Go for Baroque

5Meyer Vaisman's "Untitled Turkey XXII" satirizes European misunderstandings about the New World.

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.

Chilean Arturo Duclos also looks to baroque painting as a source but arrives at a far different place than does Jusidman. Duclos' work is self-consciously concerned with cross-cultural signs, relying heavily on the symbolism of the baroque, augmented by maps, hieroglyphs, popular ads, and occult publications. Mexican artists Einar and Jamex de la Torre, in turn, borrow heavily from Catholic iconography, which they render in an exuberant, folk-art tradition. Using blown glass and a variety of found objects, in the Latin-American tradition of making do with what is at hand, they spoof customs and clichés that seem to backfire in the context of modern life.

Unlike so many shows designed at least in part to appeal to Norte-Americanos of Hispanic descent, this is no cynical attempt to make the turnstiles spin. It is, instead, a serious attempt to explore the legacy of the baroque in contemporary Latin-American art, an area virtually unexplored by English-speaking curators and exhibitions.

This is no mean feat. Yet Ultrabaroque seems to feel it must do more than merely trace artistic lineages. The organizers strain to coin new words for supposedly "new" conditions, such as "Post-Latin American," an unfortunate bit of jargon that, in the end, seems to mean that Disney and Mickey D. have colonized the Third World like everyone else. Using the baroque pearl as a metaphor, the show's organizers describe contemporary Latin-American art as an imperfect gem, produced by unique cultural pressures and influences, claiming that only in the Americas did the baroque reach "its full fruition."

Maybe so, but that begs the critical question applicable to all contemporary art, namely how to tell the pearls from the swine. Not all the work in Ultrabaroque is paint- or sculpture-based; there is, as I suppose there must be, also a smattering of video, film, and installation-based work. Fortunately, the curators have done a masterful job of editing, and even in these oft-porcine categories, the selections are, for the most, part compelling. The work of Meyer Vaisman, one of the founders of neo-conceptualism, is a delight, especially his "Untitled Turkey Series." The turkeys, a species native to the Americas, are dressed up in all kinds of ridiculous garb representing European customs, expectations, and misunderstandings about the New World. Similarly, his monumental cast of "Barbara Fischer/Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy" is fraught with hilarity and sharp wit. Fischer, Vaisman's longtime psychoanalyst, is posed as in a pietà, wearing pink tulle and a jester's cap, holding a jester's suit made from the clothes of Vaisman's parents. Vaisman's work exposes not only his psyche and his therapist but the gimmicky, shallow work of neo-conceptual knockoffs such as Jeff Koons.

Nor is the baroque itself the only European tradition against which contemporary Latin Americans are rebelling. History painting, in particular, dominated academic Latin-American painting in the 18th and especially 19th centuries and still fills the official state museums of many Central and South American countries. Miguel Caldern, whom the exhibition catalog describes as "the enfant terrible of contemporary art in Mexico," spoofs this tradition in a series of huge, full-colored stills titled "Employee of the Month." In them, Calderón asked guards and janitors at the National Museum of Art in Mexico City to re-enact the paintings they take care of on a daily basis. The results, which are hilarious, use the common-man techniques favored by some baroque artists to question the very existence of the museum and so-called "high" art.

Alas, no exhibition is perfect; the work of Venezuelan neo-conceptualist José Antonio Hernández-Diez, in particular, seems one-dimensional, faddish, and faux-profound. Similarly, the gimmicky baseball caps and cubist quotations of Mexican-born Rubén Ortiz Torres seem more tired than insightful. Overall, however, this exhibition of art from the hot zones is the perfect antidote to the sterility of much contemporary American art. Turning the tables on European traditions from the wunderkammer (curio cabinet) full of New World curiosities to the Prado, Ultrabaroque itself becomes a virtual curio cabinet full of strange and fascinating things, the rare museum show that can literally hold your interest for hours, to which one can return time and again and still not feel as if you have seen enough.

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