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The Halle "Universe"

The MFAH's Latin American Art Department has yet another hit show

The hits keep coming from the Latin American Art Department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The current success is "Constructing a Poetic Universe: The Diane and Bruce Halle Collection of Latin American Art," organized by Beverly Adams, curator of the Diane and Bruce Halle Collection. Because the show is drawn from a private collection, its organization isn't especially tight. Collectors buy what interests them; their collections are shaped by their personal taste instead of a curatorial agenda — and that can be a really good thing.

What interested Diane and Bruce Halle was Latin American art. Their criteria for "Latin American" were refreshingly broad; they collected works by foreign-born artists working in Latin America and Latin American-born artists working abroad. And unlike some collectors of work from specific regions, they did not establish their own agenda for what Latin American art was supposed to look like and buy accordingly. They collected a wide range of works, everything from documentation of the body-based performance works of Ana Mendieta to the video installations of Javier Téllez.

According to the MFAH, "the exhibition is organized into four broad ideas that feature works since 1980 and explore various aspects of the performative in the visual arts — introspection and identity, social studies, visuality and experience, and the creation of poetic universes." Yeah, yeah, whatever. I'll leave grouping it to the organizer. As a viewer, I was much more interested in the individual works than in categorizing and divining links between them. Going into the exhibition is like going into a store filled with incredibly well-chosen merchandise — it's all good stuff, and you can pick what strikes your fancy.

Chevelure looks like hair, but it's really brass wire.
New York
Chevelure looks like hair, but it's really brass wire.

One of the standout pieces is a video piece by Venezuelan artist Javier Téllez, La Passion de Jeanne D'Arc [The Passion of Joan of Arc] (Rozelle Hospital)(2005). In the two-channel installation, a project for the 2005 Whitney Biennial, Téllez projects an altered version of Carl Theodor Dreyer's landmark 1928 silent film La Passion de Jeanne D'Arc on one wall. On the opposite wall, he projects a series of interviews with female patients from Rozelle Hospital in New South Wales. You glance back and forth between them like a tennis match.

The hospital patients are riveting. A young woman with a chubby, almost perfectly round face talks about being sat upon, held down and injected with ten different drugs. She begins to sing a song about surviving in an impossibly angelic soprano voice. Glancing at the opposite wall, we see Dreyer's dramatic black-and-white close-ups of Joan of Arc's face and the faces of the men judging her. Téllez, the son of two psychiatrists, worked with the female patients of Rozelle Hospital to rewrite the film's subtitles. Dreyer's film shows close-ups of the faces of Joan of Arc's inquisitors. The footage cuts away to a chalkboard subtitle on which the patients have written "Have you stopped taking your medication?" The parallels between the story of Joan of Arc's martyrdom and the treatment of these hospital patients who don't fit into the larger world are obvious, but Téllez's installation is anything but a one-liner. It's a richly moving exploration of the lives of these patients and society's response to mental illness.

Miguel Angel Rios's A Morir ('Til death)(2003) is another strong video work. Three walls of a room are covered with video of spinning tops, all made by the Argentine-born artist. The black tops, some squat and broad-shouldered, others elegantly tapering, spin on tiny needle feet. A cord violently throws more into the fray. The audio increases and retreats, like race cars roaring around a track. The tops move over a grid, bump into each other genially or crash and burn. A rake swoops in to remove the fallen, and those remaining spin more and more slowly into a wobbly death spiral, finally lying prone and silent. Rios's video was inspired by the popular Mexican street game of trompos, and he enlisted the top trompo players of Tepoztlán, Mexico for the filming. But the video feels nothing like a game — it feels like a struggle for life and death.

Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander presents a wry slide show, Mapamundi (2005), a tour of the world from within the borders of Brazil. For the ongoing project, Neuenschwander has taken photos all over Brazil of places named after foreign spots. There are humble storefronts called "Hollywood," crudely hand-painted bar signs with names like "Bahamas," grim-looking hotels called "Miami" and "Las Vegas" and a ramshackle auto shop called "China." As the images slowly click past, you ponder their inspirations and aspirations.

Argentine Jorge Macchi's Fuego de Artificio [Fireworks] (2003) is a mud-and-glue wall painting that starts out with what looks like a print from the tread of a boot. As it moves up the wall, the tread spreads out to create firework-like explosions of triangle- and diamond-shaped marks on the wall. It's a simple, elegantly amusing work, until you start to wonder whether it's the print of a hiking boot or an army boot...

The show also has a lot of strong sculptural work. The Brazilian artist Tunga plays with your expectations in Chevelure (2002–2003), a stunning floor piece that looks like a giant lock of hair has fallen on the floor while being combed. Up close, you realize the huge bronze comb is running through thick curling strands of brass wire.

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