Review | Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art

November 11, 2016 by EVA AVENUE | VISUAL ARTS
Joseph Rodríguez (American, born 1951) Carlos from the series Spanish Harlem (1987) Chromogenic print Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the artist ©1987, Joseph Rodríguez
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“Art is a record, a document, that you leave behind showing what you saw and felt when you were alive. That’s all” –Mexican-American painter Carlos Almaraz

In Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art at the MFA through January 22, you’ll find painting, prints, installation, video, sculpture and photography from the Smithsonian’s Latin American art collection, a sampling retrospective of works made since 1950, a timeframe covering many political revolutions in Latin American countries. All artists in the show made impact in their respective communities, sharing roots in both the U.S. and their homelands of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other Latin American groups.

In response to the corruption, upheaval and instability of their countries and consequently their experiences in the U.S., the artists created work with a voice louder than their own, a way to reach as many people as possible, calling on the viewer to do more than appreciate the way they used elements of design and hear their truth and understand their reality–visual artifacts produced from the blood, sweat and heart of real people living very interesting lives of rupture and hope.

Upon entering the gallery, you see a powerful photo of an oak tree that Ken Gonzalez captured on his expedition to locate all the trees that bore witness to the 350 lynchings of Mexican-Americans between 1850 and 1935. In the same corner, a spliced film made from old Westerns, turned upside down, as if to greet the viewer with a forget your version of American history – here is ours. Tour guide Arthur Finegold laughed when he remembered a  woman saying to him, “Something is wrong with the video!”

Everyone has their own version of the show they take with them when they leave – certain pieces stay with you on the drive home or later in the week while you’re preparing dinner. I’ll share with you a couple of mine, starting with the posters.

Xavier Viramontes (American, born 1947) Boycott Grapes, Support the United Farm Workers Union (1973) Offset lithograph Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of Tomás Ybarra-Frausto ©1973, Xavier Viramontes

Xavier Viramontes (American, born 1947)
Boycott Grapes, Support the United Farm Workers Union (1973)
Offset lithograph
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of Tomás Ybarra-Frausto
©1973, Xavier Viramontes

Posters are powerful.  Rowan Bain of writes “making or displaying a poster is often a political, sometimes even a dangerous act, and for many social and political movements poster production has been an important form of cultural output”The poster print “Sun Mad” by Ester Hernandez from Dinuba, California shows the underbelly of Sun Maid Raisins with a deadlier version of their box art, the raisin maid now a skeleton under her bonnet, holding a basket of grapes unnaturally grown with pesticides, miticides, herbicides and fungicides. Beside that print is another by Xavier Viramontes, looking like a furious, decorated Mayan face holding up green and red grapes that he squeezes and they ooze blood. The overlaying text reads “Boycott Grapes.” I’m ashamed to say I had no idea about the dark side of the grape industry until this art show, and, unfortunately, I’m not surprised big farms would compromise everyone’s health for profit.

Across the way in a bigger room hangs the crowd favorite, according to one of the museum’s guards–a realistic group portrait San Antonio’s informal artist laureate Jesse Treviño painted from a photograph in dappled lighting titled Mis Hermanos. Reminding me of something my mom always says ”People like realistic paintings, they want magnificent, figurative paintings with true lighting!” – the painting shows a family of men resting against a fence with beers in their hands. Together. A sense of family. A lightness in the show to round out the dimensions of turmoil.

Treviño’s art career is a source of civic pride for the Mexican-American community at large and for his hometown of San Antonio, with his work in the collection of the Smithsonian and two giant mosaic murals, one at the Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital, that provide an epic dose of healing reaching your heart through your eyes.

An even more amazing aspect of his backstory is he had to get his painting hand amputated after an explosion in Vietnam wounded and almost killed him. That’s when he decided to dedicate himself as an artist, as he lay bleeding red everywhere in the rice paddy, thinking of his family and all the paintings he still wanted to do.

So he did.


Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg October 27 through January 22, 2017.


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