Latin American art has gotten a lot of mileage out of both profaning the sacred and sanctifying the profane. Those impulses are in full force at the Museum of Latin American Art’s (MOLAA) current “Changing the Focus: Latin American Photography 1990-2005.” Santeria is more present than Catholicism (which is parodied mercilessly), and the show’s sole Madonna is a nude about to gut baby Jesus with a huge knife.
Curator Idurre Alonso has split the show into three sections, titled “The Documentation of Surroundings,” “The Theatricalization of the Real” and “The Construction of an Artificial Reality”; the academic awkwardness of those titles does little justice to either her impeccable curation or the exhibit itself.
If home is where the heart is, there are a lot of broken hearts in Latin America: In Manuel Pina’s On Constructions and Utopias, after decades of the U.S. embargo, Cuba’s revolutionary dreams are now little more than rows of concrete-block housing with solitary windows. Doors and windows have been artfully airbrushed from Venezuelan photographer Alexander Apostol’s photos of abandoned beige and whitewashed shanty homes, built during the country’s oil boom. Rochelle Costi’s tender “Rooms—Sao Paulo” series is an evocative encapsulation of life in a slum, especially when you realize that shacks like these were recently wiped out in a mudslide. In marked contrast, the ghostly solid-white kitchen and bedrooms of Ronald Moran have the air of fairytale illustrations, but closer examination brings out more menacing aspects: knives pointed at the viewer; a belt hanging on a chair, waiting to strike bare flesh (Home Sweet Home).
While Tatiana Parcero’s graceful photos of her naked body covered with Aztec codices or New World cartography suggest her history is her strength, other artists in the show take a decidedly dimmer view. Argentine Gerardo Suter’s black-and-white photos often combine the past with the present (his Aztec imagery in Roots, as example), but he also reminds us of his nation’s history of political brutality with a starkly beautiful image of wrists and feet bound by barbed wire (the series “Codices”). The Mothers of the Disappeared also make an appearance—not in a photograph, but in the painting Melee by Graciela Sacco—on the broken shards of a white picket fence.
Even our own bodies are a dead end in Aziz + Cucher’s “Interior” series, with its winding Winchester House hallways and blank doorways made of flesh, complete with zits, freckles and ingrown hairs, as well as their discomforting “Johnny Got His Gun”-styled photos of men with their eyes, nostrils, mouths and ears sealed with skin.
Violence—and the drug trade that so often fuels it—is a heavy influence on many of the works. Juan Manuel Echavarría’s austere photos of bones and skeletal remains resemble old explorers’ books detailing the local flora and fauna. They’re about as lovely as it gets, until you realize what the title of the series, “Flower Vase Cut,” really means. Originating in the horrific late-’40s-to-late-’50s period of political bloodshed in Colombia known simply as “La Violencia,” it refers to the mutilation of a body when dismembered limbs are shoved into the open neck cavity of a decapitated victim like some horrible, gory vase of flowers. Teresa Margolles gave drug addicts laminated cards of the mutilated bodies of drug victims (some of them children) and took pictures of them using them in her radically in-your-face “Cards to Cut Cocaine, Mexico City.” A man’s face turns to a pool of blood escaping down a drain in Colombian Oscar Munoz’s Biographies I, while a warm puff of air on cold metal brings out a hidden photograph of a tiny face on the steel discs of his “Breath” installation.
The last part of the exhibit contains the most overtly sexual, funny and blasphemous part of the show, and while distinctly not family-friendly, it’s a humorous, uplifting way to close. Daniela Edburg’s pop-culture take on Japanese tentacle porn, Death By Tupperware, made me LOL. Jonathan Harker’s sly “Postcards From Panama” puts the artist in ironic mock travel ads (and also offers the patron a free piece of art). Marcos Lopez reinvents The Last Supper as a gang of sweaty soccer players chowing down on blood sausages and boxed wine in Barbecue in Mendiolaza. Jesus is portrayed as a portly man with three cocks and a pornstache, a nude Mary Magdalene kneeling to give him oral comfort in Nelson Garrido’s David LaChapelle-drenched vulgarity The Crucifixion.
Leaving the exhibit, Susan Taylor, the MOLAA docent who walked me through the show, summed things up by saying, “When everything else fails, where do we turn?”
I’m not certain I have the answer to that age-old question, but based on the dark humor of the last section of the exhibition, a flipped finger or a brazen laugh as we face down the future might offer the best hope.
“Changing the Focus: Latin American Photography 1990-2005” at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689; www.molaa.org. Open Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through May 2. $6-$9; children under 12, free.
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This review appeared in print as "Shutter to Think: The photographers in MOLAA’s ‘Changing the Focus’ explore the dark side of Latin America, but also its sense of humor."