LATinGA: Meta-shuffle

Burnaway, June 4, 2010

by Becky Bivens

 Lisa Iglesias, Para Siempre, 2010, scavenged cardboard. Photo courtesy Spruill Gallery.

Lisa Iglesias, Para Siempre, 2010, scavenged cardboard. Photo courtesy Spruill Gallery.

The artists included in Spruill Gallery’s current exhibition, LATinGA, are nominally bound by their Latin American identity. Not all the art, however, showcases that identity. Since the work is diverse in style and content, LATinGA is closer to a musical playlist arranged by iPod shuffle than a mix tape. But the effect is not one of total randomness. It’s more like choosing a genre (let’s say Nueva canción) and then shuffling within it. In what follows, I randomly sample four of the artists in the show. The resulting list is a kind of critical experiment—a method for searching for connections when they feel more natural than forced.
 

 Esteban Patino, Possible Structure for a New Language, 2009, acrylic on wood, 48 x 48 inches. Photo courtesy Spruill Gallery.

Esteban Patino, Possible Structure for a New Language, 2009, acrylic on wood, 48 x 48 inches. Photo courtesy Spruill Gallery.

1. Esteban Patino’s Possible Structure for a New Language (Red) and Possible Structure for a New Language (White) are sneaky. The composition of the paintings follows a 5-x-5-inch grid with a different form placed in each square. The schematic layout means that the forms read as characters in an alphabet. While the characters progress in the same order in both paintings, every now and then Patino rotates a character on its side or upside down.

I made a chart that mapped out the placement of the wayward letters in hopes that Patino was trying to send me a secret message, but I couldn’t find one. Its characters are familiar—their rounded edges and structural arrangement are reminiscent of Mayan hieroglyphs—but are nonetheless unidentifiable. Secret message or not, my chart is a testament to the work’s invitation to decipher or read it.

2. Lisa Iglesias’s Para Siempre is testy. When I showed the image to my boss, a young black man who doesn’t particularly care about art, he said, “Oh, I have like nine of dems,” then clicked his tongue, rolled his eyes, and walked away. His comment reflects the negative association between people of color and the nouveau riche. Iglesias’s work reflects that association, too; the cardboard is cheap and flimsy, and the scale is overstated.

3. Maria Raquel Cochez employs a variety of media, but all of her works address a specific theme: abusive relationships with food. Her Fantasies paintings, for example, depict closely-cropped portraits of gleeful women and girls with junk food. In Lilith with Doughnuts, a young woman with half-closed eyes bites into a doughnut, absorbed in a moment of private delight. Meanwhile, doughnuts float around Lilith’s head like balloons. The paintings are escapist, isolating the bliss of indulgence and concealing its nasty consequences. While Fantasiesoffer viewers a sense of temporary relief by picturing a “happy space,” that space is neither particularly useful nor interesting. What if Cochez worked though the nasty consequences, involving viewers in problem solving and setting the stage for long-term relief?

 Myrtha Vega, Eyedrum, Atlanta, 2009, ink on paper, 11 x 14 inches. Photo courtesy Spruill Gallery.

Myrtha Vega, Eyedrum, Atlanta, 2009, ink on paper, 11 x 14 inches. Photo courtesy Spruill Gallery.

4. Myrtha Vega’s drawings perform the impossible feat of extracting elegance from our vehicle-dependent culture. The artist composed many of the drawings as she sat in the passenger seat during her morning commute. Appropriating the collage technique of cutting and pasting, Vega incorporates fleeting glimpses of various facades and landscapes into one drawing. The drawings, however, have none of the discontinuity of collage. While it’s clear that her point of view is not singular but multiple, her simple and clean lines thread everything together. Thank you, Myrtha Vega, for being something other than the signs flashing past on the highway.

My critical experiment, it seems, hasn’t revealed very many connections. But my sample of artists hardly represents the sample of Latin American artists on display at LATinGA. Had I included all nine, the reader would have noticed the following casual connections: an interest in abstraction, an interest in Latin American history and cultural icons, a preoccupation with grids, a preoccupation with political content, and a taste for bright colors.

But I wouldn’t say that my critical experiment has failed—the very casualness of the connections means that we shouldn’t make too much of them. After all, it would be preposterous to leave the exhibition thinking that “Latin American artists in Georgia use bright colors.” If the show had staged such consistent and tidy connections, it would have risked presenting a homogenous picture of a group of artists whose ancestry is diverse. Instead, the show gives its artists freedom and room to breath.

The downside, however, is that by refusing tidy connections we lose a sense of community amongst Latin Americans. Such community is essential in certain contexts—in the context of the blatantly racist Arizona immigration bill passed this spring, for example. Neither my freewheeling compositional method of list making nor the curatorial tactic of genre sampling are sufficient antidotes for today’s crappy political climate.

As a corrective measure, then, I refer back to my discontinuous list in order to draw out an intentional connection. Myrtha Vega’s drawings suggest a model for creating cohesiveness out of diversity. She recognizes the overwhelming insanity of contemporary visual experience, but still mobilizes the continuity of line to create a unified image. By analogy, a catalog or video might help condense the exhibition; asking artists to work collaboratively might lead to connections that result from authentic dialog. Group shows need a curatorial method that has the same effect as Vega’s drawings.

Vega’s drawings remind me of driving on the Downtown Connectorfor the first time. It was an atomistic experience—everyone was an ant, a dot, an item on a list—but everyone was moving together.

LATinGA: Contemporary Latin Artists in Georgia is up through June 17th, 2010 at Spruill Gallery.