My first experience with the "magic realism" quality of Latino art was on Cinco de Mayo 1968 in a seedy, downstairs shop on Olivera Street in central Los Angeles.
There was this painting of Jesus on black velvet, his robe parted, exposing a bleeding heart strangled by thorns. By itself the painting was a laughable oddity, an abomination of taste. However, when combined with the pantheon of plastic saints and smoking candles situated on the altar beneath, it spoke - albeit by accident - of mysterious ceremonies, stigmata, the silencing of babbling fanatics, blood and retribution; the union of the painting and the altar somehow stirred my soul, generating feelings of revulsion but also fascination.In "Soy un Testigo/I Am Witness: Contemporary Latino Art" (upstairs gallery of the Salt Lake Art Center, through July 7), I found myself standing again in that dark and forbidding shop on Olivera Street. This time, however, the complex, metaphysical allegories of the Hispanic culture were not accidental.
"Soy un Testigo" is an exhibit of 24 paintings, sculptures and prints by 10 Latino/Latina contemporary artists, along with a group-created installation by local artists.
More than a year ago the exhibit's curator, Frank McEntire, sculptor and art critic for the Salt Lake Tribune, discussed doing the project with Andrea Ortanez, cultural arts chairwoman for the 24th Annual National Image Training Conference. "But the monies for the project really weren't put together until two months ago," says McEntire. "So I've had essentially two months to put this show together."
In the beginning McEntire wanted artists representing all the Hispanic communities in the Americas, but due to time and money constraints it didn't happen. "Most of my sample," says McEntire, "are Western states artists that are Mexican-American. Still, considering the limitations, I think it's a strong show."
The contributing artists are: Ray Abeyta (Brooklyn); Jose Bedia (Miami); Mark Calderon (Seattle); Benito Huerta (Houston); Luis Jimenez (Hondo, N.M.); Roberto Marquez (Santa Fe); Kim Martinez (Salt Lake City); Lucia Maya (Los Angeles); Jesus Bautista Moroles (Rockport, Texas) and Patricia Rodriguez (Santa Fe). (Latina artist Yolanda Lopez was scheduled to exhibit, but she suffered a brain aneurism and wasn't able to deliver her work.)
Abeyta's paintings explore the racial and cultural complexities created from the moment the Euro-Spanish first faced the pre-Columbian native.
Cuban emigre, Bedia, unlike other artists in the exhibit, is influenced by African Kongo religious traditions mixed with Native American imagery.
Calderon's work is a personal exploration of concepts and images from cultures past and present. He is intrigued by such things as grace, worship, birth and death.
Huerta's body of work expresses his loss of faith and the memory of the comfort the faith once gave him. He uses and reuses images from Catholicism and Santeria.
Jimenez, perhaps the most famous of the group, treats the rural Southwestern Chicano experience, using visual language rife with bawdiness, pathos and working-class directness.
The enigmatic Marquez, conversant with poetry, music, architecture, philosophy and art history, grasps a likeness or recollection and transforms it into a metaphor.
Salt Lake native Martinez balances painting with her graphic art work, often incorporating Hispanic cultural objects.
Maya, a surrealistic painter more akin to Frida Kahlo, typically places women at the center of her work. Her visual language is an expression of private rituals that are celebrated in mysterious stages.
Sculptor Moroles' aesthetic affinity is with European classicism, relying on architectonic traditions.
Rodriguez's inspiration comes from dreams. She uses found objects and personal mementos to retrieve and store memories.
The altar installation, conceived and constructed by Jean Irwin, Theresa Martinez, Andrea Otanez Lorena Riffo and Carolyn Webber was inspired by the differences and commonalities within us all; it is a mixture of ritual, popular culture, family, memories, ethnicities, religion and generations. Because of "Soy un Testigo's" racial make-up, there's a danger of the show being accused of or reduced to mere political correctness instead of being the legitimate art exhibit that it is.
"In some respects," McEntire says," a show like this could be marginalized because you've coalesced around one particular aspect, in this case race. But fortunately that race is multi-cultural in its expression and so it has some strength that way. These artists, in almost every case, show professionally all over the world. But to give them the opportunity to come together as a group provides a model for a lot of Hispanics who maybe struggled to find their place in modern America as well as the contemporary art scene.
"So you have here the cultural expression of the soul of a people through their art. And that's something you can't do in a mixed exhibit. It's something that occasionally needs to be highlighted to show the strength of a particular group of people."
"Soy un Testigo" is an exhibit everyone ought to experience. McEntire says: "There is an expression, a certain characteristic that is there that comes through. It's really a strong expression, but at the same time it's able to communicate broadly and not just to the Latino audience."
There have been, and will continue to be, exhibits surpassing the scope and visual confidence of "Soy un Testigo." However, few will have the effect of a downstairs shop on Olivera Street.