Design for the Future in Latin America, Both Past and Present

Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society.
Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society.

An unlikely but revelatory pair of exhibitions, one on each side of Central Park, is showcasing the long and sometimes idiosyncratic history of design in Latin America. Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, at the Americas Society (on view February 11 to May 16, 2015), is the more historically-minded of the two, concerned with the apogee of the modernist moment as it played out in three markedly distinct countries. New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America, at the Museum of Arts and Design (on view November 4, 2014 to April 5, 2015), more loosely surveys contemporary trends from the past fifteen years, uniting fashion, furniture, textiles, and ceramics, to name a few of the categories it seeks to dismantle. Indeed, design in both shows seems to know no boundaries and remains nearly impossible to define. Rather than enforcing a taxonomy or otherwise attempting to regulate the objects, however, the curators use this ontological slipperiness as an opportunity to complicate what could be fairly standard narratives of formal experimentation or technological innovation. Beyond their shared subject of Latin American design, the two shows diverge sharply in terms of scope, chronology, and curatorial approach, but taken together they tell the complex, often contradictory story of how design sought—and continues to seek—to shape the identity and the destiny of the region.

The titles of both shows emphasize the new, the modern, and the cutting-edge. “Moderno,” as the introductory wall text of that exhibition explains, signified “ideas of novelty and accelerated development, rather than [being] associated with a particular style or art movement.” It’s an ideological rather than aesthetic framework, and one that pertains specifically to mid-century Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, all of which experienced sudden industrial development and urbanization from the 1940s to the 1960s. Guest curators María Cecilia Loschiavo dos Santos, Ana Elena Mallet, and Jorge F. Rivas Pérez are smart to historicize and localize the terms of modernism by tethering it to burgeoning senses of nationalism that accompanied, and bolstered, this period of development. This context begins to explain why the exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design, focusing exclusively on the twenty-first century, dispenses altogether with the terminology of “modernism.” The term comes from Italian designer Gaetano Pesce—whose work comprises kinetic art, architecture, and furniture design—and refers to the “new territory” in which boundaries of art, craft, and design are blurred in contemporary global practice. Like “moderno,” the phrase is deployed in a somewhat counterintuitive way, describing process instead of geography, but it is also not a stretch to draw the line one step further, from “new territory” to “new world.”

That notion of the “new world”—of the Americas as a land of possibility—is the unstated link between these two exhibitions. Utopian overtones are more obvious throughout Moderno, which situates its nearly eighty objects within a hemispheric context of mid-century developmentalist ambitions, but the very fact that it looks at this moment through the lens of design is noteworthy. Art and architecture usually get the lion’s share of the glory when it comes to visual manifestations of Latin American modernity—think of the immensely photogenic Brasília, the iconic geometry of a Carlos Cruz-Diez Fisicromía, or the future-past architectonics of a Gunther Gerzso abstraction—but design is a crucial and oft-overlooked component of the modernist project in Latin America. In the broader effort to close the gap between art and life, arguably the most successful imbrication of these two realms was realized through design itself: through objects created for utilitarian purposes, their formal rhythms and physical contours structuring and even transforming lived experience.

Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society
Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society.

Continue reading “Design for the Future in Latin America, Both Past and Present”

In the Shadow of Utopia: Beyond the Supersquare at Bronx Museum of the Arts

It’s an old cliché, but one with staying power: try to visualize “Latin America,” and more often than not images of palm trees, sandy beaches, and dense rainforests come to mind. The tropical stereotypes are so persistent—and still so often invoked in exhibitions that attempt to survey art of the Americas—that it is fairly refreshing to encounter a show that deals with the natural world’s manufactured counterpart, namely the constructed urban landscapes that sought to define a new, modern identity for the region in the twentieth century. Taking the legacy of the modernist city as its theme, the Bronx Museum’s quietly devastating Beyond the Supersquare (on view May 1, 2014 to January 11, 2015) refuses to shy away from the thorny contradictions that lie at the heart of the built utopia in Latin America. Co-curators Holly Block and María Inés Rodriguez have presented the work of over thirty contemporary artists, mounting one of the most provocative and haunting shows of Latin American art in recent memory.

Photo 1
Beyond the Supersquare at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, Photo by Bill Kontzias. Image courtesy of The Bronx Museum of the Arts.

The titular “Supersquare” refers specifically to the supercuadra, a self-contained residential city block that served as the module for that most forward-looking of cities, Brasília. Famously carved out of the Amazon and inaugurated with much fanfare in 1960, Brasília is the apotheosis of the modernist dream and its inevitable failure: planner Lucio Costa’s vision for Brazil’s futuristic capital has been criticized as essentially inhuman, and just four years after its debut the city was overrun with tanks and military troops that ushered in a brutal dictatorship that would last over twenty years. The specter of Brasília looms large over the exhibition, and indeed it is summoned in a number of works included in the show. Mauro Restiffe’s photographic series Empossamento (2003) captures the inaugural festivities of popular president Lula da Silva, juxtaposing the fervor of exultant crowds with a shot of the vast, almost funereal emptiness of the following day. Alberto Baraya indicts Brasília’s superhuman scale in his Estudos comparados modernistas (2011), in which he photographed Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic government buildings along with his own hand holding a flower, possibly a symbol of the natural landscape supplanted by Costa’s vision—except the flowers are plastic, as lifeless as the concrete edifices. Continue reading “In the Shadow of Utopia: Beyond the Supersquare at Bronx Museum of the Arts”

Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World at El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Queens Museum of Art

One would be hard-pressed to think of a more ambitious exhibition than Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World, which opened this summer at El Museo del Barrio, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Queens Museum of Art. A sprawling, dizzying mess of a show that spans three institutions, over five hundred objects, and more than two centuries of history, it aims for nothing less than a redefinition of the Caribbean itself, not as a geographic area or even a shared cultural experience, but rather as a conceptual matrix. This is a noble undertaking, as it foregrounds a history and an art history that have been woefully neglected until now. It is also a necessarily impossible one, and the final result is alternately enlightening and confounding. Above all else the exhibition demonstrates, strangely to its credit, a striking inability to sum up the Caribbean, and perhaps the folly of attempting to do so at all.

Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World at El Museo. Image courtesy Art in America.

Nearly a decade in the making, the show most notably puts forth an expanded consideration of the Caribbean beyond its traditional geographic limits. Basin countries such as Venezuela and Colombia, as well as portions of Central America and the Gulf states, are represented, and their inclusion broaches topics that begin to reveal the fluidity and porosity of the region. The consideration of European traveler artists as well as references to the contested political and economic influence of the United States begins to undo many stereotypes about the Caribbean, contextualizing it as a site of prolonged contact, exchange, and hybridity. Continue reading “Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World at El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Queens Museum of Art”