Seeing Stars

A Constellation of Latin American Drawing Shines at UT

Proyecto Huevo
by Louis Benedit, 1976-77

According to Mari Carmen Ramirez, the curator of Latin American Art for UT's Huntington Art Gallery, the exhibition "Re-Aligning Vision: Alternative Currents in South American Drawing" was conceived as a "constellation" rather than a general survey exhibition. By this she means it is an "an arbitrary configuration of seemingly eclectic, often competing, visions and attitudes" toward Latin American drawing during the Sixties and Seventies. The exhibition is meant to show the vitality and innovation which characterized South American drawing during this "Boom" (a period of prolific production of drawings) and is its legacy now. What a nice word, constellation. The dictionary defines a constellation as a group of stars forming a pattern, or any brilliant or outstanding group or assemblage. By either definition, the exhibition lives up to its curators' vision. Dr. Ramirez and co-curator Edith Gibson Wolfe, a doctoral candidate in art history at UT, filled it with 137 drawings and four installations, which allow the viewer to reconsider the very definition of drawing as well as to re-think our cultural expectations with regard to Latin American art. In addition, Dr. Ramirez and Ms. Wolfe have produced the most spectacular installation in recent memory at UT's soon-to-be obsolete gallery. (Not that anyone will shed a tear when it's time for the exhibitions and staff to leave 23rd and San Jacinto after the university's new museum is finally built.) For this exhibition which is very much about line and pattern, the architecture of the space collaborates with the art. Wood banisters, lighting grids, walls painted various shades of gray, even the circular floor outlets, thrum to the rhythm of the drawings themselves. Also, the odd peek-a-boo openings that encourage visitors to peer down from the second floor offer multiple ways to see individual drawings. Looking down from the second floor on Narcisos by Oscar Munoz proved to be exactly the right distance and angle required to observe the faces he portrays with carbon powder on water and paper. Regina Silveira's Graphos 4, a geometric black-and-white drawing on the wall and floor assumes different forms depending on whether the viewer is standing downstairs or up. At the Museo del Barrio in New York City, where I saw the exhibition last summer, there were few opportunities to stand back and none to stand above the works to gain this additional perspective. (This past fall, the work was exhibited at the Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock, and it will travel to the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas, Venezuela, in June and to the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Monterrey, Mexico, in September.)

But let's talk some more about constellations, about which I know very little except that I love to see stars twinkling above me on a dark night. Even though I don't know Cancer from Orion, Ursa Major from Ursa Minor, I respond viscerally to the night sky. Maybe you don't know or care whether drawing is an autographic or diagrammatic activity, "whether characterized as `a process of revelation' or as `unmediated thought.'" Maybe you don't know much about Latin America in the Sixties and Seventies, and how the political situation in the Southern Hemisphere may have contributed to the artists' choice of medium as well as their message. No matter. It is still easy to find your way through this exhibition. If you care to read about a specific artist and his or her intent, there is plenty of information on the gallery walls. This is, after all, a university-based exhibition which aims to educate as well as to break new scholarly ground. If you're ready for full immersion into the "Boom" years of Latin American drawing, the impressive catalogue, which accompanies the exhibition, combines essays by Ramirez, Wolfe (listed as Edith A. Gibson), Paulo Herkenhoff, Beverly Adams, and others. Director Jessie Otto Hite's preface includes the usual assortment of thank-yous including one to scholar/collector and UT benefactor Barbara Duncan, whose 1976 exhibition "Lines of Vision," organized for UT, began the inquiry into contemporary drawing in Latin America. Hite also cites Dr. Ramirez's lengthy list of credentials as an internationally recognized curator, recommended reading for those who don't fully appreciate the Huntington's strength in the area of Latin American art.

La correción by Liliana Porter

But first I recommend a stroll through the galleries with an eye only for the art. Begin with one of my favorite works. In Oscar Munoz's Cortinas de bano (Shower Curtains), plastic curtains are painted with life-size figures, which appear to be posing in dimly lit shower stalls. There are 11 curtains, 11 figures. One bends over to pick up a red towel, or perhaps he/she is bleeding; another turns his back to us. Each one is different. The images are lit from behind in such a way that the viewer can imagine him or herself as voyeur. Or perhaps it is the troubling sense of vulnerability (remember the movie Psycho?) that fixed these particular images in my brain.

I was equally intrigued by a particular ink-on-paper drawing by Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt). "Parallel lines break, bend and unravel, impervious to Euclidean geometry," reads the catalogue. The description is as good as any for a drawing which, given the subject (or absence of subject), should appear stiff and formal. And yet it undulates, breaking into soft gray triangles. Another work by Gego is a construction suspended near a wall so that the piece actually becomes two drawings, one made of wire and another created by the shadows cast on the wall. A drawing and its echo.

Some of the works in the exhibition are calligraphic in nature. Anna Maria Maiolino's Drop Lines features what appears to be a secret alphabet that begs to be decoded. (Her handmade books are wonderful as well, all the more extraordinary because visitors can touch!) Leon Ferrari, whose drawings resemble pages of tangled thread, says of his work, "I draw silent handwritten words, which tell things, with lines that recall voices. And I write drawings that recite memories that words cannot say." Juan Calzadilla employs nervous drawings of tiny naked figures, which he arranges as if they were words, lettered across (or up and down) the page. He says, "I think of drawing as if it were visual writing, composed of legible images in which, plastically speaking, sign and sense are the same." I was struck by the universality of this visual, squiggly "language." Midway through the first floor galleries, I realized how clearly the work spoke to me, although conversation with the artists themselves might be impossible, because I understand very little Spanish. This grouping of art functions as international language. I tested the theory with a friend who said she had anticipated a certain "Latin approach" - bright colors, imagery that was overtly political and most probably gruesome - which would separate her emotionally from the work. Instead, she said on her second visit to the galleries, she had been intrigued by the way she felt included rather than excluded.

The Difference Between by Cildo Meireles, 1976

But in fact, while the signature bright colors sometimes associated with Latin culture are limited, there are certainly plenty of tough images to be found. Antonio Dias offers cartoon-style drawings "replete with images of weapons, sexual organs, diseased and mutilated body parts, and instruments of torture." His comic-book style lures the viewer close to "read" the details in each panel. But the message portrayed is so ugly, the viewer quickly pulls away in search of a kinder, gentler image. These are not always easy to find amongst the figurative rather than abstract drawings. Ink and gouache drawings by Argentina's Otra Figuracion members Romulo Maccio, Luis Felipe Noe, Jore de la Vega, Ernesto Deira, and others leave "beauty" behind in the interest of calling attention to social issues.

To help the visitor sort through this universe of drawings by 46 established artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, Dr. Ramirez and Ms. Wolfe have assigned words to mark certain groupings. These words are "based on qualities that are either intrinsic to the drawing medium or inextricably tied to what the represented artists conceived as its new function." If you are confused, relax. So was I. At first, I accepted these guide words - Ramirez refers to them in her essay as "luminous points" - simply as graphic signifiers that a transition in imagery was about to take place as I moved through the galleries. To tell the truth, this was more distracting than helpful. But soon I came to understand that, like the word "constellation," these additional clues were mine to attend as I saw fit. "Mediation," for instance, is (again, according to Ramirez) meant to indicate drawings in which "the stroke of the artist is subordinated to the visual effects of mass media and technology." Antonio Dias' comic book-style panels about torture fall into this section. But I automatically assumed another definition for mediation, one that had to do with bringing about reconciliation or compromise between two parties. I grimaced at the absurd, lopsided "mediation" taking place between torturer and victim. It is the curators' intent, by using these guide words, to encourage yet another level of investigation of this hugely intriguing exhibit. Whether you opt for a more scholarly or gut-level approach to the work, don't pass up the opportunity to see an exhibition heralded by The New York Times last May as one that affirms art's potential to "affect the ways lives are lived and the world is shaped."

"Re-Aligning Vision: Alternative Currents in South American Drawing" is on view through March 8 at the Huntington Art Gallery, 23rd & San Jacinto, on the UT campus. Call 471-7324.

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