Cultural diplomacy comes to Greensboro

by Amy Kingsley

The latest exhibition at the Weatherspoon – TRANSActions: Contemporary Latino and Latin American Art – is about as cohesive as any collection spanning two hemispheres, three continents and 10 countries can be.

Which is to say – not at all.

The four-dozen artists represented in the exhibit, which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, tackle subjects ranging from individual and national identity in photographs, paintings, sculpture, video and digital prints spread out over the museum’s main second floor gallery. Observers hoping to unearth a single political agenda will be disappointed to find work that explores Latin America’s colonial past alongside pieces of personal anthropology and a handful that undertake the dynamics of immigration.

TRANSActions is the largest collection of contemporary Latin American ever to visit North Carolina. And it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. During the past two years, the political conversation about undocumented immigrants has ground to a stalemate.

Enter Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, a Spanish-born American with an interest in the intersection of science and art. His “Paternity Test” enlarges to human-size the ribonucleic building blocks of human identity. Blobs of bright color collect across the panels, which are stacked together like a modernist mosaic.

Then there’s Adriana Varejao, who takes as her subject the complex history of her Brazilian homeland. The wall-mounted sculpture of traditional Portuguese tile work has broken open, revealing an ugly mass of viscera underneath.

Three artists in the show make work that directly confronts the immigration controversy, including Perry Vasquez, an American installation artist who appropriates R. Crumb’s iconic underground comic “Keep on Truckin’.” In “Keep on Crossin’,” the original character has been darkened and dressed in traditional garb. He extends a single sandal-clad foot across the US-Mexico border while a sun straight out of native mythology beams on.

Marcos Ramirez, also known as ERRE, erected a 33-foot high outdoor sculpture on the border of San Diego and Tijuana for inSITE97. A smaller version – “Toy an Horse” – sits on a pedestal at the Weatherspoon. The two-headed horse made out of wood and metal hardware represents the interdependence of the two communities that share one of the world’s busiest border crossings.

Another investigation of shared space by Gustavo Artigas pits four teams from two countries and two different sports against each other in a contest of cooperation. Two youth soccer teams from Tijuana play each other on the same court during an exhibition game between two San Diego basketball teams. The resulting video, “The Rules of the Game,” shows the players struggling and succeeding to navigate the others’ competitive terrain.

Postmodernist Ruben Ortiz Torres, an American out of Los Angeles, uses baseball caps as his canvas by turning original logos into something freighted with cultural and political meaning. Such as his reinterpretation of a hat for the city’s hockey team – the Kings – which he transformed into the LA Rodney Kings.

The show even includes some examples of realist painters like Hugo Crosthwaite’s “Linea – Escaparates de Tijuana,” a multi-panel, grayscale cityscape stretched across a single wall in the interior of the gallery. The boxy shanties he depicts exist in border cities everywhere, including Juarez, Mexico, the city across from El Paso.

Casual art fans whose knowledge of Latin American art begins and ends with Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera might be surprised to see these artists engaging in the contemporary conversation. But they do, in ways that are vivid and sometimes shocking. Daniel Martinez does Prometheus in an oversized photograph composed with the aid of digital technology and Hollywood special effects. The artist, cropped at the nose, reaches one hand into a gory opening in his abdomen.

On opening night, several viewers paused in front of the piece, as arrested as they would be at the scene of a violent crash. Perhaps Martinez, by reaching into his gullet, is identifying a fundamental human fascination shared across cultures. Maybe it won’t be our better angels leading us to cross-cultural understanding, but instead the realization that underneath our different shades of skin, we’re all just handfuls of liver and spleen.

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