No Virgins, No Velvet

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

Villegas recently made a Christ figure out of felt for the Plush Gallery in Dallas. His only foray into "ethnic art," it was meant to poke fun at what he considers Latinos' artistic obsession with cross imagery. "Sometimes I make work that is trying to comment about people still mowing over these ideas of race and who's who and what's what," he says. "I think things would go much smoother with a human approach."

MFAH curator Ramirez says artists such as Villegas are typical. "I think a lot of the younger Latinos, whose parents were part of the Movimiento, also don't want to be identified with the Movimiento," she says. "They want to be American. They want to be considered part of American culture."

In fact, many gallery owners now agree the terms "Latino" and "Latin American" are stifling, and some even refuse to use them. "It's a really big problem," says Apama Mackey, whose Mackey Gallery devotes roughly half of its space to Latin artists. "Do you pigeonhole it and call it Latin American art or just call it contemporary art? It's sometimes kind of a death knoll when you label it."

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.

But not in the MFAH's Latin American art department, which has transformed a seeming liability into its greatest asset. Ramirez is now regarded as a uniquely brilliant curator because her "Inverted Utopias" show single-handedly rewrote the definition of Latin American art. It presented, for the first time in a major exhibit, an entirely new chapter in the subcontinent's artistic development. The collected artists seem to have less in common with stereotypes of Latin America than with the avant-garde art movements of the West. Yet what's amazing is that they were working with those cutting-edge concepts just as and even sometimes before Western artists discovered them.

For artists such as Espada, the show is a landmark, a sign of renewed appreciation for his work and a personal artistic revelation.

He recently visited the exhibit with his friend James Harithas, the art car guru, who also put on the first Chicano exhibit in Texas as director of Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum.

The two men stop in front of a painting of a phantasmagoric blue beast, which writhes before a shadowy crowd on a beach in Espada's Puerto Rico. "It's like the artists of the cold war," Harithas says. "These artists also feel the oppression of the system of American control of their island, right? They were very clear about what they thought was happening to them, but they didn't convey it overtly. That is a metaphor for an animal that could mean anything, but the feeling of the whole thing is--"

Espada has been trying to contain himself. "Hungriness!" he interjects. "Starvingness!"

Elsewhere in the exhibit, Espada views paintings less emotionally and nationalistically, and more based on his Western perspectives. He approaches a work by the Argentine Xul Solar. "Now if you ever want to mention European influence, it's right here," he tells Harithas, "because this is kind of Paul Klee-ish."

But Harithas is wearing a grin. "Look at the date," he says. "Nineteen-twenty-four. He even did it before Klee."

These kinds of revelations could ultimately be the greatest assets for Houston's emerging Latino and Latin American artists. By defining Latin art more broadly, the museum will open the door for local painters and sculptors to engage their ethnic backgrounds without boxing themselves in.

"This is not just about being the marginalized Latino artist in Houston," Ramirez says, "but rather being part of a very dynamic field that comprises 20 different nations and artists who are working all over the world."

Strolling deeper into the exhibit, Espada finds connections to his art from throughout the subcontinent. The friends pause before the 1963 painting, One of These Days by Argentine Luis Felipe Noé. Like Espada's canvases, the paint drips and the colors are bright, yet earthy. It reminds Harithas of abstract expressionism. And a 1958 painting by Brazilian Hélio Oiticica, a bright red canvas overlaid with intriguingly conjoined white rectangles, evokes Espada's recent move toward minimalism. "This lives in my art now," he says.

Even Villegas's ironic Christ has analogs in the show. There's a Jesus figure crucified on a dive-bombing F-16, for example, and Love One Another, a drawing of lusty lesbian nuns.

Ramirez plans to point out connections between Latino and Latin American artists in future exhibits. She's particularly fascinated by the link between Texas-born artist Luis Jiménez and Argentine artist Juan Carlos Distéfano, whose Christlike worker is about to be electrocuted in the exhibit on a bending, epoxy-resin telephone pole. "Since the 1960s, Jiménez in the United States and Distéfano in Argentina were working in the same industrial medium," she says, "taking it to a level of virtuosity that nobody had even thought was possible."

On an envelope, Espada has painted an elaborate weave of brush strokes. The doodle sits on a large table in his liquor-store-cum-loft, atop a pile of bills and a stack of ten years' worth of his work. Nearby is a bottle of Cobalt Black Underglaze, a windshield wiper used as a squeegee and a pair of paint-splattered Reebok high-tops. But since Espada moved here in April, the envelope is the only thing he's painted.

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