Marì Carmen Ramirez, curator of “Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America,” says that one work in the show neatly sums up the spirit of the exhibit, Miguel Ángel Rojas's Broadway (seen above). The piece is an installation of coca leaves spread across a white wall.
“That to me is the emblem of the exhibition,” Ramirez tells us. “When you walk in, you see this white wall with this beautiful trail of leaves. You stand in front of it and you can think of landscapes, life and death, all of these philosophical issues. Then you realize that these are coca leaves and that what he's referencing is the farmworkers who cultivate the coca leaf. They're like little ants. He's referencing drug trafficking with that work.
The work is aesthetically beautiful, created from ordinary materials not often used in making art, and it has additional meaning when put into context. "That's the essence of 'Contingent Beauty,'” Ramirez says.
"[At the exhibit,] you realize that the topic is not beauty in and of itself as an absolute value but that the work has to do with very tough political issues being confronted by many countries in Latin America. There's a paradox there. It's a beauty that's contingent on extra artistic factors."
Ramirez says the works stand on their own; people unaware Rojas used coca leaves to create Broadway respond to the work nonetheless. "It's an appealing work of art," says Ramirez. "It's beautiful even if you don't know the whole story behind it."
Other works also include unexpected materials. Tania Bruguera's Estadìstica (Statistics) is a Cuban flag assembled from human hair, recalling the practice of secretly sewing Cuban flags during the country's war of independence.
Yoan Capote's Stress (in memoriam) (seen above) uses human teeth to cover the top of a wooden block. A heavy concrete block is balanced on top of the teeth, rocking back and forth, grinding the teeth. “It's very like grinding your teeth in your sleep; it's that sort of stress that's inflicted by having to live in the day-to-day reality of a country that has such incredible limitations.”
In theory, Stress (in memoriam) is an interactive piece, but in the exhibition space that becomes a safety issue. Ramirez had to consider how to install the works without putting up cords or some other barriers to keep people at a safe but less engaging distance.
"We want people to experience the art as directly as possible, to be able to walk around it or get close enough to see the materials are teeth or coca leafs or whatever they are. We didn't want to put a lot of space between the audience and the work. That's one of the reasons we're limiting the number of works in the exhibit."
It's also one of the reasons the museum's security guards have been put on alert; keeping people from reaching out and touching the works will be more difficult than usual, Ramirez says. The museum also installed other security features. "We have sensors that beep if someone comes too close."
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Ramirez and her colleagues at MFAH and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas have been working on “Contingent Beauty” for some two years. (All of the works are from the MFAH's own collection of Latin American art.)
“This is a very particular show. On the one hand, it's the show with the fewest pieces that I've ever done. There are only 32 or 33 pieces in it. But on the other hand, the amount of planning and detail that went into this installation was the most I've ever done.
“Each and every piece is extremely special. In the exhibition, we have a representation of the most important artists of Latin America at this moment. This is not an exhibition of one more work by so-and-so. Each one is a key work by a major artist. This is still possible to do in Latin American art.”
The "Contingent Beauty" exhibit opens November 22. Regular viewing hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 12:15 to 7 p.m. Sundays. Through February 28. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7300 or visit mfah.org. Free with paid general admission.