"Young Latino Artists 20: Within Reach"

Despite the exhibition's distractions, Mexic-Arte continues to debut exciting work from young Latino artists

Mary Kay Cadillac by Ashley Thomas

The annual Young Latino Artists (YLA) exhibition at Mexic-Arte, now in its 20th year, is commendable for simultaneously offering emerging artists and curators a chance to show work in an elevated museum setting and for exposing the broader Austin population to undercurrents of artistic thought within the rising generation of Latino artists. For "YLA 20: Within Reach," guest curator and visual artist Ricky Yanas returns from Philadelphia to the town of his alma mater to organize an exhibition of works by artists under 35 that is broad and eclectic – perhaps too much so. The show embellishes its decades-long reputation of presenting rising stars within the community, though many of those who shine brightest do so in spite of the exhibition environment rather than because of it.

Building on concepts of cross-pollination and the term mestizaje (defined by Gloria E. Anzaldúa as cultural mixing and combined consciousness of "all different cultures of Latin America, people of color, and also Europeans"), the exhibit is staged as a garden. Potted plants are strewn throughout the space, and visitors are encouraged to bring and add their own plants to the garden during the show's run. But while the plants are signs of some creative curating, as it stands they are too few in number for them to fall into the background; instead, they read as weak, unlabeled pieces of art. Besides distracting from the actual art, these live plants link "YLA 20," which is pretty heavy on sociopolitical concepts, to a "separate" exhibition in the museum's back gallery, "The Herradura Tequila Barrel Art Collection," which is dominated by large jocular representations of agave plants. The link muddles both shows, but the combination of the plants, the cartoonlike squeaky floorboards of Mexic-Arte, and a very unfocused aesthetic throughout "YLA 20" make it hard to give the show's individual works of art the time and thought they deserve. Despite these disruptive elements, however – which seem more a product of visual artist Yanas than curator Yanas – the selection of artists remains strong.

The draftsmanship and sharp intellect of Ashley Thomas is clearly demonstrated in the exhibition favorite Mary Kay Cadillac, a 6-by-15-foot drawing demonstrating remarkable skill and reproducing that pearly Mary Kay pink that the artist's mother strived for. In a way it's a simple drawing, but it serves as a touchstone to complex concepts of masculine and feminine symbols, materialism, and cultural symbols of success. Jaime Alvarez's Memento series contains dark photos of pitch-black figurines and other toys on a black background, the conceptually strongest of which – an eagle fading into the blackness that surrounds it – is tucked away in a cramped corner. Hope Mora's works, a video and takeaway non-replenishable newsprint booklets presenting bleak images of hard labor and Latino struggle, are deeply thoughtful in their formats; the television screen and the newsprint are both consumable and temporary.

These and a few other works win out over the competing distractions of the space. Other pieces – some more subtle, some more complex, some just weaker – get lost in the static. Despite all that, YLA remains a vitally important program in a field dominated by, you guessed it, older white men. This year's show, like those before it, serves as a great resource to the general public and Austin-based curators alike; I'd be surprised not to see many of these artists in the 2016/17 programming of other galleries in the region. In that way, YLA remains an exhibition of what comes next.

"Young Latino Artists 20: Within Reach"

Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress
Through Aug. 23

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Mexic-Arte Museum, Young Latino Artists, Ricky Yanas, Ashley Thomas, Jaime Alvarez, Hope Mora

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