October 22, 2015

Contemporary Latin American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

November 22, 2015 - February 28, 2016

In November, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presents Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America, an exhibition featuring a selection of major works by 21 established artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela. Encompassing a variety of media including drawing, sculpture, video, and interactive object- and video-based installations, the exhibition highlights contemporary artists who use seductive and engaging materials to convey their social, political, and environmental concerns. Curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), with Rachel Mohl, curatorial assistant, Latin American art, Contingent Beauty is on view in Houston from November 22, 2015, to February 28, 2016.

Drawn primarily from the Museum’s permanent collection of modern Latin American art—one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in any public institution—nearly all of the 32 works on view have been acquired by the Museum over the last five years through the Caribbean Art Fund, a special initiative of the Museum and Fundación Gego. Established in 2010, the goal of this fund is to research, promote, and collect works by artists from the greater Caribbean. Since its inception, the Caribbean Art Fund has sponsored the acquisition of 37 major works by artists from Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela. Works by Central American artists are presently under consideration. 

“While the Latin American art department has an international reputation for its unrivaled Modernist and Constructivist collection, Contingent Beauty demonstrates the breadth of the Museum’s holdings of contemporary Latin American and Caribbean art,” said MFAH director Gary Tinterow. “With this installation, we invite Museum visitors to discover artists active in the region today, many of whom have made significant contributions to the global art scene.”

“In the hands of these artists, the work of art—while formally sophisticated and seductive—becomes not an end in itself but a tool to heighten viewers’ awareness of critical factors shaping their everyday environment,” said Ramírez. “The works employ conceptual, sensory-based or interactive strategies that playfully elicit the viewer’s active participation. As visitors become key elements in unfolding the work’s meaning, this exhibition promises to provide them with an exciting, fun-filled, and eye-opening experience.”  

In addition to artists whose works were acquired through the Caribbean Art Fund, Contingent Beauty features works by exceptional mid-career Latin American artists, generating a dynamic dialogue that cuts across chronological and geographic borders. Featured artists include Tania Bruguera (Cuba), Johanna Calle (Colombia), Yoan Capote (Cuba), María Fernanda Cardoso (Colombia), Los Carpinteros (Cuba), José Gabriel Fernández (Venezuela), Magdalena Fernández (Venezuela), Víctor Grippo (Argentina), Carmela Gross (Brazil), Grupo Mondongo (Argentina), Guillermo Kuitca (Argentina), Oscar Muñoz (Colombia), Roberto Obregón (Venezuela), Gabriel Orozco (Mexico), José Alejandro Restrepo (Colombia), Miguel Ángel Ríos (Argentina-Mexico), Miguel Ángel Rojas (Colombia), Teresa Serrano (Mexico), Regina Silveira (Brazil), Javier Téllez (Venezuela), and Tunga (Brazil).

Material and Message
The artists in Contingent Beauty intertwine aesthetic refinement with biting critiques of timely issues grounded in the complex realities of Latin America and its long history of colonization, political repression, and economic crisis. These issues range from poverty, violence, gender, government corruption, and globalization, to the war on drugs and the legacy of colonialism. The “beauty” of these works is contingent upon contextual interpretation. Each piece harbors a tension between opposing elements, such as beauty and violence, seduction and repulsion, or elegance and brutality.

Miguel Ángel Rojas’ Broadway (1996/2010) illustrates the idea at the core of this exhibition: A trail of more than 3,000 coca leaves precariously pinned to the wall functions as both a poetic statement and a powerful indictment of illegal drug trafficking. From a distance, the leaves could be a line of ants; up close, the allusion to farm laborers and the narcotics trade becomes apparent. María Fernanda Cardoso’s Woven Water: Submarine Landscape (1994)—26 clusters of dried, preserved starfish suspended in constellations at various heights—entices visitors into a mysterious undersea environment, while serving as an overt criticism of commercial tourism and the commodification of nature.

Estadística (Statistics) (1996–2000), by the renowned Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, was produced communally as the artist invited her friends and neighbors to donate and assemble locks of their own hair into a Cuban flag. By echoing women’s collectives who secretly sewed Cuban flags during the Cuban War of Independence, Bruguera’s flag creates an analogous resistance to Fidel Castro’s regime. Similarly, Yoan Capote spent eight years collecting teeth from friends, family members, and acquaintances in Cuba for his work Stress (in memoriam) (2004–12). The piece presents a metaphor for resistance in that a heavy concrete block is precariously balanced on top of rows of these teeth, and rocks back and forth in a grinding motion.

In the same vein, Johanna Calle and Regina Silveira employ everyday materials to create non-traditional drawings and explore issues of urban disenfranchisement. In Obra negra (Black Opus) (2007–08), Calle sews chicken wire onto cardboard to produce schematic drawings of the precarious dwellings of Colombia’s shantytowns and the feet of the children who inhabit them. Silveira, in turn, applies to the wall vinyl impressions of bare feet belonging to hundreds of Brazilian street children in her work Irruption (Oval) (2005).

Guillermo Kuitca’s Le Sacre (1992) is emblematic of these artists’ critical relationship with local and global concerns. Kuitca presents a series of 54 child-size mattresses that invite visitors to walk among them, discovering hand-painted city maps of unknown locations in the world that serve to unify the extremes of the personal and the global. Kuitca’s piece is among a number of large-scale works that draw viewers in for closer inspection. Tunga’s Lezart (1989)—a monumental sculpture made of elemental materials, such as copper, iron, and magnets in the shapes of combs, lizards, and strands of hair, arranged in disturbing juxtapositions—hints at a mythological narrative that is never clearly revealed. Towering at 9 feet tall, A negra (The Black Woman) (1997) by Carmela Gross is an imposing black tulle skirt on wheels that engages issues of race and gender in Brazilian society.

A significant aspect of Contingent Beauty is a suite of video installations that provide insight into the innovative scope and experimental range that the medium has attained since the 1990s, when Latin American artists turned to video as a means to reexamine history and question cultural constructs. José Alejandro Restrepo’s Paso del Quindío I (Quindío Passage I) (1992) is an immersive installation that confronts the viewer with footage from different locations of the Quindío Pass, a trade route leading from the central region of the Andes to the Pacific coast, thereby stimulating viewers to reconsider the history of colonialism in the region. In La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Rozell Hospital) [The Passion of Joan of Arc (Rozelle Hospital)] (2005), Javier Téllez examines the biases surrounding mental disorders by enlisting psychiatric patients to reinterpret and reenact the 1928 French film classic. In the two-channel video Mecha (2010), Miguel Ángel Ríos uses strategies and resources derived from film to capture the violence and war-like atmosphere of the popular ancient Colombian game of tejo. In Teresa Serrano’s La piñata (2003), we watch as a man beats to death a piñata that is shaped and dressed to look like a woman from the Mexico–United States border. Using geometric patterns to connect to the natural world, Magdalena Fernández creates a video environment in which she synchronizes dots and lines of light with the sound of rain in 2iPM009 (2009).

Exhibition Schedule
Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America debuts in Houston before touring internationally. The Houston opening occurs in the context of the sixth Latin American Experience Weekend, a biennial event that supports the Museum’s Latin American art acquisitions program and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA). The 2015 edition is dedicated to Colombia and will feature a significant representation of Colombian artists in the four-day program, which includes talks, lectures, a gala, and live and silent auctions with works by artists highlighted in Contingent Beauty as well as other historic and contemporary artists from Latin America. The event takes place from November 19 to 22, 2015.

The International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is publishing a fully illustrated, 250-page catalogue to accompany the exhibition. Distributed by Yale University Press, the catalogue consists of introductory essays, individual texts on the artworks in the exhibition, and artists’ biographies. It features contributions by María Gaztambide, Rachel Mohl, Beatriz Olivetti, Mari Carmen Ramírez, Gabriela Rangel, Tahía Rivero, Osvaldo Sánchez, Michael Wellen, and Daniela Wüstenberg.

This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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