill