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.
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.