Women Artists of Latin America...Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona (1995)



 This exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum is quite revealing. It is a microcosm of recent art history clearly displaying the dilution and decline of all art since World War II. The art proceeds relatively well earlier in the twentieth century, but as the artists are increasingly overwhelmed by world-wide art-for-arts-sake experimentation and aesthetic breakdown of traditional values, and, later, by the post-World War II collapse of art into artifice, the character of Latin American art is defused, lost. The more commercially dominant styles erode any geographic and ethnic characteristics.


 Post-World War II Latin American art, as exhibited here, is the same neo-dadaist, minimalist, geometric, funk art seen in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, Berlin or Borneo. This loss of individuality on a personal, regional and national basis because of a dictatorially homogenizing international art style, is a problem -- a huge problem -- long recognized by those willing to face it. This situation poses a most important question: just what is the essential character of Latin American art?


 Is it passion -- boldness of emotional expression and stylized realism -- religiosity, a visionary concern with death, social justice, the lives and suffering of the people as manifested by, among other aspects, folk art customs and festivals, saints and altars; the famous Mexican muralists Orozco, Rivera and Siquieros; and their echoes today on barrio wall murals (not graffiti) painted in strong color and intense imagery?


 If this is Latin American art, then Frida Kahlo (Mexican, l907-54) paints the Latin American spirit. Her "Self-Portrait with Monkey," with characteristic serious expression and fused dark eyebrows, has, like all her work, a strength of sharply delineated form, emotional intensity and integrity that may make her the best artist in the show, along with Maria Izquierdo.


  Izquierdo (Mexican, l906-55) has a starkly defined, emotionally rich, effectively heavy-colored style in still-life, portrait and imaginative interiors that seem Latin American in character.


 Anita Malfatti's (Brazilian, 1896-1964) work is well done, but it is more a statement of Fauve/Cubist/Expressionist modernism that could have been painted by any nationality. It costs her individuality and "Latin Americaness."


 Amelia Pelaez (Cuban, 1896-1968) paints synthetic cubist still-lifes influenced by Leger, but with a depth of color intensity that seems particularly Latin American as used in "Hibiscus," 1936, with its burning red and green stylized flower and tilted bowl.


 Latin American art often has a strong dream-like, death-haunted, other-worldly, surrealist tone. Strangely, an Englishwoman living in Mexico, Leonora Carrington, (1917- ) paints the most terrifyingly effective pictures expressing this tendency...also with burning color. Carrington is a stronger painter than Remedios Varo (1908-63), a Spaniard who lived in Mexico, whose style is cloyingly sentimental surrealist illustration.


 All of these artists are basically working in the 1915-1950 period defined by the Museum.


 In the art of 1950-1975, Raquel Forner (Argentine, 1902-88) stands out with two paintings with dark, heavy, expressionist-surrealist forms that are very strong despite their debt to English artist Graham Sutherland.


 From this point on -- 1975 to the present -- the exhibition takes a severe dive, the genuineness/intensity quotient disappears as the fashionable cleverness level rises.


 However, Marie Mater O'Neill (Puerto Rican, 1966- ) has a colorful, cartoony-expressionist style that at least has energy. Her self-portrait rises from the sea with flames in hair and hands.


 Elena Climent (Mexican, 1955- ) shows an interesting series of realistic still-lifes packed with objects on store shelves, tables and altars. Both are artists keeping their individual talents alive...and perhaps the Latin American spirit as well.


Copyright by Don Gray


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