Modes of Defiance: Latin American Art, 1970 to the Present

For the inaugural meeting of this year’s Latin American Forum on September 9th, Professor Edward Sullivan moderated a panel discussion titled Modes of Defiance: Latin American Art, 1970 to the Present, which met in conjunction with the exhibition Bearing Witness: Art and Resistance in Cold War Latin America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (now closed). The panelists included two IFA alumnae, Dr. Estrellita Brodsky, a chief curator of the exhibition, and Dr. Jason Dubs, the Museum Research Consortium Project Manager at The Museum of Modern Art, as well as Dr. Joaquin Barriendos, Assistant Professor at Columbia University, and Dr. Claudia Calirman, Assistant Professor at John Jay College.

Looking at artwork from Latin America during moments of violence and oppression – both historical and contemporary – the panelists spoke about the ways in which art can engage in various strategies of resistance. In discussing the scope of Bearing Witness, Dr. Brodsky laid out a few questions taken up by the exhibition that also served as touchstones for the following panelists. Probing the roles that historical images of violence play in today’s world (one already saturated with violent imagery), Dr. Brodsky asked if a work of art can help us understand our own complicity in the acts of injustice represented in the show and how it might compel us to respond. This raises important questions about what an artwork can accomplish through implicating the viewer. While not explicitly addressed in the panel, I found myself wondering: is the primary function of artwork that engages with powerful images of violence to spread awareness? Can, or should, the artwork do more? Perhaps most significantly, what is the responsibility of the viewer when encountering this kind of work? Questions about an artwork’s political agency emerged as the underlying framework for each of the panelists’ presentations.

Speaking on issues of witnessing and documentation, Dr. Barriendos discussed the ways in which archival material has been employed in exhibition settings as a way to provide witness accounts of violence. Calling for the creative reactivation of historical context within the space of the museum, Dr. Barriendos outlined several projects, such as Luis Camnitzer’s 1969 work Masacre de Puerto Montt (Massacre of Puerto Montt). Examples like this one offer alternative, often performative, methods of bearing witness in an endeavor to eliminate the perceived distance between the viewer and the artwork.

Lotty Rosenfeld, Una milla de cruces sobre el pavimento, Santiago, Chile, 1979.
Lotty Rosenfeld, Una milla de cruces sobre el pavimento, Santiago, Chile, 1979. Image courtesy Espaivisor.

Continue reading “Modes of Defiance: Latin American Art, 1970 to the 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”

A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 3

Editor’s Note: This review was written in March 2012. It has been reprinted here in its original form.

For someone interested in Los Angeles art, Pacific Standard Time (PST), the Getty Initiative that connects over 60 Southern California cultural institutions and museums in an 11-month exploration and celebration of postwar Los Angeles culture, feels like a limited-time offer for an all-you-can-eat buffet. I have been visiting my parents’ home less and less over the past few years, feigning adulthood, but the advent of PST has rekindled my interest in visiting the old ancestral stomping grounds. This school year (2011-2012), I am capitalizing on my family connections and making three trips to Southern California—over Thanksgiving break, winter break, and in February for the CAA conference—to take in as much of PST as possible. Here, I’ll report on my pilgrimage in a series of three posts.

Santa Barbara on 26 February 2012

Itinerary: 2 exhibitions, 4 CAA panels
Money spent on parking: $8
Money spent on public transit: $33
Money spent on tickets: $5
Tanks of gas: 1.5
Freeways traveled: the 134, the 101, the 210, the 57, the 5, the 60, the 10
Exhibition catalogs purchased: 1
Tchotchkes purchased: 0 Continue reading “A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 3”

Paris, Politics, and Soto: A Conversation with Estrellita B. Brodsky

Estrellita B. Brodsky is experiencing what for many art historians is a dream come true: less than three years after receiving her PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts, she has succeeded in curating an exhibition based on her dissertation research on Latin American artists working in post-war Paris. Now on view at the Grey Art Gallery on NYU’s downtown campus through March 31, 2012, her exhibition, Soto: Paris and Beyond 1950-1970, focuses on the early Paris years of the Venezuelan maestro, Jesús Rafael Soto, a key member of the post-war international avant-garde who is today best recognized for his optically-challenging, immersive, and kinetic art. Just a week after the show’s opening, Brodsky kindly agreed to meet with me at the Grey to discuss her research, curatorial experience, and of course, Soto.

Our conversation began in the center of the Grey’s main gallery, surrounded by examples of each of the various phases explored by Soto between 1950, the year of his initial departure to Paris, and 1970, a culminating moment in his career following his first Paris retrospective at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris and the realization of his famous Penetrables.[1] With a Cézannesque-Cubist rendering of a Venezuelan landscape behind us and an optically challenging Plexiglas piece to our right, I asked Brodsky to start at the beginning: why did she choose to study the work of Latin American artists in post-war Paris?

Jesús Soto. Sin título (Paisaje) {Untitled (Landscape)}, 1949. Oil on canvas. 21 5⁄8 x 18 7⁄8 in. (55 x 48 cm). Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
Jesús Soto. Sans titre (Structure cinétique à éléments géométriques) {Untitled (Kinetic Structure with Geometric Elements)}, c. 1955–56. Paint on wood and Plexiglas. 24 x 24 x 9 3/4 in. (61 x 61 x 25 cm). Private collection © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.



Explaining that her interest in Venezuelan art is rooted in her personal history (her father arrived in the country in the 1920s, and Brodsky was a first-hand witness to the country’s booming arts scene in the 1960s), she also admitted to a certain selfishness in picking her topic. Continue reading “Paris, Politics, and Soto: A Conversation with Estrellita B. Brodsky”

Thoughts on an Opening

Four IFA Master’s students respond to the opening for Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art.

Diego Rivera, Electric Power, 1931-1932, fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework, 58 1/16 x 94 1/8" (147.5 x 239 cm). Private collection, Mexico. © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Photograph by Rafael Doniz. Image via The Museum of Modern Art.
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Luis Camnitzer at El Museo del Barrio

Luis Camnitzer, Fragment of a Cloud, 1967. Daros Latinamerica Foundation.

Upon entering the galleries of El Museo del Barrio’s current show, Luis Camnitzer, visitors come face to face with the following lines, handwritten on the wall in loose script:

If I draw a dot on one sheet of paper
I am a doodler.
If a draw a dot on one hundred sheets of paper
I am a philosopher.
If a draw a dot on one thousand sheets of paper
I am a mystic.
If I draw a dot on ten thousand sheets of paper
I am a modern conceptual artist and may become
rich and famous.
Social values are a matter of accumulation.

Part statement and part poetry, these words provide an apt introduction to both the artist and exhibition on view. Witty, wry, and with a hint of self-deprecation (Camnitzer IS a modern conceptual artist, after all), the piece introduces the viewer to the type of insightful reflection that is characteristic of the artist, whose work often confronts issues related to politics, the art world, and society at large, through oblique, yet cutting critique. Further, written in pencil and only faintly hovering against the gallery’s white wall, the work requires close inspection, thus presaging the type of intimate looking (and thinking) required of visitors throughout the show.
Continue reading “Luis Camnitzer at El Museo del Barrio”

Armory Show Focus: Latin America

This year’s Armory Show includes a special selection of Latin American exhibitors! Take a look at the current line-up of Argentine, Brazilian, Chilean, Colombian, Mexican, Peruvian, and Venezuelan gallery booths at Piers 92 and 94, open through Sunday, March 6.

Please stay tuned for Rae Kaplan‘s account of the Armory Show 2011 focus on Latin America!