Despite an increased awareness in Latin American modern art among U.S. enthusiasts, due in part to record-breaking auctions and the plethora of recently published monographs, Latin America's contemporary-art scene has received comparatively little attention here. Since the art world tends to uphold the rather smug assumption that it's impossible for interesting artists to work in obscurity, it's a welcome relief when curators and gallerists cross-pollinate unfamiliar artists with a new audience, especially since some critics tender the libertarian view that the art world is a free market in which consensus determines validity. Artists who don't have access to international consensus, according to this social-Darwinist account, are deemed unimportant in comparison to those who do. However, this process is often a Catch-22, since the new audience meant to expand the consensus is often unprepared to interpret, let alone judge, the unfamiliar art in any meaningful manner.
With this in mind, “Amnesia,” local gallerist Christopher Grimes' assembly of works by 16 artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela – in his gallery and at Track 16 – proves a courageous undertaking. Not only do the artists risk stumbling into the Catch-22, but Grimes' ability to rise above the xenophobic attitude that drives some L.A. critics demonstrates forgetting's empowering possibilities. It would be a mistake, simply because of the show's title, to interpret all or any of the works in “Amnesia” as specifically referencing involuntary forgetting. Rather, the title becomes a polyvalent term, pointing in many directions, toward the U.S. art cognoscenti's unfamiliarity with contemporary art from South America; toward the cultures of national forgetfulness that have evolved in several South American countries so as to overcome painful memories; toward the continual use of categories, like Latin, that reinstate otherness; as well as toward theoretical models such as Nietzsche's conception of active forgetfulness (he viewed memory as burned in by pain and responsible for triggering guilt and engendering submission) and Derrida's association of political hegemony with control over a society's historical archive and, consequently, repression of the collective memory.
If Derrida's archive is analogous to the art-historical canon, one recognizes immediately the naive assumptions that underlie the view that there's some relationship between consensus and memorable art, since memory depends upon visibility and accessibility. Duchamp once described museums as “the expression of the mediocrity of an epoch, because the beautiful things have disappeared – the public didn't want to keep them.” Just as it's absurd to look for explicit examples of amnesia in the works that comprise “Amnesia,” it would be similarly wrong-headed to interpret “Amnesia” as some sweeping pictorialization of South American art, let alone the art of four countries whose populations together total some 250 million. Grimes discovered most of these artists on junkets to South American in recent years; they make up a group that Grimes, at least, considers especially memorable. A handful of the artists, including Valeska Soares, Ernesto Neto, Roberto Obregon, Alfredo Ramirez and Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, have been seen in exhibits at Grimes' gallery before.
Initial responses to imported exhibits can't help but engender misunderstandings. It's easier to impose one's experiences on works that look familiar (a form of colonialism in itself), but are ultimately quite opaque. As a result, the casual read that the works in “Amnesia” are somehow global, rather than personal, suggests that the works are out of sync with one's preconception of South American art. Alternately, truly global art merely quotes and reinforces the current canon, which facilitates its accessibility. Little here is readily accessible, and some works are even quite baffling. Given the Catch-22 described above, Brazilian Valeska Soares' Sissy (1996), which depicts a female character sitting on a ledge, poised courageously to stretch her foot into a puddle of honey, seems a remarkably poignant response to both the caution surrounding new endeavors and the fears associated with engaging unknown audiences.
Another apt metaphor for the problems of reading works is Argentinean Sergio Vega's The Sermon of the Birds (1998), a mini-installation that features St. Francis encountering an exotic paradise that consists of a parrot, whose plumage evokes Indian dress, seated on a plant whose bloom has wilted, apparently in response to the intruder. While this work, which is accompanied by a romantic recorded melody, could be considered either vernacular art (i.e., referring to a particular locale) or a comment on some cliche about South America, the artist cites Gilligan's Island as his actual inspiration. Venezuelan Jose Antonio Hernandez-Diez's three entangled, salmon-stained wooden bed frames connote the nightmare of recalling, framing and categorizing the personal memories that compose a nation's history.
Several works specifically address political issues. However, the covert delivery of their messages seems to reflect a custom of deceiving censoring regimes, as well as a privileging of the poetic form. Particularly amazing are Colombian Oscar Munoz's Simulacros #1, 2, 3 (1998), self-destructing images of body parts that float in shallow pools of water, and Aliento (1996-97), images of desaparecidos (the disappeared) that become visible when the viewer breathes on the glass plates. Argentinean Miguel Angel Rio's Pleats and Borders #3 (1997) is a polar projection map of land masses whose pleats restore circularity to an otherwise flat map-surface. Several dozen red dots indicate areas involved in border disputes, pointing at the arbitrariness of imposing nationalities, borders, languages and customs on indigenous inhabitants.
Photos of seaside performances by Brazilian Tunga, called Seeding Mermaids – p, q, r, and k (1987-98) which show a decapitated head (cast from the artist's own head), evoke the sense of dread that accompanies any conscionable examination of history, especially since the 20th century has developed into the bloodiest ever, despite organized efforts to become more civilized. For about 20 years, Venezuelan Roberto Obregon has dissected, documented and displayed rose petals with the objectivity of a botanist. His Extra Niagara Para la “Amnesia” de Christopher Grimes (1998) consists of a grid of 16 panels that mix silhouettes of roses with other motifs, including letters and the inscription “Evening in Paris.” The work suggests some pictographic message, possibly concerning absence as presence, as though Obregon intends to induce some excised memory.
One of the more curious works is Venezuelan Alfredo Ramirez's Kisses (1997), a video projection of the inside of two mouths as lovers exchange kisses. Like Brazilian Miguel Rio Branco's semi-abstracted images, the mouths also appear so abstract that only the occasional tongue sighting lets you in on the whereabouts. Colombian-born Inigo Manglano-Ovalle presents glasses of water ostensibly tapped from a keg of water collected from an actual iceberg. Given his propensity for pranks, though, one wonders whether the water is indeed from the iceberg in the photo. I downed a glass anyway.
Some artists appear to be heirs of Brazil's Neo-Concretism art movement of the '50s and '60s, and Argentina's Arte Concreto-Invencion and Perceptismo movement from the '40s. Brazilian Waltercio Caldas' Orange (1998) is a marvelous three-dimensional line drawing in metal, which employs the color orange and varying shapes to carve out positive and negative spaces on the frame of this already empty structure. Its airiness and silent repose seem emblematic of freedom or escape from domination. Suspense 5 (1998), by Brazilian Ernesto Neto, proves equally buoyant, consisting of an elastic fabric stretched over extended pins in a star shape. Argentinean Pablo Siquier's three amazing black-and-white geometric paintings not only get the eyes dancing, but their rich optical motifs connote Arabic and Hebrew script, although they're derived from the art deco architectural elements typical of buildings in Buenos Aires and Rosario – a style that links them to Arte Concreto, which was later repressed by dictatorial regimes.
Perhaps the exhibit's most playful artist is Brazilian Marcelo Pombo, who's represented by three energetic abstract landscapes and about five souped-up product containers. In search of gift-box abundance, he has applied lady bugs to an apple-juice carton, a winter scene to detergent, tropical motifs to whiskey, etc.
“Amnesia” offers the viewer much – including opportunities to ponder the long-term effects, on art as well as life, of authoritarian governments, censorship, isolation and colonization. As South American artists emerge from this history, we would do well, as receivers of their art, not to adopt the very restrictive framework they are shedding.