The year was 1935 and Joaquín Torres-García had had enough. With fascism on the rise throughout Europe, the art world was preoccupied by petty infighting between its abstract and figurative camps. That year, the multifaceted artist left France to return to his native Uruguay, eager to quash misguided essentialist European delusions of ethnic, cultural and artistic purity by writing a manifesto that initiated a new philosophy he called the “School of the South.” He announced that his movement's guiding cardinal direction would be south rather than north, articulating a new way of thinking about Latin American art, and the world. To further illustrate his point, he irreverently flipped a map of South America on its head.
Torres-García's simple ink drawing, called América Invertida, captured the spirit of other iconic Latin American artists who'd also returned home from places like New York and Paris to forge an artistic identity in a newfound pride in their cultural and aesthetic heritage. They would become the pillars of Latin American art.
Torres-García challenged U.S. and European dominance over Latin America and proposed creating a uniquely Latin American perspective and aesthetic that honored the region's indigenous roots while drawing connections between pre-Columbian art and European modernism. Refusing to grant privilege to Western traditions, he proclaimed, “There should be no north for us. From now on, the elongated tip of South America will point insistently to the south, our north.”
Eighty-two years later, as the world rocks on its political and moral poles once again, Los Angeles shifts its attention to a dazzlingly expansive, interconnected series of exhibitions by Latin American artists in the latest and largest iteration of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time initiative. Over the course of several months, and in institutions from Santa Barbara to San Diego, PST: LA/LA, as it's been titled, features art and artists from across Latin America that illuminate the region's historical legacies, from pre-Columbian to contemporary, across all mediums and disciplines.
The scheduled shows, performances and other events present the possibility for adventure, but they also pose an impossible-to-answer question: What is Latin American art? Better yet, what constitutes Latin America?
The idea of Latin America, according to renowned Argentine semiotician Walter Mignolo, is an outdated project of nation-building that belonged to 19th-century Europe and that homogenizes as it subdivides the Americas.
PST: LA/LA attempts to break up homogenizing notions of what Latin American art is and who Latin American artists are.
“One thing I've found after all these years, when you're looking at a whole hemisphere, there is no way to sum it up. There are many things that join us, but there are so many stories to tell. It's vast,” says Pilar Tompkins Rivas, director of the Vincent Price Art Museum.
Tompkins Rivas, who was part of the brain trust that conceived of PST, acknowledges that mounting such a massive venture was daunting, but also that it felt necessary in Los Angeles. “Finding a curatorial focus has been tricky because of the challenge of figuring out what is Latin American art and what isn't,” she says.
Artists are excellent dumpster divers. They dive into family troves and trash cans
“Latino,” and all of its hyphenated subcategories, refers to a person in the United States with ancestors from a Latin American country. In simplest terms, Latin Americans live in Latin America and Latin American art is made there. However, the differences are more complex and nuanced than just one's geographic relation to the U.S.-Mexico border. Linguistic and cultural variances — not to mention very different histories — have led to contention as well as dialogue between U.S. Latinos and Latin Americans.
Historically, Latinos living in the United States have been excluded from participating in discourse on Latin American art. For instance, it's only been recently that the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach has begun featuring Chicana/o and Latina/o artists. Though MOLAA, founded in 1996, is “the only museum in the United States dedicated to modern and contemporary Latin American art,” it didn't break its own unspoken “no Chicanos” rule until 2015, when it presented “Somewhere Over El Arco Iris: Chicano Landscapes 1971-2015,” its first exhibition featuring Chicano artists.
Chicana/o artists who came out of the Chicano Movement in the 1960s and '70s pushed back against art-world exclusion, taking the fight directly to its most venerable institutions. In 1972, the Chicano art troupe ASCO famously spray-painted LACMA's pristine white walls to protest a curator who'd said that Chicanos were incapable of making anything besides folk art.
Chicanos and Latinos are well represented in the shows that make up PST: LA/LA, which is fitting, since they've played an essential role in establishing Latin American art as a category of growing relevance in the United States and within American art — especially in Los Angeles. And now, as those heritages converge on L.A. in PST's more than 70 museum exhibits and gallery shows, it's possible to contemplate the Latin American experience via broad historic exhibitions as well as solo and group shows that offer more personal glimpses into the complexities of Latin American life and culture.
A mining of the past is thematic in many of PST's shows. As it turns out, artists are excellent dumpster divers. They dig into all kinds of official and unofficial archives. They dive into family troves and trash cans, chase long-winded tangents in oral histories, sort through the detritus of popular culture and use found materials in multidisciplinary projects.
Ken Gonzales-Day's exhibit “Bone-Grass Boy: The Secret Banks of the Conejos River” at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles in Culver City (through Oct. 28) is the product of such excavations. Tracing his family back to 16th-century New Mexico, the Los Angeles artist learns about his complicated genealogy and writes his family history as if it were a novel in which his ancestors are the characters. The exhibit, which runs as a complementary show to PST, features photographs of the artist posing as each character, both male and female. Most prominently, he performs the role of Ramoncita, a “two-spirited” Zuni woman of New Mexico wearing Spanish colonial garb.
Gonzales-Day notes that while this project was important to his developing interest in racial violence, it was not well received by Latino artists or queer artists when it debuted more than 20 years ago. Though it was an attempt to bridge all parts of his identity, conversations about queerness and Latino identity rarely intersected. White gay rights activists and artists struggled to talk about race while Latinos and Chicanos often remained entrenched in homophobia and machismo. “I did this in the early '90s when people were still dying of AIDS,” Gonzales-Day says. “There was nowhere to find myself. It was an act of resistance, an attempt to create a space for myself.” In the realm of PST, the show has found its place.
For the exhibition “A Universal History of Infamy” — a title borrowed from one of Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges' earliest works of fiction — artists from Guatemala, Chile, Mexico and the United States translate archival research into elaborate, multimedia installations and performances. “Infamy” consists of three exhibits taking place at three different sites: LACMA, 18th Street Arts Center and the Charles White Gallery.
One of the featured artists is Vincent Ramos, a meticulous researcher and unofficial archivist, who set out to recover Mexican-American entertainers and athletes from the whitewashed annals of American popular culture. By drawing their portraits and layering or surrounding them with collected items including records, ceramic figurines and news clippings to the point that their countenances are nearly drowned out, Ramos gives them historical context. “I've always experienced that people from outside our culture think we live in a vacuum or a completely different world that has nothing to do with their own,” Ramos says. “But we are also American and we experience pop culture. It's where cultural fusion takes place.”
Despite tendencies to flatten Latino and Latin American art so it will conform to folkloric or exotic tropes, Latin American artists have long existed and operated in an increasingly sophisticated — though often brutal — globalized world. Despite whatever nationalist zeitgeist, revolution or civil war may have swept any given country, not even iron-fisted military dictatorships have fully isolated or made Latin America immune to larger global forces, such as the United States' economic and political influence over the region.
In their collaborative installation “Mutate” at Monte Vista Projects, artists Leonardo González (Honduras), Martón Robinson (Costa Rica) and Paul Rosero Contreras (Ecuador) point out how bananas, chocolate and coffee — all common staples in the American diet — are directly linked to Central and South American plantations, particularly in Ecuador and Honduras. However, as the United States has failed to cope with the immigrant influx that is a consequence of the severe economic disparities perpetuated by U.S. foreign policy, the artists reveal an American cultural obsession with “consuming dark immigrant bodies” in food and sports.
The critical nature of much of the work often causes it to intersect with social activism, another major theme in PST: LA/LA. For Colombian artist Carolina Caycedo, access to water is what led her to make work that pushes into the territory of activism. Caycedo's project “Be Dammed” can be experienced in two iterations, one as part of LACMA's “A Universal History of Infamy” and another at the Koreatown gallery Commonwealth & Council. Both consist of sculpture and video installations as well as artist books that map and document river communities in Colombia and Brazil and their battle against mining companies and hydroelectric plants.
The political climates in the countries Caycedo focuses on in her work, where outspoken environmentalists are assassinated with impunity, bleed into her projects. Though Caycedo does not self-identify as an activist, she believes that her choice to be an artist as a Latin American woman, mother and immigrant in a white, male-dominated art world is in itself a radical act. She says she is an artist who practices activism using the tools of art. “Artists have much to contribute. Just like a lawyer or youth against riot police, we also have a role within the political,” Caycedo says.
For Caycedo, it is Los Angeles' de-centered layout and its many distinct neighborhoods that make it a fluid and inviting city. Instead of thinking of L.A. as a single central unit, she thinks of it as “a portal that allows entry and movement to many people and cultures from many places.” She adds, “It's a very special place not only because of its proximity to the border but because it also contains so many other borders.”
Ultimately, Los Angeles can be understood as an inseparable part of Latin America, as well as a part of a much older entity that encompassed thriving indigenous communities for millennia. For centuries, before the Mexican American war of 1848, L.A. was Spanish. Then it became a Mexican territory. We see this identity emblazoned on L.A.'s streets, in name and design, in our architecture and, inevitably, in the demographic makeup of our city. Though its indigenous and Euro-colonial DNA will always remain, the infusion of so many cultures from all over the world has transformed L.A. into a new, more complex creature, one that encourages contemplation of multiple broad historical narratives as they lay — shared, overlapping and sometimes conflicting. As PST visitors emerge from these narratives, they may find themselves wondering which way is north.