Poetry is maybe the only literary form whose intended structure (or the
lack thereof) provides for an exponential increase in freedom, disorder
and independence. Poetry places an emphasis on physical structure and
text organization, and the content itself is placed in a format that
encourages autonomy. It’s no wonder, then, that the Museum of Fine
Arts, Houston, and guest curator Beverly Adams would use such a term in
the title Constructing a Poetic Universe: The Diane & Bruce Halle
Collection, an exhibition of nearly 60 works by some of the most
significant Latin American artists of the 20th century and those
showing promise for the next.
In forming what has been considered one of the finest American-owned private collections dedicated to modern and contemporary Latin American art, the Halles used a considerably open definition of Latin American artists. It includes those born in Latin America now working in the United States and Europe, and those born in the United States and Europe now working in Latin America. Adams, curator of the Halle collection, and Gilbert Vicario, assistant curator of Latin American art at the MFAH, have assembled works in a diverse assortment of media, including installation, sculpture, video, painting and works on paper, that are as provocative as they are beautifully unusual. It is this concept of the unusual and the extraordinary that is most visible in the exhibition, which takes only the subtlest approach to provocation.
Constructing a Poetic Universe features work by figureheads of some of the most important movements in avant-garde Latin American art from the last century, including Gego, Mira Schendel, Jesus Rafael Soto, Guillermo Kuitca and Carlos Cruz-Diez, whose Physichromie, no. 2378, towers over the main gallery. The artist’s meticulous placement of different colors in Plexiglas on aluminum has created a vertically woven design that Cruz-Diez is renowned for, one that changes when viewed from every possible angle, revealing previously invisible colors and geometric shapes. His work traverses op and kinetic art in ways that engage in a dialogue with both movements but also separate the work from them. His masterful strategy of using color variations to create form, pattern and shadow suggests a strong relationship to the eye, but the colors are also correlated with the motion of the piece, which in many cases has no moving parts. Cruz-Diez’s vibrant work was also recently featured at Houston’s Sicardi Gallery in an exhibition of select work from the last 40 years.
Not unlike the work of Gego, the late German-born Venezuelan cinetismo and kinetic artist also featured in the exhibition, Jesus Rafael Soto sought to destroy the eye’s relationship to the line by offering it a new one composed of both two- and three-dimensional representation. Quietly nested in its own corner, Vibración I practically vibrates. Horizontal lines of oil navigate the entire length of the piece, top to bottom, interrupted only by a loose nest of painted metal. From a distance, the three-dimensional characteristics of the metal seem to disappear, losing their optical qualities with each step backward. Up close, however, the eye is played with to such an extent that it becomes difficult to determine whether the painted lines are oil or strings we could pluck. The tuft of metal seems to emulate a sudden burst of frequency waves, creating a powerful “visual soundscape” against the hard lines. In working so closely with optical and kinetic qualities, artists like Gego and Soto have risen to the top of a genre of art that has only recently begun to generate significant acclaim.
The work of major players in modernist Latin American movements has enjoyed a great deal of success recently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Latin American art department was established in 2001 and has since moved to the forefront of US exhibitors of significant Latin American art. Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, a triumphant and magnanimous exhibition, was named by the US division of the International Association of Art Critics as the best thematic exhibition of 2004. In the following year, its curator, Mari Carmen Ramirez, the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the MFAH, was named as one of Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Hispanics in America.”
Constructing a Poetic Universe, however, is of a different aesthetic than Inverted Utopias, not only in the significant presence of contemporary work in the current exhibition, but also in its quite different connection to the avant-garde, given contemporary media and the postmodern condition.
Exogenous Axis (Cordelia), a wooden sculpture adorned with a chalice, or lightweight cloth by contemporary Brazilian mastermind Tunga, is accompanied by two large drawings. Paired with the sculpture, the drawings examine the relationship between positive and negative space — inextricably linked, like light and shadow, one the product of the other. The large works on paper have been altered as if they were figurative palimpsests, revealing their original shape behind layers of modification. The sculpture belongs to a series of others of a similar shape, and a less polished version was featured in Tunga’s 1987 video The Silver Nerve, which also included a pair of Siamese twin girls attached by their hair, a recurring image in Tunga’s work. Here, instead of a pairing of identical forms, Exogenous Axis (Cordelia) blurs the lines between positive and negative space while vaguely referencing the female body. More importantly, the work’s relationship to representation, while not extreme, exists in a far more pronounced manner than in much modernist Latin American work. Sustaining this trend is Arturo Herrera’s Untitled (Castle), where the artist has drawn on his Venezuelan op art birthright to blend silkscreened paper and acrylic to distort the representation of a castle with paper collage.
The introduction of video also sets this exhibition apart from previous Latin American programming, most notably with Miguel Angel Rios’s video installation A Morir (‘til Death). Three walls in a small room feature three different camera angles recording the Mexican street game trompos, in which players launch a whirlwind of spinning tops over a chalked grid. As the tops whiz past the cameras, their sounds are exaggerated to emulate the hum of speeding vehicles, quickly passing the other slowly moving toys, which resemble the gentle movements of a crowd of passersby who collapse to the ground upon collision. The images, although youthful and exuberant, reference street violence and an underlying vision of war that continues to pervade Latin American society.
In Constructing a Poetic Universe, there is penchant for the brain to pick up where the eyes leave off, a silent nod to the ability of the viewer to look through the work instead of directly at it. The same can be said for much of Latin American work, old and new, and the perspective it offers is radiant and alive with insight and cultural knowledge. Like poetry, this exhibition aims to provoke, and it does so in a rhyme written in another language, one that we are only recently beginning to listen to properly.
Images courtesy MFAH
Evan J. Garza is a writer currently living in Houston.