`Hispanic' Art Goes Mainstream. Recent work from a new breed of artist defies the ethnic label

`IF you mention to someone in South America that you are featured in a Hispanic art exhibit, they don't know what you are talking about,'' says Luis Stand, a Colombia-born painter now living in New York City. One of 30 painters and sculptors showcased in ``Hispanic Art in the United States,'' he sees the title as a temporary, albeit necessary, evil. ``We want to be considered artists first, not ethnics,'' he says.

``I think of myself as an American artist,'' adds a featured painter known simply as Gronk, who grew up in Los Angeles with his Mexican parents. ```Hispanic' is a manufactured term that will fall by the wayside five years from now.''

The process seems well on its way, with the success of this show, being hailed by artists, curators, and critics as the first major trans-continental exhibition of work by contemporary ``Hispanic'' artists living in the United States. On view here at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through April 16, the show will then move to the Brooklyn Academy of Art.

``This has become the most talked-about show of the decade,'' says curator Howard Fox. ``Everyone is aware of it, not only because of the surprisingly high standard of ability it has brought out of the woodwork, but also because it questions our notions of what it means to be `Hispanic,' `American,' and `mainstream.'''

Works by artists with Cuban, Mexican, Colombian, Puerto Rican, and Chilean heritages were discovered during a year-long scouring of the country by John Beardsley and Jane Livingston, curators at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and Atlantic Richfield Co., they discovered at least 600 worthy candidates before winnowing the list to 30, for a show that originated at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, before coming here.

``By and large, there have been Hispanic arts organizations that have championed these artists over the years,'' says Mr. Beardsley. Some names are familiar - Manuel Nery, Luis Jimenez, and Robert Graham, to name a few. (Mr. Graham's athlete-torso sculptures graced the entrance to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.) ``But mainstream audiences and large institutions haven't paid any attention as yet.''

Works in this show - vibrantly rendered landscapes, animals, freeways, nudes, saints, dogs, and cars - represent more than mere aesthetics. Political subjugation, cross-cultural tension, survival, and religion are constant themes - dealt with in almost uniformly rich color. Refined in draftsmanship, the works are often raw in concept.

``If there is one common characteristic, it is the dramatic way they use color,'' says Judith Hoffberg, a critic for High Performance magazine. ``Outwardly these works are bright and shining, a sort of vivacious sunshine, but ... there are great undercurrents.''

One of those undercurrents, according to Beardsley, is ``the people of another culture trying to define themselves in relation to the dominant culture, perhaps even in opposition to it.'' Viewer and artist alike must eventually realize, he says, that American culture is the sum of others. And that Hispanic culture is a ``very important part of that sum.''

Though there is much here to suggest the influences of other, entirely separate cultures - Aztec and Inca iconography, pre-Columbian symbolism, Spanish conquistadors - many artists here say they don't consciously conjure cultural images. Rather, ideas grow from ``who they are.''

``I'm a cross between Daffy Duck, Billy Wilder, Mexican `B' movies, and Hollywood epics,'' says Gronk, whose whimsical depictions of grinning/ frowning socialites grace one canvas. A high-school dropout from East Los Angeles, Gronk began drawing as an ``escape ... from poverty, from my environment. It was a way of creating new worlds for myself.''

Lauding his fellow artists' ``lack of inhibition and raw, unfinished quality that bypassed intellectualism to get to the emotions,'' Gronk also gives creative credits to the photo-novellas popular in Mexico.

Beardsley says the art works are ``distinctly American art in a slightly different language. There are hybrids of elements from South America to Mexico and the Caribbean, wed with both Latin American and European Modernism.''

He says the exhibition indicates recognition of something that's been going on in art for centuries but has coalesced more recently in the Chicano movement of the late '60s. ``As a general part of the civil rights movement, artists felt the freedom to begin expressing themselves - and political murals and posters were the incipient stage of a new cultural affirmation and self-awareness. Now they have diversified incredibly in terms of what they make.''

What artist Frank Romero has made in his popular ``The Closing of Whittier Boulevard,'' is a distinctly Chicano view of everyday life in Los Angeles. In his painting, police have cordoned off a street to the low-riding cars used by Chicanos when he was still in high school in 1959, and still driven today down Hollywood Boulevard.

One highlight of the show is, in fact, a 1950 low-rider Chevrolet, explosively painted by Gilbert Lujan. He remembers his multi-ethnic East L.A. neighborhood as largely defined by the cult of the automobile and an obsession with building customized cars. In 1941, his stepfather bought him a late-model Chevy, which he was allowed to drive only up the driveway. ``Fortunately, we had a very long driveway,'' he recalls.

``One thing this show reveals is that there is a danger in trying to categorize any kind of art or ethnicity into neat packages,'' says Beardsley, ``or homogenizing everyone into one notion of Hispanic.'' But, he adds, no one has denied that the show's trans-continental run has jogged the ``serious'' art world's imagination and interest.

Adds Mr. Fox: ``This isn't the last word on Hispanic art, nor is it meant to be. It raises more issues than it answers. And maybe that's what art is for, after all.''

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