Cultural Diplomacy comes to Greensboro

by Amy Kingsley

The latestexhibition at the Weatherspoon – TRANSActions: Contemporary Latino andLatin American Art – is about as cohesive as any collection spanningtwo hemispheres, three continents and 10 countries can be. Which is to say – not at all. Thefour-dozen artists represented in the exhibit, which was organized bythe Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, tackle subjects ranging fromindividual and national identity in photographs, paintings, sculpture,video and digital prints spread out over the museum’s main second floorgallery. Observers hoping to unearth a single political agenda will bedisappointed to find work that explores Latin America’s colonial pastalongside pieces of personal anthropology and a handful that undertakethe dynamics of immigration. TRANSActions is the largestcollection of contemporary Latin American ever to visit North Carolina.And it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. During the past twoyears, the political conversation about undocumented immigrants hasground to a stalemate. Enter Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, aSpanish-born American with an interest in the intersection of scienceand art. His “Paternity Test” enlarges to human-size the ribonucleicbuilding blocks of human identity. Blobs of bright color collect acrossthe panels, which are stacked together like a modernist mosaic. Thenthere’s Adriana Varejao, who takes as her subject the complex historyof her Brazilian homeland. The wall-mounted sculpture of traditionalPortuguese tile work has broken open, revealing an ugly mass of visceraunderneath. Three artists in the show make work that directlyconfronts the immigration controversy, including Perry Vasquez, anAmerican installation artist who appropriates R. Crumb’s iconicunderground comic “Keep on Truckin’.” In “Keep on Crossin’,” theoriginal character has been darkened and dressed in traditional garb.He extends a single sandal-clad foot across the US-Mexico border whilea sun straight out of native mythology beams on. Marcos Ramirez,also known as ERRE, erected a 33-foot high outdoor sculpture on theborder of San Diego and Tijuana for inSITE97. A smaller version – “Toyan Horse” – sits on a pedestal at the Weatherspoon. The two-headedhorse made out of wood and metal hardware represents theinterdependence of the two communities that share one of the world’sbusiest border crossings. Another investigation of shared spaceby Gustavo Artigas pits four teams from two countries and two differentsports against each other in a contest of cooperation. Two youth soccerteams from Tijuana play each other on the same court during anexhibition game between two San Diego basketball teams. The resultingvideo, “The Rules of the Game,” shows the players struggling andsucceeding to navigate the others’ competitive terrain. PostmodernistRuben Ortiz Torres, an American out of Los Angeles, uses baseball capsas his canvas by turning original logos into something freighted withcultural and political meaning. Such as his reinterpretation of a hatfor the city’s hockey team – the Kings – which he transformed into theLA Rodney Kings. The show even includes some examples of realistpainters like Hugo Crosthwaite’s “Linea – Escaparates de Tijuana,” amulti-panel, grayscale cityscape stretched across a single wall in theinterior of the gallery. The boxy shanties he depicts exist in bordercities everywhere, including Juarez, Mexico, the city across from ElPaso. Casual art fans whose knowledge of Latin American artbegins and ends with Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera might be surprisedto see these artists engaging in the contemporary conversation. Butthey do, in ways that are vivid and sometimes shocking. Daniel Martinezdoes Prometheus in an oversized photograph composed with the aid ofdigital technology and Hollywood special effects. The artist, croppedat the nose, reaches one hand into a gory opening in his abdomen. Onopening night, several viewers paused in front of the piece, asarrested as they would be at the scene of a violent crash. PerhapsMartinez, by reaching into his gullet, is identifying a fundamentalhuman fascination shared across cultures. Maybe it won’t be our betterangels leading us to cross-cultural understanding, but instead therealization that underneath our different shades of skin, we’re alljust handfuls of liver and spleen.