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.