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Exploding the Canon

"Inverted Utopias" helps rewrite the story of modernism

If you go to "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America" expecting to see works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, you'll be disappointed. By emphasizing important but perhaps less familiar artists -- indeed, many of the works on display have rarely, if ever, been shown in the United States -- the exhibition makes the argument that Latin American art has played a more central role in the vanguard of 20th- century art than it's gotten credit for. Of course, Kahlo and Diego have long since been admitted to the club -- in fact, they're a bit overexposed. It's time we saw what else has been happening in the southern hemisphere.

Curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea and filling every spare inch of the Caroline Wiess Law building at the MFAH, "Inverted Utopias" comprises more than 200works by 67 artists. The show comes at a time when the narrative of modernism is being re-evaluated and the list of the movement's major players is expanding. In 2000, the Museum of Modern Art (which largely wrote that narrative) mounted a series of shows that reappraised 20th-century art history. More recently, the MFAH's own Barry Walker got to take a crack at that story when MoMA's greatest hits visited Houston last fall. And when the University of Texas's new Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art building opens next year, expect to see a more inclusive take on modernism; the museum is integrating its impressive Latin American holdings with its American and European works.

Despite its own attempt to rework the modernist narrative, "Inverted Utopias" uses neither chronology nor geography to guide its organization. The show, which isn't a survey in any sense of the word, is set up in an unusual way. It focuses on the two periods when the avant-garde really was avant -- the '20s and '30s, and again in the '50s and '60s -- and is arranged into six "constellations," thematic groupings that show artists from different generations together. They are "Universal and Vernacular," "Play and Grief," "Progression and Rupture," "Vibrational and Stationary," "Touch and Gaze" and "Cryptic and Committed." If these titles seem to contain contradictions, that's intentional. The constellation construct gives the curators an inclusive model, one that allows them to make the case for a certain and specific complexity in Latin American avant-garde art and to more accurately consider artists whose work is hard to categorize.

Take, for example, "Universal and Vernacular." In this group, the curators consider the creative tension produced by marrying modernism's universalist language to indigenous subject matter. Here, you'll find Uruguayan painter Pedro Figari's (1861-1938) scenes of square dances, picnics and carnival celebrations, which were done in the '20s and recall Gauguin, as well as momentous renderings of aboriginal and religious themes by the Brazilian Vicente do Rego Monteiro (1899-1970), also from the '20s, which are informed by Leger's friezelike figures.

This group's more familiar artists include Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) and the influential Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949), both represented by work from the '30s. Siqueiros's large, almost mural-like oils on canvas or burlap depict the exploited and down-trodden, and Torres-García's paintings merge the modernist grid with pictographs. Each of these artists appears in other constellations.

The constellation is a rich organizing principle. As you move from grouping to grouping, connections are made between themes, practices and generations. "Progression and Rupture" includes Torres-García, who first appears in "Universal and Vernacular," but also Lygia Clark (1920-1988), a Brazilian conceptualist almost two generations younger than him. She also appears, with very different work, in "Touch and Gaze" (most of that constellation, by the way, is interactive -- yeah, that means you get to play with the art). And Jésus Rafael Soto (b. 1923), a Venezuelan painter and sculptor who likes to mess with your eyes, is included in "Vibrational and Stationary" but also "Touch and Gaze," where he's beautifully paired with an older countryman, Armando Reverón (1889-1954), whose impressionistic paintings anticipate the so-called minimalist painting of Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman by 20 or 30 years.

Even when there isn't that kind of direct sharing between the show's different groupings, the organizational principle can offer other pleasures, especially with the collusion of the Law building's architecture. "Vibrational and Stationary" and "Touch and Gaze" occupy the mezzanine of the Brown Pavilion, while "Play and Grief" fills Cullinan Hall just below. The former constellations are cool and understated, while the works in the latter are expressionistic, over-the-top, even in-your-face.

Less cerebral -- though no less intelligent -- than the work in the mezzanine constellations, "Play and Grief" is more obviously politically engaged. The World Promised to Juanito Laguna (1962), by the Argentine artist Antonio Berni (1905-1981), is a collage made up of scrap metal, cardboard and other detritus, and it portrays the artist's titular protagonist inhabiting a world choked with trash as mushroom clouds bloom on the horizon. Alberto Heredia (1924-2000), a fellow Argentine, is represented by three sculptures that suggest the artist had serious religious issues. One critic has called Heredia's figures "among the most unsettling images in modern Latin American art" -- which strikes me as criminal understatement. Imagine a Francis Bacon painting gone three-dimensional.

There's so much more in this groundbreaking exhibit -- the mischievous, politically engaged conceptual work gathered in "Cryptic and Committed"; Julio Le Parc's mesmerizing light murals; Cildo Meireles's playful subversion of your senses in Eureka/Blindhotland (1970-1975); Berni's wonderfully hideous Sordidness -- than there is space here to consider it. It's not often that an exhibition makes you rethink what you know about art, but "Inverted Utopias" may just be that rare event.

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