Southern Exposure

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

As crows and airplanes fly, the art capitals of South America are closer to Los Angeles than are their counterparts in Europe. But distance can't be equated with familiarity. North American art is so steeped in European tradition that most art history students and culture-oriented tourists who live in the United States and routinely visit museums in Paris, London, Madrid, Florence and Rome rarely travel to Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogota or Caracas.

The same mind-set applies to contemporary art exhibitions in local museums and galleries. While European artists show their work here with increasing frequency, presentations by South Americans are rare occurrences. Los Angeles is strongly associated with Latin American art, but most local exhibitions devoted to that vast body of material are limited to Mexican and Chicano art.

"South America is almost a forgotten continent," said dealer Christopher Grimes, who owns a gallery in Santa Monica and has given considerable thought to the situation. "Very few people here think about it nearly as much as they think about Mexico or the Chicano movement."

Compounding the problem, this narrow viewpoint is dominated by a few stars and stereotypical subject matter, he said. "In the United States, Latin American art is generally thought of in a sociopolitical sense, as in the work of Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera, or in terms of local politics in Chicano art. Not to deny the importance of that aspect of the culture; it's just that Latin America is so much bigger than that."

With that concern in mind, Grimes has spent a couple of years organizing "Amnesia," a traveling exhibition of contemporary South American art opening Wednesday both at his gallery and Tom Patchett's Track 16 Gallery, a much larger space at Bergamot Station. Billed as an exploration of "a forgotten continent within the context of a Western art world," the show will focus on how art issues continue to be "formed, shaped and processed through a colonial history." As the evocative title suggests, the artists also grapple with the human condition, psychological nuances and vicissitudes of memory.

An unusually ambitious project for a commercial gallery, "Amnesia" will fill about 7,000 square feet of space with new works--most of them created specifically for the show--by 16 artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. An illustrated catalog, published by Patchett's Smart Art Press, contains essays in Spanish and English by Tunga, a prominent Brazilian artist and writer, and several curators.

Grimes also has organized a symposium, to be held Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m., at Track 16 Gallery. Charles Merewether, curator of the Getty Research Institute, will moderate a discussion with panelists Alma Ruiz, assistant curator at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, and artists Jose Gabriel Fernandez of Venezuela, Sergio Vega of Argentina and Brazilians Miguel Rio Branco and Tunga. Transcripts from the symposium will be published in Trans magazine.

The L.A. engagement is only the first stage of "Amnesia." Following its debut here, the show will travel to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (Jan. 23-March 28, 1999), the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango in Bogota (April 21-June 27, 1999) and the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa (at an unscheduled date in 2000).

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Anxiously awaiting shipments of art from South America, during an interview at his gallery, Grimes said he hopes the show and symposium will raise awareness of what Los Angeles' contemporary art audience has been missing. But he made no grand claims about correcting the balance with one exhibition. Readily admitting that "Amnesia" is merely one small, very selective slice of an enormous territory and that he is already being criticized for some of his curatorial decisions, he puzzled about how to describe the project that has developed organically out of his personal interest and travels.

"It's easier to say what the show is not about than what it is about," he said. With only four countries represented, the exhibition is far from a survey of South American art, and "setting up some form of didactic structure" was not part of his agenda. "I think of it as an opportunity to see the work and to think about it in a different way. One of the problems with much of the work that comes here is that it tends to be interpreted by body politics or multiculturalism or whatever the critical political agenda is at the moment. That is relevant to us, but it's not relevant to a region that's not operating under those circumstances. Their issues, their political views are very different from ours," he said.

"But this show is not about championing Latin American politics. That's why the title is as ambiguous as it is; that's why there is is no subtitle. It's really about these artists' personal exploration and their response to the concept of the show. I wanted the show to be a fresh body of work, so that when it traveled back to South America, it would not be work that had been seen there."

Grimes began working with a few South American artists about four years ago and has represented Ernesto Neto of Brazil for the past three years. "It seemed imperative to know the context from which the work was being developed," he said, tracking "Amnesia" to its origin. "The idea was to go down to Rio and get a much better sense of where Ernesto lived and the influences that were prevalent in his work. That trip [about a year and a half ago] coincided with my interest in understanding more about what's going on in South America in general."

The dealer traveled to Sao Paulo, then journeyed on to Bogota and Caracas, visiting artists in their studios. The trip ended in January 1997, in Rio de Janeiro, where he celebrated the new year at an all-night party that began at Tunga's studio and ended at the beach.

"I talked a lot to Tunga about what he was doing, and at the end of the evening he handed me his card," Grimes said. "On the card was the image of a decapitated head, which was a photograph of a short performance he did in 1987 called 'Seeding Mermaids.' In the performance he cast a self-portrait, a surrogate of his head, into the sea; it was thrown around on the rocks and then retrieved. To me that image was very striking. I was very taken with it, and [later] with the history of cannibalism in the figurative sense . . . which is about the consumption of other cultures and reconstituting those cultures as one's own."

After returning to Los Angeles, Grimes began noticing severed heads in other contexts. Learning of his interest, artists sent images to him, and he found a David Byrne album cover depicting heads on a stairway.

"I began thinking about the separation between the mind and the body, and the violent nature of the political situation in South America," Grimes said. "To me this recurring image represented a lot of different ideas. What I landed on was amnesia." Extending the dictionary definition--"partial or total loss of memory caused by brain injury, shock or repression"--he interpreted amnesia as "a state of mind that deals with living in the present and constructing that present out of the past, as we all generally do. We piece together the past either through selective inclusion or denial," he said.

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With that provocative theme in mind, Grimes decided to organize a show of works by artists who were well-known in their home countries but not in the United States. He eventually settled on five artists from Brazil (Neto, Tunga, Miguel Rio Branco, Waltercio Caldas and Valeska Soares), five from Argentina (Monica Giron, Marcelo Pombo, Miguel Angel Rios, Pablo Siquier and Sergio Vega), four from Venezuela (Jose Gabriel Fernandez, Jose Antonio Hernandez-Diez, Alfredo Ramirez and Roberto Obregon) and two from Colombia (In~igo Manglano-Ovalle and Oscar Mun~oz).

It is not a homogeneous group. Some of the artists have achieved considerable recognition since Grimes conceived of "Amnesia." Tunga, the most obvious example, is currently the subject of an international traveling retrospective and his work was shown last year in Documenta X, a prestigious international exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Other artists represented don't reside in their native countries. Soares and Fernandez live in Brooklyn; Manglano-Ovalle is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Neither do the 16 artists conform to a singular aesthetic or national styles. Grimes has selected painters, sculptors, conceptualists and performers who work in a variety of media and address disparate issues. Pombo, who brings his own vision to Pop Art, produces exquisitely detailed paintings on found objects, such as detergent and orange juice cartons. Soares, who often works with female figurative images and unorthodox materials--including honey, wax and perfume--is showing a 12-foot-tall photo mural depicting the lower half of a woman's body elongated to eerie proportions. Among Neto's works on display is a floor piece in which a softly pleated bed sheet fans out from a rectangular plate of steel.

In Giron's watercolors and sculptural works, including a sleeping bag in the shape of a curled-up deer, she investigates aspects of nature in Patagonia. Fernandez, a conceptual sculptor, deals with masculine and feminine polarities and derives sociocultural meanings from bullfighting and other traditional practices. Obregon has done a large body of work based on roses, dissecting real flowers and painstakingly cutting simulated petals from sheets of rubber, then assembling them in serialized works or grids that refer to death and botanical studies.

Grimes has compiled a broad range of material because South America--and even the four countries represented--is far too diverse to be neatly packaged, he said. But he has found a thread of continuity in the artists' metaphoric visual language. And he is not alone in his appreciation of the work.

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Curators in the United States are increasingly showing an interest in contemporary art from South America, Grimes said. In Los Angeles, MOCA's Ruiz and Lynn Zelevansky at the L.A. County Museum of Art are particularly well-informed on the subject, and USC's Fisher Gallery, under the direction of Selma Holo, presented Tunga's work in a 1993 exhibition of art from Brazil.

"It's just a matter of time until this work receives the recognition it deserves," he said. "New York doesn't have the draw it once had in terms of originality, so people are looking elsewhere. Los Angeles has benefited from that, as has Latin America."

But "Amnesia" appears to be well ahead of the public curve, so Grimes is hoping his efforts will be influential. "My feeling is that by putting together a large exhibition, people would have an opportunity to see enough work to make an impact on their perceptions," he said.

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"Amnesia," Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (310) 587-3373; Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (310) 264-4678. Opens Wednesday; ends Sept. 12. "Amnesia Symposium," Track 16 Gallery, Thursday, 6-8 p.m. The exhibition and symposium are free.

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