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Latino Art Exhibition a Colorful Milestone; Artist Chides Museum

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The Latino art exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a landmark event. The show, on national tour, is the largest art exhibition of U.S. Latinos ever assembled.

“This exhibition did not happen by accident,” said Howard Fox, the museum’s curator of contemporary art. “This exhibition is an idea whose time is here.”

But at least one prominent artist complains that the museum’s attention to Latino art is long overdue.

“The museum has demonstrated a lack of genuine interest and support for the Hispanic artistic community,” said Carlos Almaraz, whose work is part of the exhibit. He pointed out that the last major Latino art exhibition there was 15 years ago, when the museum featured “Los Four"--local Chicano painters Almaraz, Frank Romero, Gilbert Lujan and Roberto de la Rocha.

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So while a large crowd toasted the exhibition on opening night, Almaraz boycotted the gala. “Why go to the opening?” Almaraz asked. “To say what great things it (the museum) has done for Hispanics? No!”

However, he commended Jane Livingston and John Beardsley, who organized the show for Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The two, curators of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, were “instrumental and supportive for the creation of this exhibition. They had the critical eyes to look at art and not at the politics.”

The exhibition, “Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors,” continues until April 16.

The art in the exhibition is gripping. It is vivid. It is powerful and real. With exuberant colors, the paintings seem to scream from the walls. The exhibit covers the spectrum from the photorealist narrative to the abstract. Although its roots are in the past, it is unapologetically contemporary.

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“There is a richness in this exhibition that defies categorization. Every artist shown here is an artist of merit. This is a robust, diverse, impassioned exhibition,” Fox said.

“This is an exhibition of American and Latino art in a slightly different language,” Beardsley said. “It is a language of forms and contents that portrays the Latino experience in the United States. Its strength consists in that it is both American and Latino art.

“Something in the tension between the so-called dominant culture and the other contributes to the strength in the work,” Beardsley said. “The hybridization in the language is one of the real strengths. Tension between cultures generates power in the artistic expression that emerges from it.”

There is a growing consensus that art does not have to be created by “the in-crowd” in New York City to be acceptable. Los Angeles artist Romero, whose painting “The Closing of Whittier Boulevard” is in the exhibit, says, “Corporate America is very insecure with images. I’m breaking into corporate collections with narrative pieces that tell a story, which makes the art controversial. In this way, the mainstream is coming to Hispanic art, and not the other way around.”

In the context of this exhibition, however, Fox said, “There is no way to identify a mainstream within the art world, any more than it is possible to identify a mainstream culture.”

Gronk, a Los Angeles Chicano artist who uses only one name, said, “Chicano art is part of the American culture, and it goes unrecognized in the United States. I’m out to break the stereotypes of what it is that we Latinos are supposed to be like. In its diversity, this exhibition communicates that visually.

“A contemporary plastic artist is a visual philosopher for our time,” added the artist, whose works are part of the exhibition. “This show is a success because it brought this point to the attention of a lot of people in the United States.”

Another artist, Texas-born Carmen Lomas Garza, considers herself a curandera, a healer. “I want to depict in a fine art form all those aspects of my culture that are positive and important for others to see and gain an understanding of who I am as a Chicano artist,” she said.

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Through one of her paintings, the “Curandera,” she attempts to convey a special message. “In South Texas, we’d all go to medical doctors to get prescriptions for drugs. But we’d go to the curandera for the final cleansing. It is a spiritual cleansing. A healing.

“Artistically, I have tried to heal myself and other Chicanos and Latinos from the damage that was done to us in the form of discrimination and oppression,” she said. “I continue the tradition of making home altars honoring the Day of the Dead. I paint scenes depicting family customs. My art work shows the dignity of my humanness.”

The 145 paintings, sculptures and assemblages in the exhibition portray survival, anxiety and hope; confusion, identity, anger and love. These are all expressions of deep-seated feelings, convictions, struggles and emotions that reflect Latino life in the United States.

Diversity is also present in the materials and techniques employed by these artists. Among the artists, John Valadez, a Chicano muralist and a colorful urban painter, displays “La Butterfly,” a realistic reflection of Chicano street scenes in Los Angeles.

Patricia Gonzalez’s oil paintings draw from landscape imagery of her native Colombia. Felix Lopez and Luis Tapia, both from the Southwest, make brightly colored religious wood carvings known traditionally as santos. Gregorio Marzan of Puerto Rico constructs mixed-media animal figures in vivid colors.

Luis Jimenez of El Paso works on painted animal sculptures and human figures on painted fiberglass. Californian Manuel Neri’s sculptures involve the human figure with rough surfaces. Robert Graham, who was born in Mexico City and is best known for his 1984 Olympic bronze statues, stands out as the most realistic sculptor of this group.

The first thing that strikes the attention of a viewer at the entrance to the show is Lujan’s elaborately decorated 1950 Chevy. Lujan two-door sedan features a “flaming jalapeno paint job” in the front and a Chicano couple along the side. “Our Family Car,” Lujan said, is symbolic of “the social dynamics, an entire culture built around cars.”

Some of the artists believe that this tour will be looked upon as a turning point of art in the United States. In the future, Gronk said, “labels, such as Hispanic, will fall on the wayside. People will see that this is American art.”

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