‘Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America’ at MFAH
“The Beautiful is always strange.” — Charles Baudelaire.
The word “non-traditional” is too trite to describe the exhibition that turned the second floor of the Caroline Wiess Law Building of MFAH into a Mecca of contemporary art this winter.
If pressured to summarize my impressions of 32 works created during the past three decades by 21 established artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela, I probably would start by saying what this exhibition is NOT: it is not a show of paintings, sculptures, prints or any other familiar art forms. The artists created their own forms and ways of expression using a wide range of materials, very few of which fall into the categories of traditional art-making and even then only by accident.
Human hair, teeth, dried starfish, coca leaves, sugar cubes, bed mattresses, pieces of demolished monuments — these are a few examples of the materials employed by the artists who, while being completely and utterly idiosyncratic in their work, share one thing in common. They are all nonconformists – and not only in relation to art, but also in relation to politics, social issues, environment and culture.
Speaking on the opening day of the exhibition, Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and Director of International Center for the Arts of the Americas, said: “The theme of the exhibition is Contingent Beauty — not as an end in itself, but as a tool to engage the viewer in modern issues. The artists approach these issues in nontraditional ways… They are all innovators who continue in the tradition of avant-garde.”
In the catalog, Ramírez further elaborated that the notion of beauty, as it is definied within the framework of the exhibition, “relies on the work’s capacity to elicit visceral reactions from viewers in a way that leads them to transcend the specific experience of the work and envision some form of social change… The beauty of these works thus lies within their latent power for “change” and the unleashing of this power is contingent on a variety of factors, not the least of which are its viewers.”1
Some works in the exhibition affect us instantaneously, others require a longer contemplation. “Stress (in memoriam)” by Cuban artist Yoan Capote is a visual metaphor for the named emotional condition which is often accompanied by teeth grinding. The base of this rectangular concrete structure contains approximately 1,000 human teeth. The upper part looks like a heavy roller that is ready to go over them like a grindstone over grains. We get the meaning of Capote’s work immediately, even though we may not know that the artist created this piece in memory of severe food shortages experienced by Cubans in the early1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The work of another Cuban, Tania Bruguera, “Estadística” (“Statistics”), also affects us on a visceral level, although it takes more time to realize its meaning. This large-scale composition is a replica of the Cuban flag, only the stripes are brown/black instead of the traditional blue. It becomes obvious only at a very close distance that the stripes are made of strands of human hair which have been wrapped in pieces of cloth. The artist collected locks of hair from her friends and neighbors for several months, and the wrapping strips came from clothes donated for this purpose by the Cuban diaspora. This work is a poignant statement about the economic and emotional devastation experienced by the people who lost so many friends and family members during the recurrent waves of emigration. At the same time, as a collective work of hundreds of anonymous people, it can be seen as a symbol of resistance to Castro’s regime.
Large-scale installations are a characteristic feature of this exhibition. We walk into a world created by an artist’s imagination where we are confronted with mythical beings, fantastic happenings or dream-like scenes. “Lezart I” by Brazilian artist Tunga uses our natural fascination with mysterious-looking objects to draw us in and, once we are hooked, we find ourselves wandering through a complex maze of a story within a story.
Blending anthropological findings and a common fable of conjoined twins, Tunga created his own myth in which two sisters are connected by their hair. The girls became sacrificed and their scalps were preserved by a woman who embroidered images from her dreams with their hair strands which, in the process, turned to gold.
Using copper wire, iron plates and powerful magnets, the artist created a composition in which components are connected by a magnetic force, braiding and knotting. Since all components look like machine parts rather than human body parts, viewers are emotionally distanced from the gory contents of Tunga’s myth. Like Matthew Barney’s “The Cremaster” cycle, “Lezart I” engages us intellectually while keeping us entranced by its visual enigma. One may say that the composition casts a spell over viewers, who tend to linger around it, mesmerized by the black and gold wire strands that run like rivulets between the two magnetic boards.
Colombian-born, Australia-based artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso takes us on a journey to the depths of the sea. Displayed in a gallery illuminated by strategically placed spotlights, “Woven Water: Submarine Landscape” poses a challenge to our perception of reality. Material objects and their shadows become interchangeable. We are surrounded by strange shapes that seem to be swirling and floating as if engaged in some mysterious dance.
At the same time, there is a dark side to this beauty. The structural elements of Cardoso’s shapes are dried bodies of starfish. Once living creatures, they became souvenirs sold at the oceanside. The artist brings our attention to numerous environmental issues involving commercial fishing and, ultimately, the impact of human activities on the planet.
A different kind of world greets viewers with a merry beat of raindrops on the roof as they enter the digital installation “2iPM009,” from the series “Pinturas móviles” (“Mobile Paintings”) by Venezuelan artist Magdalena Fernández. Inspired by Piet Mondrian’s compositions, Fernández multiplied Mondrian’s familiar grid by exponentially projecting it on the walls. Nothing is what it looks in this illusionistic world. The unmistakable patter and drumming of rain is actually a meticulously edited acoustic montage of sounds made by the Slovenian choir Perpetuum Jazzile as they snap their fingers, slap their legs and stamp their heels on a wooden surface.
Argentinean artist Guillermo Kuitca has completely re-configured the traditional art of painting. Instead of using canvas, Kuitca started painting on… mattresses. Although at first glance it may look like a whim – acting iconoclastic just for the fun of it, – the artist’s choice of medium was not arbitrary. A bed is a universal symbol of locality; Kuitca regarded it, in his own words, “as territory, as physical space that you occupy, as plane surface in the most material sense of the term.”2
“Le Sacre” is an installation of 54 mattresses which the artist designed, stuffed and sewed himself. By painting maps on these mattresses, he integrated two locational extremes: the public and the private. The geographical places which he depicted are remote, little known towns and villages. However, on Kuitca’s maps, they are given prominence, with their locations marked by large buttons, which makes viewers perceive them as centers, hubs or metropolises. Looking at these maps, we begin to understand that our perspective on the world is biased and that the notions of center and periphery are shifting in present times.
Some works in the exhibition are amazingly detailed and intricate. Three large-size skulls by the Argentinean art collective Grupo Mondongo may appear like a variation on the popular Renaissance subject of “memento mori.” However, a closer look reveals that in fact every section of each skull is composed of tiny figures culled from global culture and politics. For example, “Calavera 4” (“Skull 4”), among other things, includes the story of the Evolution, the Nativity, the Last Supper (with Hitler, Marx, Mao and other 20th-century dictators around the table instead of Christ and his disciples), the Guard Room at Versailles, “The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, King Kong with Hokusai’s “The Great Wave of Kanagawa,” “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Jackson and Bubbles by Jeff Koons. Simultaneously playful and profound, “Calaveras” of Grupo Mondongo address the dichotomy of truth/untruth, life/death and reality/fiction in contemporary culture.
It is impossible to do justice to all extraordinary works included in this exhibition in a short article. Every one of them is a world in itself, waiting to share its mysteries with a thoughtful viewer. At the same time, all works, despite their uniqueness, are connected by their creators’ passionate involvement in contemporary world. The dialogue is ongoing and we have an open invitation.
The exhibition “Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art From Latin America” is on view at MFAH through Feb. 28. For more information, visit www.mfah.org.
1 Mari Carmen Ramírez. The Contingencies of Beauty. In: Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art From Latin America. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2015, p. 20.
2 Mari Carmen Ramírez. Guillermo Kuitca: Painting as [Dis]ocated Battlefield. In: Contingent Beauty, p. 125.
By Elena Ivanove, ISSUE Staff Writer