Monday, November 11, 2013

Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through March 2, 2014

A Washington Post art critic gave this exhibit a pretty ho-hum review recently, positing that Latino art wasn't really a meaningful concept.  His opinion is that the works of art displayed here are too diverse to make a coherent show.  This has been a controversial opinion, with Latino artists objecting to the idea that they are often overlooked from general surveys of American art, and when they get an opportunity to display their work, they get criticized then as well.  I decided to see what all the fuss was about and make up my own mind if there is such a thing as Latino art.

I'll grant you that the works displayed here are certainly diverse.  With so many different artists, how could they not be?  This show also covers a fairly wide time period, with some works from the 1960s and 1970s, and others quite recent.  A lot has gone on in the art world in the last 40+ years; there's no reason to think that Latino artists would be immune from these changes, any more than any other groups of artists.

What I did find was that there was a unifying characteristic to this art that transcended the different types of work on display.  I'm not entirely certain exactly how to describe it, but the best word I could come up with was exuberance.  There's something uninhibited in each of these works, something that's unafraid of being expressed.  To describe it as "in your face" sounds pejorative, and I don't mean it to be.  There's a determination to speak out, without fear and without dissembling.  Is this a uniquely Latino quality?  Is this what marks a work of art as not just American art, but Latino American art?  I'm not qualified to say, but that's my opinion - make of it what you will.

Setting aside the question of whether there is or is not Latino American art, the question becomes is the show any good or not?  I liked many of the pieces I saw, but others I passed over fairly quickly.  This is typical of my reaction to most shows; it's rare that I like or dislike everything that I see.  It's a great way to see artists with whom you might be unfamiliar, and I must say, the work "An Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio" by Amalia Mesa-Bains is worth seeing all on its own.  It's interesting to see a group of people making art that influences the mainstream American community while feeling isolated from that world.

Verdict: Go and see this show to make up your mind for yourself.  As for me, I think there is such a thing as Latino art, and I look forward to seeing more of it in years to come.

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