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The Elements 

Terra firma at the Museum of Latin American Art, amusements and an old master at the Norton Simon

Wednesday, Oct 24 2001

One curious question to emerge in the flurry of criticism surrounding this year’s Venice Biennale was whether or not such an exhibition — a World’s Fair–like showcase of international artists — is still worthwhile now that the global circuit of exhibition venues and publications is so well-trodden. Why go to Venice to see the same work we saw just last month in Berlin, or New York, or Paris, or London?

It’s a kind of snobbish question, and probably irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t have the means to ride the circuit, or the professional obligation to care. But it points to an interesting, broader issue. At a time of seemingly universal mobility (perhaps slowed but certainly not halted by the current political events), the implications of geography are changing. Of course, art has always moved around, particularly since the development of the museum in the 19th century, and people have always traveled to find it. But it’s commonplace today. In a major American city, you’re as likely to encounter contemporary work from Japan, India, Russia, Portugal or Brazil as you are to find Italian olive oil in a supermarket. With all this plurality, then, what does geographical origin mean in contemporary art? Or perhaps more to the point, what do we Westerners need it to mean? What exactly do we expect from, say, a Cuban, South African or Malaysian artist — and how does that differ from what we expect from a French or German one (particularly when all of those artists are themselves likely to travel or even live abroad)? When does geography actually imprint itself onto an artist’s work, and when do we, as outsiders, inscribe our own notion of what we imagine that geography to be?

These questions come to mind when considering the Museum of Latin American Art’s current exhibition of works by Eduardo Esquivel, Ana Fabry and Mario Pérez, three midcareer Argentine painters. While I’ve never been to Argentina, it seems fair to presume that these works say something about the nature of that country’s terrain. Though each artist’s style is significantly different, the surface texture of their works is quite similar: dry, rough and cracked in places, as though painted over a mixture of dirt and fine twigs. Each painting is like a patch of rugged earth.

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Esquivel and Pérez both grew up in the city of San Juan, which is located in a high-desert region on the eastern slope of the Andes. Their works feel like the desert: hot, desolate and sparse. Esquivel paints stylized, ceremonial scenes rendered from an aerial viewpoint, with tiny, mostly identical figures scattered in lines and circles across flat swaths of burned brown land. They are uncomfortably rough and simplistic-looking when viewed at close range, but take a few steps back, and the details blur to reveal broad, gentle, roughly circular formations of white and tan that stand out against the darker ground like outlines of mysterious land formations.

Pérez’s paintings, also rendered from an elevated viewpoint, depict small encampments of human life — an open-air dancehall, a café, a gathering of fishermen at the shore of a lake — huddled between a flat, empty plain and a vast sky. They’re lonely pictures, populated by characters who have been cast out by the same landscape that envelops Esquivel’s figures so naturally. But there’s also a comforting air of humanity to the encampments, which sit like brightly lit oases on the land’s hard, indifferent surface.

Ana Fabry hails from Santa Fe, in the grasslands of Argentina, and her works would seem to embody a very different sensibility. Rather than dry, earthy tones, Fabry paints in bright and lucid colors; her satirical, metaphorical compositions are crowded with fleshy, personable characters engaged in fantastical situations: Thick women with angel wings and red bathing suits float above a pool of razor blades; a bride and groom sit warily atop a wedding cake made of household objects; a woman lounges in a bath filled with pots, pans and silverware. But Fabry’s surfaces, like those of her compatriots, reflect the elements; cracked and artificially worn, they appear to have been left out to wrestle with the wind and the sun.

Whether one views these earthy surfaces as the genuine spiritual imprint of the Argentine landscape (at least in the provincial regions where Esquivel, Pérez and Fabry reside) or simply as a stylistic quirk, they are so dominant an element as to become a significant distraction. The grainy textures don’t seem to emerge from the imagery itself, but rather spread across it like a sheet of sand that one wants to brush away. It’s not clear, furthermore, whether the core substance of the work would be worth the digging. One leaves the museum, then, with the sense of having inhaled the dust of a distant plain, but feeling no closer to the inner life of its inhabitants.

We’ve become all too familiar over the last month and a half with the ways that grief, anger, patriotism, confusion and righteousness play out across the human face in photographs and video footage. It’s a pleasure, then, to encounter the many expressions of amusement contained in a charming little exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum that, having opened in the innocent month of August, tackles the refreshingly simple theme of play. Assembled from the museum’s collection and based on the rather dry-sounding assumption that “the enjoyment of leisure activities is a fundamental component of all cultures,” “The Art of Play: Games and Amusements” brings together an intriguing cross section of recreational scenes from around the world. There are card and board-game players in prints by Rembrandt, Vuillard and Louis Marcoussis; kite fliers in 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints; and demure court ladies in 18th-century Indian watercolors whose faces light up with raucous pleasure at the sight of a cockfight. One of the most memorable works, a 16th-century narrative scroll from Nepal, describes a game of dice between the Hindu god Shiva and his wife Parvati that assumes universal proportions and reminds viewers that we are as often pawns in the games of others as players in our own. (“God of gods,” it reads, “your game is the entire cosmos . . . Everything is there, is play — the whole cosmos that belongs to the two of you. The goddess cannot beat her husband, and the god can’t overcome his sakti [female energy].”)

For those in search of either solace or clarity, there are few more rewarding experiences than a quiet afternoon spent in the company of a great old painting, such as those that make up the Norton Simon’s permanent collection. I was fortunate enough myself, on a recent visit, to fall in with a breathtaking Rembrandt self-portrait in which the artist faces the viewer in a noble array of black velvet and gold embroidery. Rembrandt was about 30 when he made the painting (Self Portrait, c. 1636–1638), and in it his eyes convey the darkened, startled expression of one who’s only recently come to grasp the real resonance of death. He looks to the viewer (or the mirror from which he must have painted) pleadingly, as if struggling to understand the relationship between the temporal flesh he saw himself to be made of, the intangible soul he perhaps felt within him, and the permanent pigment into which he attempted to translate himself. Viewed from a distance of nearly 400 years — knowing that death has long since extinguished the tint in those ruddy cheeks — the immediacy of his gaze astounds. One senses that the portrait is not merely an image by which he once made himself known to the world, but a window through which he continues to watch it, searching for answers to questions that few of us have the courage to ask.

EDUARDO ESQUIVEL/ANA FABRY/MARIO PÉREZ Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Dr., Long Beach | Through December 2

THE ART OF PLAY: Games and Amusements Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena | Through December 3

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