No Virgins, No Velvet

An MFAH show and a crop of new galleries are redefining what Latino art is supposed to look like

For many artists, opportunity knocks once or twice. For Ibsen Espada, it banged incessantly. The part-time dog catcher was asleep with a hangover on a Saturday morning, in his ramshackle White Oak painting studio, when somebody began pounding on the door. Naked, Espada climbed out of bed, leaving behind a woman he'd met mambo-dancing the previous night, and groggily peeked outside. He saw a face that few struggling Houston artists had ever glimpsed on their doorsteps: the well-coiffed visage of Susie Kalil, guest curator for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

"Oh, my Lord!" he said. "Excuse me. Could you give me five minutes?"

Moments later, Kalil stepped inside and eyed Espada's work. After she finished, Espada followed her out to the curb. She was in search of the best artists in Houston for the 1986 museum show "Fresh Paint" and had been tight-lipped on her studio visits. She climbed into her car and started the engine. "Don't worry," she told the nervous Puerto Rican transplant before she drove off, "you're in the show."

Ibsen Espada
Daniel Kramer
Ibsen Espada
Espada's Cofresí mixes jungles of 
black lines with bold swaths of color.
Daniel Kramer
Espada's Cofresí mixes jungles of black lines with bold swaths of color.

The exhibit launched a career for Espada that has been as volatile as his paintings. The large canvases -- often intertwined with jungles of black lines and bold swaths of color -- evoke the fusions and abstract syncopations of Latin jazz; they reach across borders, to both the wild, Cuban postsurrealist Winfredo Lam, for example, and the North American guru of abstract expressionism, Jackson Pollock. Espada abandoned his dog traps and picked up his paintbrushes full-time.

A year later, the MFAH chose him for its seminal exhibit "Hispanic Artists in the United States." At a time when many critics thought of Hispanic art as all politics and no substance, it was a controversial show -- the first of its kind for a major U.S. museum -- and an instant hit. The work included sultry, life-sized, crayon cutouts of Chicanos dancing in a honky-tonk, paintings depicting red cactus fruits morphing into hearts, and artist Gilbert Luján's Our Family Car, a real-life low-rider with flaming chili peppers painted on the front. The show traveled to New York, Los Angles and Miami. Espada remembers opening the Washington, D.C., show right next to the White House. "It was the biggest thing for me," he says. "There I was in 1987, on a red carpet, shaking hands with dignitaries."

The story of what happened next is, in many ways, the story of Latino art in Houston. Espada is still considered the most successful Latino artist in town. But years ago, his work mostly stopped selling. He pays his bills these days by installing cement countertops at sweltering construction sites. In a city that is nearly 40 percent Hispanic, Latino art has been almost invisible -- either blending into the mainstream or languishing in an artistic ghetto.

But the boundaries of Houston's cultural barrios are stretching. This summer, the MFAH opened "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America." The exhibit, which shows work created abroad in nine countries, has been called the most important event for Latin American art in the history of the United States. A New York Times critic wrote: "If I could travel to just one American museum show this summer, this would be it." The show, along with a new, unprecedented commitment to Latin American and Latino art by the MFAH and a crop of new galleries, is redefining what Latin art is supposed to look like. And in the process, it may kindle an enduring Latino art scene in Houston and finally put artists such as Espada back on the map.

Long before anyone could view Latino art in Houston -- let alone drink frozen margaritas or listen to rock en español -- Anglo Houston artists were looking south. In fact, Mexico became a stronger reference point for some Houstonians than the art capitals of the West.

In the early 1940s, Dorothy Hood, a fetching young redhead, was invited by the successful painter Roberto Mata to live in his New York apartment. She declined, telling him: "I want to do it on my own." Moving to Mexico City instead, she stayed for 20 years and befriended a who's who of the Mexican Renaissance, including Jose Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo and Frida Kahlo. Her paintings borrowed strongly from Mexican surrealism, but also diverged into abstraction.

"Mexico as a country changed my life," wrote Hood, whose work was widely collected. "Its primal force was everywhere to be lived."

Despite the success of Mexican-influenced Anglo painters, most of Houston's Latino artists remained overlooked. The national Chicano art movement of the 1960s, El Movimiento, used traditional images such as bleeding hearts and indigenous religious icons, common in the work of famous Mexican muralists, to address contemporary U.S. racial and political issues. In Houston's East End, Leo Tanguma painted a mural in this style on a wall of the Continental Can Company. It was one of the best creations by a local Latino artist from the era, but Tanguma was unable to secure patrons, and it was his only significant work.

Tanguma's creativity helped other Latino artists gain more exposure, but many working artists had yet to arrive. In the early 1970s, Espada studied in Puerto Rico under Rolando Lopez Dirube -- an eccentric, deaf painter and sculptor prone to wade the San Juan Bay in search of cast-off materials for his art. Latin American culture infused Dirube's work; Espada remembers lying on the floor of his studio, Christlike, so Dirube could proportion a giant cross for the local Catholic church. (He later hauled it part of the way to the church on his back.) But Dirube was by no means a champion of what would be considered traditional Latin American themes: A student of modernist painters such as the German-American Max Beckmann, he produced work that was attuned to global art movements.

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