As soon as you step off the elevator on the Crocker Art Museum’s third floor, you are surrounded by compelling images from “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art,” another spectacular show from the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Crocker is one of only five venues in the country that will host the show, which includes nearly 100 works by artists of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican descent, as well as other Latin American groups with deep roots in the United States.
The show is so large and protean that it spills out of the large third floor gallery for special exhibitions into the lobby and an adjoining small gallery. In addition to posters and other political works referring to the Chicano civil rights movement, there are strong formalist abstractions, installations, conceptual and minimalist works that expand expectations of what the term Latino means.
In the lobby, you are greeted by an array of strong works that convey some of the scope of the exhibit. Los Angeles artist Carlos Almaraz’s “Night Magic (Blue Jester)” immediately catches your eye with its intense color and imaginative cityscape inhabited by raw figures: Male and female jesters, a lonely outsider holding an umbrella and the artist at his easel inhabit the poetic scene. This powerful work reminds one of neo-expressionist works with overtones of kitschy paintings on black velvet.
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Nearby is Marcos Dimas’ monumental “Pariah,” a huge head that exemplifies the Puerto Rican identity that mixes African and Native American (or Afro-Taino) strains. The rich, evocative colors Dimas, who was born in Puerto Rico and lives in New York, uses give an almost hallucinogenic quality to the painting, which has been compared to Diego Velasquez’s “Juan de Pareja,” a portrait of the Spanish artist’s Moorish slave who was also a painter.
Other works in the lobby include brooding abstractions that are reminiscent of works by Mexican master Rufino Tamayo, and Los Angeles artist Roberto Chavez’s portrait of a young boy from El Hoyo, a barrio in the city, standing in front of a graffiti-covered wall.
Off to the side and separated from the exhibition proper is a room where three conceptually sophisticated works dwell in a meditative environment. Here you will find Miami artist Teresita Fernandez’s stunning “Nocturnal (Horizon Line),” a cross between a drawing and a low relief sculpture made of solid graphite on panel. This texturally rich work in shades of gray and black surrounds the viewer and shimmers with an unearthly glow.
In the center of the room is Texas artist Jesus Morales’ “Georgia Stele,” a minimalist sculpture of Georgia gray granite, an abstract totem that suggest both ancient and modern sources. Steles (or stelae) are ancient markers that commemorated people and events in cultures from Mesopotamia to MesoAmerica, where Olmec and Maya stonecutters carved them to record the deeds of royal leaders and show mythological scenes.
Off to the side in a glass case, Puerto Rican New Yorker Miguel Luciano is represented by a witty artifact – a platinum plantain, a symbol of Puerto Rican cultural and political sovereignty, maligned African ancestry and masculine identity.
The exhibition proper is huge and varied, beginning with strong abstractions, among them Cuban artist Carmen Herrera’s minimalist geometric composition “Blanco y Verde” and Puerto Rican artist Olga Aibizu’s “Radiante,” a vibrant abstract expressionist canvas that reflects her studies with Han Hoffman.
Among the many posters in the show are California Chicana Ester Hernandez’ “Sun Mad Raisins,” which critiques the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides by corporate agriculture to the detriment of farmworkers. Malaquias Montoya, who was born in New Mexico and teaches at the University of California, Davis, is represented by a painterly image with a Spanish title that translates as “They Cast Me Off for Being a Wetback / They Cast Me Off for Being a Wire Cutter / The Land Was My Inheritance.” It addresses the plight of migrants to California, which was originally part of Mexico.
There are two lively screen prints by members of the Royal Chicano Air Force (the legendary collective founded by poet/artist/activist Jose Montoya and artist/musician Esteban Villa at Sacramento State College in the 1960s), Ricardo Favela and Louie “The Foot” Gonzalez. Sadly there are no works by Jose Montoya and Esteban Villa, which seems to me a gross oversight.
Other politically trenchant works include Los Angeles artist Frank Romero’s monumental painting “Death of Rubén Salazar,” an explosive canvas that memorializes the death of a crusading reporter who chronicled the Chicano civil rights movement and was killed by police when he was hit by a tear-gas round shot into a bar.
In a different vein is an elegant and whimsical installation by Texas artist Franco Mondini-Ruiz, who satirizes Spanish Colonial kitsch in “Crystal City,” an arrangement of objects such as crystal stemware, silverware, mirrors and inexpensive trinkets embellished to look rich.
Whimsical, too, is Puerto Rican artist Pepón Osorio’s “El Chandelier,” a wild, glittering chandelier adorned with plastic objects including palm trees, spiders, mini-statues of saints, Kewpie dolls, soccer balls and just about anything else you can think of.
It is a comic foil for California artist Luis Jimenez’s “Man on Fire,” a monumental figure made of fiberglass and acrylic paint. Inspired by the self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War, the work also references Jose Clemente Orozco’s mural “Man of Fire.” Museum visitors can also see “Progress II,” Jimenez’s sculpture of a vaquero and a bull in the Crocker’s permanent collection.
Other artists in the show whose work is part of the Crocker’s collection include Enrique Chagoya, who is represented by a magnificent satiric codex, and Luis Cruz Azaceta, who will be familiar to local art lovers from his many shows at the legendary Candy Store Gallery. The Cuban exile’s “No Parking Here Any Time,” is a jarring, confrontational image – reminiscent of works by Peter Saul – that presents the plight of immigrants from Cuba.
There are just too many strong works in this uniformly strong show to detail them all. This is an important show you must see.