Art that springs from Latin roots

THERE is strong art being made by men and women of Latin descent who have become American artists. A museum survey of this art, organized by two curators from the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, has been touring the country for the past year. It is entitled ``Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors.'' California artist Gilbert Luj'an grew up in East Los Angeles - a multi-ethnic area where the automobile took on cult status. His passion for customized cars resulted in many drawings and paint jobs. Luj'an also works in clay and sculpture, and has been active in organizing art exhibits and in politics.

New York artist Lidya Buzio grew up in Montevideo, Uruguay. She creates cool and elegant cityscapes that grace the surfaces of her equally elegant earthenware vessels. The sources of her work seem to be everything from ancient Greek art and Italian frescoes to Constructivist abstraction by way of the Uruguayan painter Joaqu'in Torres-Garc'ia.

New Mexico artist Luis Jim'enez is concerned with social archetypes of Southwestern life in both his drawings and sculptures. He fuses the strategy of a Pop artist, who fixes his gaze on cultural symbols, with the interests of an earlier type of social realist like Raphael Soyer or Ben Shahn, intent on documenting the character of a milieu.

C'esar Mart'inez, a Texas native, and John Val'adez, based in Los Angeles, manifest realist concerns in their archetypal portraits. Mart'inez's paintings, such as ``Hombre que le Gustan las Mujeres,'' linger in the mind as powerful, single-subject figurative images set against one-color backgrounds. Val'adez's paintings seduce us with their powerful draftsmanship.

Now that the works of these artists and the 25 others in the show have made it into galleries and nonprofit showcases, and, to a lesser extent, have been featured in museums, the Hispanic exhibition takes the next logical step: placing the work of these artists in mainstream museums.

Yet the exhibition has a peculiar effect. Though it intends to position so-called Hispanic artists in the mainstream of contemporary art, it actually does the opposite. It ``quarantines'' them in the process, putting their paintings and sculptures on museum walls under the guise of an ethnic grouping.

With all the recent commentary on the increasing importance of the expanding Hispanic minority, this was a concept waiting for an exhibition to happen.

We might only wonder why it didn't occur sooner, since the Chicano art movement has been with us since the late 1960s or early '70s, depending upon who is narrating its rise.

True to its title, the exhibition is national in scope. From California and Texas come artists with roots in the Chicano art movement of the '70s: among others, Carlos Alm'araz, Frank Romero, Mart'inez, and Val'adez. From New York and Miami there are painters who fled Cuba: Carlos Alfonso, Luis Cruz Azaceta, and Pedro P'erez.

Others hail from the San Francisco Bay Area (Manuel Neri), Arizona (Ruby Fern'andez), Texas (Patricia Gonz'alez), and New Mexico (F'elix A. L'opez and Luis Jim'enez).

For all the artists, the connecting link is actually linguistic: All come from places where Spanish is spoken. Thus the organizers' underlying assumption is that the language these artists of disparate backgrounds share provides them with a significant cultural bond. (Even if some American Hispanics no longer use Spanish, earlier generations of family members did, and that is an implicit connection to these newer arrivals.)

This shared linguistic heritage as cultural bond is the same assumption, of course, that is made repeatedly in the mass media, whether commentary discusses the untapped political power of Hispanics or the target audience for films such as ``La Bamba'' or ``Stand and Deliver.'' Such commentary assumes there is actually some portion of the population we can deem Hispanic.

This exhibition provides a testing ground for this assumption. Framing the issue, we can ask: Is this shared linguistic (also read ``cultural'') heritage enough of a link to claim that there is such a thing as Hispanic art?

John Beardsley, one of the curators who organized the exhibition, admits in the catalog: ``American Hispanics are less a people than a conglomeration of peoples.'' The wide variety of objects and pictures in the exhibition tends to reinforce this observation. At the same time it also glosses over this observation by assuming a unified Hispanic identity - even if it exists only as a media convenience.

The exhibition demonstrates that men and women of Latin descent who have become artists are doing strong work. Yet because of the readily apparent dissimilarities, we have to wonder whether this exhibition does the 30 artists represented in it a good turn by lumping them together.

Ultimately, the show demonstrates that the notion of Hispanic art, like the idea of a Hispanic minority, is really a chimera of pop sociology. We are, in fact, talking about a conglomeration of peoples that are different in as many ways as they are alike.

Troublesome questions arise: Is the cultural experience of artists with links to the Chicano art movement such as Mart'inez or Val'adez, both of working-class origins, similar to that of a Cuban exile such as Pedro P'erez or of Buzio, both from middle-class families?

It would seem not, if their art is a reliable indicator. Would museums better serve these so-called Hispanic artists by considering their work individually or within the wider spectrum of contemporary art?

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