One begins to wonder if it’s even possible to organize a major art exhibition devoted to an ethnic or minority group. So many try, and so many fail, and so, too, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which opened a rather dutiful show called “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” on Friday.
It isn’t a bad show, but surely work made by artists who belong to the more than 50 million people who identify as Hispanic or Latino in the United States is more vibrant, provocative and interesting than what is on display here. Surely there’s a more compelling way to present it, and more interesting things to say about it.
Mostly one feels the strictures placed on the curators, the rules they are following in a leaden, academically proper way. Of course, if it’s a show about Latino art, it must be inclusive and relatively comprehensive, and no major movements or artists must be left out. Of course, if it’s about a population group that has suffered prejudice, it must cut a fine line between accurately presenting the impact of bigotry and reducing Latinos to victims. Of course there isn’t really any universally agreed upon sense of what Latino means, and who belongs to the group, so the label must never be applied in a limiting way. And it mustn’t make any claims that might alienate artists or art lovers, about what Latino art should or shouldn’t be. Add to that a problem particularly acute at the Smithsonian: That the show offend no one, give no heartache to the notoriously timid overseers in the Castle, and prompt no visitor to write so much as a single angry e-mail.
Sample the prose from essays that will eventually be published as a catalogue for the show when it travels to other venues: “The tone and character of much current expression revolves around personal responses to global realities,” writes one author. “These rich examples encourage us to see Latino art not as a bounded category but as a fluid one, open to many dialogues and trajectories,” writes another.
This isn’t just the usual academic blah-blah, but a telling symptom of an insoluble problem: Latino art, today, is a meaningless category. Historically, there are movements and periods when the category is interesting, for example the politicized Chicano and Nuyorican art movements of the 1960s and ’70s, whose artists provide some of the best material on display. There are also subdivisions of “Latino” art that might make sense as a focus for a more targeted exhibition (such as Cuban art dealing with themes of exile). There are also myriad stylistic and formal categories that might narrow the subject enough to see useful detail: abstraction of 1960s, conceptual art, video, poster and mural work.
But throw it all together and try to argue that it’s a virtue rather than a failure of curating to stress the fluidity of definition, the unbounded categories, the many trajectories, and you get a big mess.
That shouldn’t detract from the work, which is often well-made and fascinating. Raphael Montanez Ortiz’s brilliant 1957-58 vivisection of an old cowboy and Indian film, chopped up with a tomahawk and reassembled in frenetic bits and pieces, some of them upside down, is still hypnotically powerful and encompasses so many basic conceptual moves that similar work by other artists since feels derivative. The Puerto Rican artist ADAL embeds a video monitor in an old suitcase, and mashes up scenes from the film “West Side Story” with other kinds of music and voices from a police scanner: The results are strikingly powerful, as the fake sentimentalized emotion of the film’s caricatures takes on a more desperate, authentic sense of trauma.
Manuel Acevedo’s 2004 photographs of a slum in Hartford are altered to include ghostly suggestions of architectural additions, though their lines, rendered in strict perspective, suggest prison fences as much as they might intimate the hope of urban renewal. And Delilah Montoya’s nearly empty photographs of border regions in the Southwest (including her celebrated image “Humane Borders Water Station”) give us a powerful sense of the land as a beautiful, dangerous, eternal constant, unforgiving (to those who confront its arid and torrid expanse) and disinterested in our affairs (especially where we place our borders).
The exhibition also includes work that has become or should be canonical. One of Abelardo Morell’s wonderful camera obscura images rendered inside an empty room (made in 1996) is included, but feels strangely out of place, shy and inward looking, just like the technique that produces it. There is also a faux documentary photograph by the collective Asco, “Decoy Gang War Victim,” made in 1974, and widely seen on the cover of Artforum two years ago. The Asco image, which shows a body lying in the street under dim blue light, was shopped around to television stations with the ridiculous claim that it represented the “last” victim of gang violence in the barrio. The intent was to underscore the sensationalism and credulity of lazy local news programs.
But even strong work doesn’t stand much of a chance if one sees it in isolation, decontextualized or in the company of uninspiring neighbors. Jesse Amado’s “Me, We” reproduces in smooth, beautifully processed granite and marble two wooden shipping palettes, gritty, almost invisible industrial objects. It is a coy and smart gesture, not just to elevate the everyday, but to focus on the mythic power latent in these purely functional objects. One thinks of Atlas, with the world on his shoulders, and all the backbreaking uncelebrated, miserable work it takes to keep a relatively small number of people supplied not just with the necessities of life, but art too.
But why place it in a room with undistinguished abstract paintings? It’s cool, circumspect power would make much more sense in another room, where some of the strongest visual invention — posters that chart the politicization of Latino groups — is displayed.
There is also plenty of work that simply isn’t very good, derivative and dull, adding little to the precedents that inspire it: knock-offs of Claes Oldenburg and Cindy Sherman, second-rate abstraction, and sentimental treacle in regionalist styles.
The exhibition only includes work from the museum’s collection, 92 pieces by 72 artists. Most of it has been acquired since 2011, which is impressive, though one wonders if the museum is getting the strongest pieces by each artist. One also wonders if there is need for some introspection at the American Art Museum. This isn’t the first disappointing show it has mounted in recent seasons (“Art of Video Games,” “Annie Liebowitz: Pilgrimage” and the “Great American Hall of Wonders” were all problematic). The last truly substantial show was the small but rigorous George Ault exhibition in 2011.
It’s painful to say: Someone, or something, seems to be driving the museum toward exhibitions that feel a bit spineless, or formless, or that overtly pander to the audience. And why is the catalogue not ready for the opening of this show? Don’t Washington audiences deserve better?
Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art
on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through March 2. For more information visit americanart.si.edu.