New York


The Museum of Modern Art’s 1994 exhibition “Latin American Artists of the 20th Century” divided a wide range of work according to country of origin, at the same time that it rendered much of it subservient to European and North American models. Ivo Mesquita’s recent “Cartographies,” a much smaller show, rejected the colonizing stance of its predecessor, choosing not to emphasize geopolitical divisions, but rather something more elusive: an exploration of “territories under the rule of desire, sensibility, and knowledge.” Mesquita’s curatorial scheme, in which cartography becomes a metaphor for the curatorial process and desire is the common denominator, was at times too vague and elliptical to be useful in a show that presented 14 artists from seven countries. Though desire is as essential to Guillermo Kuitca’s work as it is to Alfred Wenemoser’s Caracus, 1993—an absurd two-part structure that evoked a post-natural world where the libidinal is figured by detritus—the more politically engaged works of José Bedia, Gonzalo Diaz, and Juan Dávila suffered somewhat from the elision of context inherent in Mesquita’s approach.

Perhaps because it is capable of disturbing our sense of Modernism’s trajectory, abstract art from “Latin” America is often subject to misreading. In this show, the pieces by Carlos Fajardo and Iole de Freitas, both of which draw sustenance from Brazil’s profoundly influential neo-Concrete movement, suggested an alternate genealogy for abstraction, in their use of abstract forms to suggest a sensual engagement with the work of art. Fajardo’s pieces are deceptively elegant in form and coloration—here they included a blue-green sphere made of glycerine, a mound of pink tulle resting on a stone slab, and a number of clay rods stretched along a slim shelf. De Freitas’ intensely subjective structures wrest fleshlike qualities from sheet-metal, mesh, and wire through rhythmically contorted surfaces and subtle shifts in color and texture.

Sensuality coupled with a Minimalist approach to form infuse Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s sculptures, but in her work these elements are married to iconic imagery. The drying guava candy in Bandera, 1992, arranged in the form of a flag, evokes fragments of flesh. American Marble, 1992, consists of truncated cattle bones standing on the floor like raised fists. In Mario Cravo Neto’s obliquely ritualistic black and white photographs, static compositions are counterbalanced by emotional weight, and by the rich, dark tones of skin, props, and background. More explicitly concerned with ritual, Marta María Pérez Bravo’s photographs deal in part with an identity inflected by syncretic myths surrounding motherhood and femininity.

In other works, the body as emblem was eclipsed by bodily desire. With their lush, bruised imagery, suffused with longing, Julio Galán’s paintings were more familiar than the late José Leonilson’s odd, tender pieces made from cloth embroidered with text and Nahum B. Zenil’s obsessively rendered, ochre-washed drawings. In Zenil’s work almost every figure bears the artist’s frozen features and his sexually charged scenes become windows on self-knowledge and on death.

“Cartographies” might have benefited from a sharper focus—at times it seems to promote the view that Latin American art can best be understood as mapping a mysterious, exotic territory—though Mesquita’s strenuous efforts to steer clear of overburdening the works he selected with a particular agenda at least avoided misguided attempts to “educate” viewers. Even when flawed, shows like this one remind us that there exist parallel traditions at the very least equal in integrity to those that we have come to regard as all encompassing.

K. Marriott Jones