By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Nobel laureate Gabriel Garca-Márquez once remarked that the Latin-American strongman is the only myth Latin America has foisted upon the First World. He is wrong. In the art world, an equally pervasive myth endures, that of the hysterical, polemical Latin artist. It is a stereotype at least as durable as fashionable bits of art-world despair, like the notion that painting is dead or that art history is at an end or that the age of great museum shows is past.
A new show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth reveals these fictions for what they are: the imaginings of a warped First-World view. Titled Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art, the show was organized by San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the few contemporary art museums that focuses on the art of Latin America today. Fort Worth's Modern Art Museum is the second stop for this outstanding exhibition; from there, it will travel to San Francisco, Ontario, Miami, and Minneapolis.
Like virtually every exhibition MAMFW mounts, the show is fascinating and enormously intelligent. It proves that art-world despair is mostly the raving of pointy-headed art critics and intellectuals with the warped perspective lampooned by the New Yorker's famous world map, the one with New York at its center and a few provinces, such as London and San Francisco, in the distant background. The contemporary art in this show is vital, inspired by art-historical tradition, smart, and free from cant. Anyone who believes that contemporary art is all concept and no feeling or overly concerned with academic issues or cynically calculated to fit art-world marketing strategies should see this show, and apologize.
As the title suggests, Ultrabaroque examines the influence of the European baroque, the 17th-century movement associated with painters from Caravaggio and Velázquez to Zubarán, on contemporary art from Latin and South America. Characterized by dramatic contrasts and movement and often by the grotesque and flamboyant, baroque painting fell out of favor in most of Europe by the 18th century. But in Latin countries, especially Spain and Portugal's New World colonies, it never really went out of style. While the rest of academic painting moved on to rococo putti and patriotic historical confections and impressionism and modernism, artists such as Goya and even Picasso continued to draw on the baroque as a source for their most affecting work.
Back in Spain and Portugal's New World colonies, the baroque was, if anything, even more important. Not only was it the dominant mode of painting during the early years of Latin America's subjugation, the hellish fantasies and mementos mori were a favorite tool of Catholicism, which was, along with smallpox and miscegenation, Spain and Portugal's main export to the New World. As the official art of the Counter-Reformation, it had a special hold over the Spanish imagination; it is no accident that Hieronymus Bosch, the proto-baroque painter of writhing demons and hellish tortures, was a favorite of Philip II. The grotesque fantasies and alizarin crimson body parts beloved by baroque painters seemed to find their echoes, if not their inspiration, in the peculiar legends and dark histories surrounding the Spanish court, legends such as that of the necrophiliac Carlos II, supposedly bewitched by his Austrian mother. This taste for Dark Shadows-type soap opera was imported wholesale into the New World and even today finds its echoes in Latin-American political melodrama. Consider Mexico, for just the closest example, with an ex-president on the lam, his brother jailed for corruption, and both men implicated in political assassinations, a country where crusading prosecutors rely on soothsayers to help them locate the skeletons buried by the last administration, only they turn out to be the wrong guy's bones.
Not surprisingly, the often-contentious relationship between European art and the artistic heritage of Latin America is one of the grand recurring themes in south-of-the-border art. Although several artists in Ultrabaroque address this theme, Brazilian artist Adriana Varejo is the least coy. In a series of masterfully painted canvases, she reproduces 17th-century paintings or imported Portuguese tiles or baroque religious fantasies, then gouges them apart, exposing the (presumably human) viscera beneath. In "Meat a la Taunay," she serves up pieces of canvas and underlying flesh on delicate china like that on which a Spanish viceroy, or for that matter Torquemada, might well have dined.
Similarly, Mexican artist Yishai Jusidman uses the most overtly "colonial" of media, painting, to explore the darker legacies of modern life. In a series of huge, beautifully painted portraits, Jusidman renders clowns and sumo wrestlers, modern-day "fools" who reflect truths we would rather ignore. Later paintings done in the fashion of Velázquez and Goya depict a succession of patients from Mexico City's psychiatric hospitals, each of whom holds a book illustrating his favorite art-historical image. Other works explore the notion of perspective, using techniques borrowed from baroque painting. His most recent series of works reproduce digital images in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Chuck Close. Far from being dry or merely academic, Jusidman's exploration of painting is both vital and refreshing; in a world littered with poorly conceived conceptual art, it looks downright revolutionary.