Aiming too high

Sophie Rou Davies on “Meetings/Tensions: Latin American Contemporary Art” at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano, Buenos Aires (until 10 February 2014)

Alfredo Jaar, Gold in the Morning I, 1985

The Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires’s wide-ranging exhibition “Meetings/Tensions: Latin American Contemporary Art” is a double-edged sword, delighting the visitor with the sheer breadth of artistic styles on display and confusing her by jamming too much in. The curators say that the exhibition, which is laid out on seven “conceptual axes” which include Postmodernism, Conceptualism and Neo-Dadaism, aims to show continuity and tradition between artists and movements. On the other hand, they also say that it will demonstrate “dislocation, controversy, reaction and change” – and it is into this melting pot that we are thrown, and come out feeling slightly bewildered, although excited.

The exhibition contains as many different materials and techniques as there are artists, from painted rubber to clay-moulded threads to embroidery on cloth. The crossover with craft that is a feature of Latin American Art – if an entire continent’s art can be lumped together – is exemplified here. The show also serves as a potted history of the diaspora of Latin American artists in the last half century, with many of the 60 artists selected now living outside of their countries of birth, most commonly in New York.

Of the artists on show, some are internationally recognised names such as Brazil’s Ernesto Neto, and Argentina’s Guillermo Kuitca. Neto’s playful sculpture Subdivisions of Lightning on Earth is the focus of a room devoted to the transformation of material. Perfectly balanced and surprising in its ingenious use of saffron, cumin and pepper, Neto’s piece easily steals the attention of less inspired works surrounding it and reminds one of Anish Kapoor’s sculptural allusions to Indian spices.

Two of Guillermo Kuitca’s large theatrical canvases of the 1980s, Three Nights and Seven Last Songs, are a brooding presence in a room focused on Postmodernism in painting. Kuitca worked in a theatre at the time they were painted, and these mysterious works would seem to offer a moment of quiet drama, with lonely figures on the point of being engulfed by the darkness of their surroundings.

The tone of the exhibition changes in a flash with Feliciano Centurion’s embroidered work Flowers, a kitsch and light statement by an artist who liked to blur the distinction between art and craft. In another surprise use of material, Artur Lescher’s untitled work, dating from 1993 consisting of iron and copper salt displayed in a metal box, is both inventive and beautiful, and one of the most effective uses of colour in the show. Other works like Tomas Saraceno’s Aluminium Cloud of 10 Modules seem, however, to get lost in the exhibition’s loud noise, as it offers neither shock tactics nor a larger-than-life size, as do many of the exhibits.

Pablo Suarez’s This is the Part in which the Pig Jumped the Wire Fence is at first unremarkable, until you notice that the illusion to a pig in the title contrasts sharply with the simple pencil drawing of a man. Still, there is something lacking with this work, and one feels that perhaps Suarez was added into the show because he is a well know name in the Latin American art world, not because of the work's quality. Suarez’s shock tactics were timid compared to Fernando Brizuela’s Monster. This quirky model of a monster made from marijuana offers an expressive, nightmarish vision and has many resonances in a continent where marijuana has for so long been socially and politically divisive.

Of course no contemporary art exhibition would be complete without some new media installations; here we have both Francis Alÿs’ short film A Story of Deception, and Alfredo Jaar’s light boxes Gold in the Morning. The former is very poignant, with a poetic simplicity and otherworldliness that is quietly seductive. We have a simple image of a straight road in Patagonia, framed by a transcendentally blue sky and bright yellow pampas grass. But the image is blurred, making you want to squint to see the road ahead better. The overall effect is one of muted magnificence, bordering on mysticism, but again the work is slotted into a room beside dissonant works and suffers because of it. In an adjacent room, Jaar’s light boxes also employ light to emotive effect, with faded yellow emanating from the slides allowing Brazil’s mining past a human face.

The layout of the show is at times confusing, as it does not always make sense chronologically, but this is perhaps inevitable in a show as ambitious in scope and scale as this. Overall it could have done with either more space or fewer artists; it felt too cramped at times and some works were swamped by those around them. The show also lost any unifying thread early on, becoming merely a series of rooms with seemingly unrelated themes. As such, the aims of the curators seem to have got muddled. Despite that, as a retrospective of nearly half a century’s art in a huge, complex continent, it is both stimulating and informative. The task that the museum set itself with this show was probably impossible to achieve.

Published Thu, 31 Oct 2013 12:10:00 GMT

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