Welcome to the Visceral Neighborhood That Is Barrio Berni

Walking into "Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is like turning into an unfamiliar Buenos Aires barrio a world away from the glitz and glamour of Recoleta and Palermo. This is a neighborhood — shall we call it Barrio Berni? — of grit and clamor, where innocents, not-so innocents and monsters (both the kind you recognize right away and the more sinister kind disguised as human beings) walk the streets together.

As is the case with all of Buenos Aires, things in Barrio Berni seem almost right, but not quite: like Paris or Madrid, like art with which you are familiar, but 30 degrees off. Or, with Berni, perhaps 90 degrees. Did you take a wrong turn? Time will tell, but what you see around you makes turning back impossible. To really enter Barrio Berni, as opposed to merely walking through it, requires a Dickensian suspension of disbelief, but once you've made the transition you encounter people and places (and monsters) you'll never forget.

Antonio Berni (1905-1981) was Argentina's greatest artist of the 20th century — perhaps the greatest the country has ever produced. His importance was recognized in the 1960s far beyond Argentina, but since then his fame has faded, especially in North America. This exhibition, on view at MFAH through January 26, is an effort to show us what we've been missing.

As a young artist in the 1920s, Berni went to Europe, like so many of his contemporaries; first to Madrid, and then to Paris, which was the center of the art world at the time. In 1926 he studied with the cubist painter André L'Hote and with Othon Friesz, a French Fauvist. He soon became mixed up with the Surrealists; became one of them; and painted solid Surrealist paintings, some of which were on show at MFAH in 2012. Then, in 1931, he went back to Argentina, where he found Surrealism not up to the social, political, and economic turmoil that bombarded him there. He changed his style to social realism.

Berni was never reluctant to adapt his style and medium if the message he had to deliver required it. By the late 1950s he had turned to assemblage, often blended with paint and printmaking, as the best means of saying what he had to say. He worked prolifically with materials found in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires and the flea markets of Paris (he was often back and forth between the two cities).

The use of found materials wasn't unique to Berni, of course. Robert Rauschenberg was already creating his assemblages from things found in the streets of New York by the mid-'50s, and Houston's own Gene Charlton was collaging with posters ripped from the walls of Rome by 1960.

But next to Berni, Rauschenberg looks genteel and refined — cerebral where Berni is gut. Berni's is not paint-on-canvas, accept-the-flat-surface art. His is art in a world. Not the actual world — we are, after all, in Barrio Berni — but a world he creates to help us see our own more clearly.

And Berni's art has characters, not just concepts. This show has two stars. One is Juanito Laguna, a country boy who is poor in money but not in spirit, as Berni shows us. Juanito migrates with his family to the shantytowns of Buenos Aires. We follow him in one work of art to another in the exhibition as he struggles to find a little joy and keep from being crushed in the grinding machinery of modernization.

Then there is Ramona Montiel, a working-class girl who realizes that with her attributes and her skills, she can make a better living — a damn fine living — as a prostitute than she can as a seamstress. As we accompany Ramona from infancy to past-her-prime maturity, we see her in her communion dress, in her elegant Parisian evening attire and in various states of undress. She's humble, then she's grand, then she's...Well, it's only later on that she senses she's had to pay a price as well as set one.

But what's this? Characters in art, whose episodes tell a story from work to work? How awfully unmodern. How much like the predella panels of Renaissance altarpieces, only much larger and not sacred (or are they?). Or how much like graphic novels, in which case how very modern.

To highlight individual works in a show like this is almost pointless. The power is in the whole so much more than in the parts — imagine the added heft given Fra Angelico's "Saint Anthony Abbot Shunning the Mass of Gold" from the MFAH Strauss Collection when it is displayed alongside its predella peers.

The sweeping upper gallery of Mies van der Rohe's Law building, in which the show is installed — until recently the largest continuous exhibition space in an American art museum, according to Gary Tinterow, MFAH's director, and now restored more closely to the original vision of the architect — is a splendid setting for Berni's work. Wandering through gallery after endless gallery laid out in a huge space makes all the more vivid the courage of little Juanito and insignificant Ramona, who survive in a complex city in a vast world.

So did you take a wrong turn? Absolutely not. It was a turn that may change your life. The art in Barrio Berni is visceral, slap-you-in-the-face work. Tongue in cheek at times, but always with the knowledge that the tongue could be bitten off. Don't miss it.

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Randy Tibbits is an independent art writer and curator, specializing in the art history of Houston. He is a member of the Board of Directors of CASETA: Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art and the coordinator of HETAG: Houston Earlier Texas Art Group. He writes art exhibition reviews for Houston Press from time to time.