One begins to wonder if it’s even possible to organize a major art exhibition devoted to an ethnic or minority group. So many try, and so many fail, and so too the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which opened a rather dutiful show called “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” on Friday.
It isn’t a bad show, but surely work made by artists who belong to the more than 50 million people who identify as Hispanic or Latino in the United States is more vibrant, provocative and interesting than what is on display here. Surely there’s a more compelling way to present it, and more interesting things to say about it.
Mostly one feels the strictures placed on the curators, the rules they are following in a leaden, academically proper way. Of course if it’s a show about Latino art it must be inclusive and relatively comprehensive, and no major movements or artists must be left out. Of course if it’s about a population group that has suffered prejudice, it must cut a fine line between accurately presenting the impact of bigotry and reducing Latinos to victims. Of course there isn’t really any universally agreed upon sense of what Latino means, and who belongs to the group, so the label must never be applied in a limiting way. And it mustn’t make any claims that might alienate artists or art lovers, about what Latino art should or shouldn’t be. Add to that a problem particularly acute at the Smithsonian: That the show offend no one, give no heartache to the notoriously timid overseers in the Castle, and prompt no visitor to write so much as a single angry e-mail.
Sample the prose from essays that will eventually be published as a catalog for the show when it travels to other venues: “The tone and character of much current expression revolves around personal responses to global realities,” writes one author. “These rich examples encourage us to see Latino art not as a bounded category but as a fluid one, open to many dialogues and trajectories,” writes another.
This isn’t just the usual academic blah-blah, but a telling symptom of an insoluble problem: Latino art, today, is a meaningless category. Historically, there are movements and periods when the category is interesting, for example the politicized Chicano and Nuyircan art movements of the 1960s and ’70s, whose artists provide some of the best material on display. There are also subdivisions of “Latino” art that might make sense as a focus for a more targeted exhibition (Cuban art dealing with themes of exile). There are also myriad stylistic and formal categories that might narrow the subject enough to see useful detail: abstraction of 1960s, conceptual art, video, poster and mural work.
But throw it all together and try to argue that it’s a virtue rather than a failure of curating to stress the fluidity of definition, the unbounded categories, the many trajectories, and you get a big mess.
That shouldn’t detract from the work, which is often well-made and fascinating. Raphael Montanez Ortiz’s brilliant 1957-58 vivisection of an old cowboy and Indian film, chopped up with a tomahawk and reassembled in frenetic bits and pieces, some of them upside down, is still hypnotically powerful, and encompasses so many basic conceptual moves that similar work by other artists since feels derivative. The Puerto Rican artist ADAL embeds a video monitor in an old suitcase, and mashes up scenes from the film West Wide Story with other kinds of music and voices from a police scanner: The results are strikingly powerful, as the fake sentimentalized emotion of the film’s caricatures takes on a more desperate, authentic sense of trauma.