It seems I’ve gotten into trouble every time I’ve reviewed work lumped together because it’s produced by artists of the same gender, culture, or ethnicity. That many people take pride in being identified as part of a specific group has never bothered me, nor have I challenged the overall validity of artistic expression rooted in common experience. But I have questioned the extent to which art is categorized—and evaluated—according to preconceived notions of what a particular category should represent.
In the case of Frutos Latinos II, or “Latino Fruits,” an exhibition presented on the lower level of Gay Street’s Emporium Building through the end of this month, recognition of 14 Latino artists living in the United States is linked to National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15) and to Knoxville’s HoLa Festival on Sept. 24. It seems appropriate, then, for artwork to be exhibited as such. Additional pieces by the same artists—Rafael Casco (Honduras), Antuco Chicaiza (Ecuador), Valeria Eiler (Chile), Astrid Galindo (Mexico), Jorge Gómez del Campo (Mexico), Stella C. Martin (Colombia), Aida Reyes (El Salvador), Dina Ruta (Argentina), Patricia Tinajero (Ecuador), Loren Velázquez (Puerto Rico), Eugenio and Patty Wade (Argentina), Ruth Chang White (Peru), and Jorge Yances (Colombia)—are part of a smaller show at the Knoxville Museum of Art.
Just as the term “Native American” has some school children believing that this country’s first inhabitants all lived in teepees, the “Latino” assignation is too broad, not to mention problematic. Are “Latinos” a) people of Spanish and Portuguese descent in the Americas, or b) any non-European people of the Americas speaking Spanish or Portuguese as well as a), or c) people of the Americas, including those of Welsh descent, since, in South America, they outnumber the Welsh in Wales? For the most part, I view labeling tremendously diverse groups of people as ignorant, if not offensive; when it comes to art, it’s often simply irrelevant.
As if to make my point, Frutos Latinos II is a hodgepodge of various media, approaches, and content, and the “fruits” theme is largely ignored. Furthermore, fairly amateur art is presented alongside far more accomplished pieces. If someone ambled into the show without seeing any sign naming or describing it, he or she would be slow to realize what, if anything, unifies the artists’ work. Given that most works on view have little to do with Hispanic heritage, that heritage seems of little consequence.
Deserving of its prominent placement in Frutos Latinos II is Gómez del Campo’s only piece in the show, a stunningly disturbing collage/painting made up of countless printed bits from magazines and newspapers. (If you frequent the Public House, you’re familiar with the artist’s large reclining nude centered over the bar.) Despite some notable differences, Gómez del Campo’s suicide-themed self-portrait is oddly reminiscent of German painters Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, in that it possesses a certain explosive quality due to how it’s made as well as to the angst it projects. Words and images are subtly incorporated into the work and include snippets of mass-media photos featuring an array of female lips, limbs, augmented eyelashes, and bikini-clad flesh—tesserae creating the contorted form of a man with intense eyes and a gun in his mouth.
Reyes’ “Angry Clouds” is a small gem of a landscape with grasses, trees, and a luminous slice of water beyond. “Telephone Line” by Velázquez is a tough little oil and spray-paint piece with intriguing layers and an urban feel—an urban thread found running through four oil paintings by Yances, each with thick surfaces, bright color, some sort of electrical wire and/or conduit, and either real or illustrated drips resembling melting wax. I find the meaning of a multitude of faces amongst Yances’ wire unclear, but it’s certainly intriguing. Tinajero’s four digital prints of painted surfaces combined into individual compositions are also interesting, but viewers might wonder why her “Reversus” images I-IV are not simply the photographed material itself.
Other memorable pieces are Casco’s paired acrylic canvases and Chicaiza’s mixed-media works. (The latter artist, who I long ago reviewed as being too “slick,” now delves into more difficult subject matter). Casco’s “Allegory al Amor,” no doubt influenced by Salvador Dalí, shows fruit sprouting tree-of-life growth that is draped in cloth sweeping upward and over a cross. A spike from the cross pierces fabric next to the pear-of-sorts, suggesting fertility and the mortal coil. His “The Book of Law” is similarly surreal, but more of a nod to Giorgio de Chirico. Chicaiza’s bright, graphic “Mi Viego” and “Naño” include what look like journal pages or letters in English, and images of coins and bills. The first piece is about family and contains the phrase “His Hands Made My Life Easier Than His,” whereas “Naño” has a darker theme referencing the military and including silhouettes of pole dancers, dog tags, and a rosary.
As part of a larger cultural celebration, the exhibition Frutos Latinos II makes sense. Yet its breadth reveals the unfortunate limitations of labels in doing justice to a range of sensibilities defying categorization.