ST. PETERSBURG — Quick — name five major Latin-American artists. Let's see . . . Frida Kahlo (duh). Diego Rivera (saw him in the movie about Frida with Penélope Cruz). Fernando Botero (all those funny round people!). Wifredo Lam (Remember him from a show at the Salvador Dali Museum) . . . Roberto Matta (mainly because of his son, the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark).
I'm exaggerating here but my point (and I take that point myself) is that our artistic history has traditionally had us looking east, to Europe. Movements have either been an embrace of or a reaction to what was happening across the big pond.
Our relationship with art to the south of us, in Central and South America and the Caribbean, has typically been half-hearted. We just haven't taken it very seriously, gotten to know it and the names of artists who create it despite several important roundups at some major American museums in the past 40 years, such as the huge 1993 show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and some excellent books, especially Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America by professor Jacqueline Barnitz of the University of Texas at Austin.
We love the craft heritage, the textiles, ceramics, wood and basketry and by extension, in the fine arts, folk art that represents those indigenous elements. That's been my impression and, to a large extent, my personal experience.
"Latin American Art: Glimpses From the 1960s and 1970s" at the Museum of Fine Arts is neither huge nor groundbreaking, but it will help us shift our thinking to a broader plane. It's a serendipitous little show of about 50 paintings, prints and drawings (and one sculpture), culled from two collections given to the museum more than 10 years ago. Bolstering my previous claims is the history of both collections when they landed at the museum. One just showed up, unsolicited; the other was part of a larger group of art given by frequent and generous donors. It all stayed in storage, ignored, until the museum reorganized during construction of its expansion and curators "discovered" this trove of art by Latin American artists. Out it came, to be researched and, now, put on view in the museum's new wing.
It has no marquee names such as those listed earlier. Probably the biggest star is Rufino Tamayo, represented by a lovely pink and green print, and it's on loan from a private collection to round out the show. But the exhibition ranges through many countries and artists who are celebrated in their homelands and gives us the opportunity to broaden our knowledge of Latin-American art.
The first thing you'll notice is that these artists are not part of a monolithic Latin-American aesthetic, just as we would never dream of lumping European artists together. Or even artists from a single country. Still, most art in all these Pan-American countries developed in the 17th and 18th centuries during the colonial period (read: invasion by Europeans) along similar lines, influenced by the visual images their "guests" brought mostly to convert them to Christianity, which they fused with their own symbology. Not until the early 20th century did artists value their own cultural touchstones over imports. From there we begin to see a fusion of many influences, all filtered in the best art through the unique voices of specific people and places.
Some are nods to surrealism such as Victor Chab's fantastical creatures and Antonio Segui's charming Man With Tie, a Latin-American cousin of Magritte. There's a bit of social and political satire, mostly drawings and prints, with José Luis Cuevas' Coney Island standing out for me. Abstract expressionism is a preoccupation of Alfredo Sinclair, but another abstraction by Armando Villegas was a happy merging of modernist techniques with allusions to his Peruvian roots. At first, given the time span of this collection (1960s and 1970s), I was surprised that most artists had little interest in the currents flowing north of them; Rogelio Polesello's paintings are clear homages to op art (and, frankly, not exceptional ones) and in stark contrast with his fellow artists.
In the broadest sense, that style and others of that era, with surface gloss that wants no narrative or emotional content attached, probably had little appeal in their original forms. There are no masterpieces in this show, but there are lots of narratives. You'll know the language.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.