Fabio Kacero, Untitled, n.d., TKS plastic, 48 7/8 x 23 5/8 x 2 3/4". From “Recovering Beauty.”

Fabio Kacero, Untitled, n.d., TKS plastic, 48 7/8 x 23 5/8 x 2 3/4". From “Recovering Beauty.”

“Recovering Beauty: The 1990s in Buenos Aires”

Fabio Kacero, Untitled, n.d., TKS plastic, 48 7/8 x 23 5/8 x 2 3/4". From “Recovering Beauty.”

Frankly, there is little beauty to be found in “Recovering Beauty: The 1990s in Buenos Aires,” a survey of seventy works by thirteen representatives of one of the first post-dictatorship artistic formations in Argentina. Loosely known as the “Grupo Rojas” for their close association with Galería Rojas at the Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas in Buenos Aires, these artists were represented in Austin by a selection of sickly sweet colors, glistening surfaces, grotesque dioramas, and garish found objects. With this in mind, the exhibition’s lamentable title can only be read as a provocation. What could “beauty” look like, after all, in a country recovering from the “dirty war” and two decades of military dictatorship? Whatever curator Ursula Davila-Villa’s intent, the exhibition effectively limns a moment of Argentina’s art and cultural history largely ignored in comparison to the Conceptualism of the 1960s and ’70s or to the overtly political contemporary practices that have evolved during what art historian Andrea Giunta calls the “post-crisis” period. Yet the ’90s were a crucial period of transition during which the art object, and its capacity to signal globalizing markets (however precarious), was prioritized.

Much of the work in “Recovering Beauty” is junk—literally—as Galería Rojas’s founding director, Jorge Gumier Maier (whose own highly decorative works are featured in this show) favored two approaches to the commodity form: the incorporation of garbage as art material and the fetishization of cheap new consumer goods such as those that flooded the country following President Carlos Saúl Menem’s destructive “pegging” of the Argentine peso to the dollar in 1991. The former tendency, as demonstrated by artists Benito Laren, Alfredo Londaibere, and Marcelo Pombo, frequently took the form of collage, recalling the work of ’60s-era Nueva Figuración artists such as Luis Felipe Noé. However, in the hands of these later artists, such symbols of quintessential Latin American modernism were twisted and stretched. Take, for example, Pombo’s Vitreaux de San Francisco Solano (Stained Glass from San Francisco Solano), 1991, in which plastic bags are placed in compartments to form a geometric abstraction, and thereby open an aesthetic mode that had become a well-territorialized academic form.

Also included in this show were works by Fabio Kacero, one of the most commercially successful of his peers, who spearheaded a trend of overidentifying with capitalist exchange through his series of mid-’90s cuadro-muebles (furniture-canvases): plastic- and leather-wrapped foam-rubber pieces, often off-white, that were overlaid with a variety of stickers featuring arcane symbols: hybrids of logos and alchemical runes. Omar Schiliro, a jewelry designer and a close friend of Kacero’s who turned to sculpture after being diagnosed with aids in 1992, echoed this conspicuous embrace of the commodity and above all its sheen: Shiny and Boschian, his assemblages of pink and blue plastic lighting parts evoke mutation and metastasis. A departure from this attempt to address the sick and dying corpus through objects new and slick can be found in a hand-embroidered, velvet-covered wooden stool by Kacero that takes the title Omar Schiliro, 1994—a postmortem tribute to the late artist that marks the toll the disease took on Grupo Rojas’s close-knit community.

The mingling of freshly purchased things and the ill body speaks to a third current often explored by the Rojas artists, one that could perhaps be compared to “abject” art in the United States. In the early years of the gallery, memories of state terror were still fresh in Argentina (Menem, in 1990, having pardoned the key architects of the 1976 junta, including former president General Jorge Rafael Videla), and the corresponding public outrage can be traced in the excessive repetitions of Cristina Schiavi’s revolting stuffed animals, which hint at some unsavory counterpurpose to play, as well as in the peephole boxes of Sebastián Gordín, which open onto vertiginous tableaux of deserted modernist architectures. If the ’90s saw the papering-over of mounting debt and trauma alike, the Rojas group’s aim was to coax art’s very commodity forms toward poisonous self-cognizance.

Daniel Quiles