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Would you lie on the couch for this woman? Meyer Vaisman depicts her therapist in "Barbara Fischer/Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy"
Meyer Vaisman

In "Serpents and Ladders," a sculpture by the brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre, two spooky-looking infants crawl up the side of a crucifix, above a pile of dirty tequila bottles. A glass serpent, representing the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, hangs bloodily from the cross, while a bird roosts atop it. The de la Torres work on both the Mexican and American sides of the border, and their sculpture is a witches' brew of cultural influences: Mexican folklore, Catholic iconography turned kitschy, and American Pop. And, like much of the work in "Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art," at the Walker through January 5, their art is animated by a puckishly overripe sensuality. Witness one of their nearby pieces, a collection of blown-glass male and female genitalia, made to resemble Catholic relics.

"Ultrabaroque," a survey of Latin America's avant-garde, was organized at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, in part by Elizabeth Armstrong, a former Walker curator. Armstrong would have been hard pressed to come up with a less inviting title for the exhibit--"Ultrabaroque" sounds like someone's wayward master's thesis. (And just where is that groovy "Post-Latin America"? South of Pre-Texas?) But "Ultrabaroque" does have serious academic ambitions: It seeks to trace a metaphorical lineage between contemporary Latin American style and the flamboyant aesthetic of 17th- and 18th-century baroque art.

"Curatorially speaking," Armstrong writes in her dense, bilingual catalog essay, "we suggest that the baroque is a model by which to understand and analyze the processes of transculturation and hybridity that globalization has highlighted and set into motion." Translated into English: Just like the baroque, modern Latin American art reflects a wild blend of cultural influences.

But why "ultrabaroque"? Isn't most everything these days a wild blend of cultural influences? Indeed, on the evidence of a piece like "Serpents and Ladders," you might wonder what makes this work different from, say, that of a Young British Artist like Chris Ofili. As with a lot of contemporary art, the work in "Ultrabaroque" is so self-reflexive that it resists cultural pigeonholing and rigid art-history taxonomy. You might even conclude that "ultrabaroque" has about as much to do with the historical baroque as do cats with catsup.

That isn't to say that the artists represented in "Ultrabaroque" are indifferent to history. The young Mexican artist/punk musician Miguel Calderón, for instance, quotes baroque iconography verbatim in his photography series "Employee of the Month." Here, guards and maintenance workers from Mexico City's National Museum of Art are posed on the building's roof in tableaux drawn from the museum's collection. In one of the scenes, a man and woman re-create Bellini's "Passion of Saint Teresa." Another, in which a contemplative young janitor sits cradling a bottle of Mr. Clean, seemingly references the portraiture of Velázquez. As a whole, the series is a good-natured pantsing of 18th-century art's overblown passions, as well as a goof on the museum's position as a temple of elite culture.

Calderón, like most of the other "Ultrabaroque" artists, seems to recognize that the conventions of the historical baroque can be approached in only ironic or mocking terms. Which is just as well, since the baroque has always had a serious image problem. Closely identified with the Counter-Reformation, baroque has long been regarded as anti-modern, the artistic language of imperial decadence, colonial languor, and Catholicism in its bloodier, medieval practice. Such is baroque's retrograde cachet that the term itself is often used synonymously with "florid." As the exhibit argues, baroque's fall from taste was a function of European ethnocentrism: Because baroque style was identified with the Catholic Church and with the New World, fussy northern Europeans were bound to denigrate it. It follows that, in adopting the baroque as an attitude, these modern artists are also reasserting the value of Latin America's art tradition.

That point is made most explicitly in the sculptural paintings of Brazilian artist Adriana Varejáo. In one of her pieces, "Carpet-Style Tilework in Live Flesh," a canvas of blue patterned tile--symbolic of colonial-era porcelain--has been ripped away to reveal a wormy mass of purple viscera beneath. Likewise, in another of Varejáo's pieces, the fleshlike surface of a baroque-style painting has been torn off and laid out on a surgical operating table adjacent to the disfigured canvas. Here, European colonial tradition is represented as a false skin that masks Brazil's bloody history, and thus must be cut away.


For all the cultural specificity of work like Varejáo's, it's interesting to note how many of the artists in "Ultrabaroque" seem to share the au courant preoccupations of the larger art world. There's the Jeff Koons-like recontextualization of pop iconography (the de la Torres brothers and Ruben Ortiz Torres); the clinical exploration of bodily imagery (Varejáo); and the obsession with commercialism (Rochelle Costi's interiors and Franco Mondini Ruiz's display of religious knickknacks). Indeed, these artists seem so much in the mainstream of the international avant-garde (less of an oxymoron that it sounds) that this show's rush to place them within a historical Latin American tradition may actually risk relegating them to a parochial niche.

Take, for instance, "Garden of Delights," in which Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle takes DNA gel analyses and blows them up as huge prints. Manglano-Ovalle is pretty taken with this microbiology stuff: A few years back, he collected sperm from donors, separated the spunk by sex, and presented it in two liquid-nitrogen-cooled tanks. "Garden of Delights" is likewise much in the vein of a lot of genetics-themed contemporary art. We're asked, here, to contemplate the (sort of) profound notion that these bright blobs are the sum total of our individuality.

Venezuela's José Antonio Hernández-Diez also explores one of the art world's current obsessions in his tricked-out skateboards and sneakers. His subject is the omnipresence of global youth culture (read: global American culture). Hernandez-Diez's pieces are like Duchampian ready-mades gilded with ornamentation: The skateboards are painted with images of masked, Molotov-cocktail-throwing revolutionaries; and the sneakers are aligned so as to spell out "MARX" and "KANT." The pieces seem to point to the ease with which global consumerist culture has assimilated and disarmed socialist impulses. But Hernandez-Diez certainly isn't a polemicist. His work, steeped in street culture, speaks to the giddy, anxious cultural blender that Latin America has become.

Despite the academic gloss of "Ultrabaroque," a lot of the art here evinces a similarly bubbly playfulness. Consider Meyer Vaisman's pair of stuffed turkeys dressed in iridescent feathers, bananas, and neckties. Meaningless in the best sense, Vaisman's pieces make no more strenuous demand on the viewer than "Look at me." Vaisman, a Venezuelan of European heritage who lives in New York, is a perfect example of the postmodern genre-hopping that "Ultrabaroque" touts. Indeed, the most arresting piece in the exhibit is Vaisman's "Barbara Fischer," a lifelike, bright-blue sculpture of a fat woman dressed in a tulle veil and a policeman's Sam Browne belt. Though posed as a Pietà-style Virgin Mary, the figure is actually Vaisman's psychoanalyst. (Wouldn't you love to have been a fly on the wall during those sessions?) Ironically sincere and sincerely ironic, Vaisman's piece takes in those creakily passé art-world obsessions with gender and sexual identity and reflects them back as a grotesquely compelling burlesque.

What this--or, really, anything in the exhibit's postmodern mix-and-match--has to do with the musty old baroque might remain an open question. Walking through "Ultrabaroque," you may even get the sneaking suspicion that the curatorial conceit was just an excuse to get a bunch of dizzyingly talented artists together and see how they play off one another. And why not? As excuses for pleasure go, edification is as good as any.

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