One could make the case that the category of Latin American art as we understand it today really came into existence around 1970. Whatever its exact origins, it has been apparent to art historians, connoisseurs, and the general public that for more than 50 years, artists from Latin America have been making some of the most significant contributions to the traditions of Conceptualism, Minimalism, and Performance art.
The rumblings that began stirring in the late 1960s underlie the shockwaves of Latin American art today, which tends to focus on the alienation, exploitation, and the fractured identity politics that follow in the wake of Western imperialism and military dictatorships.
Beginning in the early aughts, a number of Latin American cemented their reputations in the English-speaking world with high auction sales and institutional representation. In 2002, for example, the Tate appointed Cuauhtémoc Medina as its first associate curator of Latin American art. And it was around 2004 that, as Emma Crichton-Miller points out in the online magazine How to spend it, “the ingenious, multifaceted Mexican conceptual artist Gabriel Orozco” had his first solo show at the Serpentine Gallery in 2014. Circa 2019, Orozco’s red, blue, white and gold Samurai Tree paintings, his deft homage to geometric abstraction, regularly sell for six-figures at auction, with a record sale of $665,000 for the work Roto Spinal at Sotheby’s New York in 2013.
While Orozco stands out as one of the premier artists from the continent, there are others who should be mentioned in any introduction to contemporary Latin American art. Here, we will look at some established and emerging talents from the region, exploring the concepts that shape their creative practice.
A seminal artist on the Brazilian scene, Zerbini creates optical effects that beckon for contemplation. He is an artist that constantly multiplies the formal possibilities of painting and rejects any potential stagnation of established formula, making it difficult to define any linearity in his production.
Zerbin came into prominence at a time when many—even artists in Latin America—thought that painting was dead. With a renewed sense of formalism inspired by early Modernist painters, and enriched by the legacy of Conceptualism, Zerbini has come to make some of the most distinctive paintings to achieve global visibility. He also works in sculpture, video, drawing photography, and writing. He once stated in an interview with Conceptual Fine Arts: “I’m a curious guy…always in need of new stuff, encouragement. I’m a quiet person, but my work is restless, it has to be. That’s why I take so many chances and make some mistakes every now and then.”
Mexican-born Gabriel Orozco exploded onto the international scene in the 1990s with works that incorporated a multitude of different media—from drawings to installations, to photography, sculptures. According to the Guggenheim, “[Orozco’s] aesthetic vocabulary is indebted to Conceptualism, the artistic traditions of his native Mexico, and Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. The fragile relationship of everyday objects to one another and to human beings is Orozco’s principal subject.”
In early works like Cinco problemas (Five Problems) (1992), Orozco would revel in the poetic displacement of objects. In this particular work, five potatoes on the notebooks borrow their strangeness from somehow being more real, more fully-formed than the empty pages of unpurchased notebooks on a shelf. The use of found objects became a staple of Orozco’s work throughout the 1990s—a tendency which gradually gave way to more formalist works in the early aughts, inspired partly by Asian pictorial traditions and partly by the nuances of everyday perception.
An emerging talent, the work of Dominican-American artist Joiri Minaya, in her own words,
focuses on otherness, self-consciousness, and displacement. “I’ve made work inspired by women in my family, labor, dislocation, psychology, myth, art history, magic realism, and symbols,” she writes in her artist statement. “I’m interested in how historical hierarchies inform and condition current identities; how constructions manifest through the body: how they are received, internalized and then regurgitated by it.” Dividing her time between the United States and the Dominican Republic (and having also lived in Belgium) Minaya is conscious of the contingency of her own subjectivity. Reflecting on her experiences and travels, her work has, as she puts it, “transitioned from identity in an intimate manner to examining larger transnational and transcultural exchanges.”
Art critic Wendy Vogel has noted how Minaya “draws on histories of art, pattern, décor, and media in her work, often using her own body and personal experience as a reference point.” Blurring and de-personalizing women’s bodies, in Vogel’s estimation, “mimics how tourists fetishize the tropics (and their inhabitants) as a site of leisure, unspoiled nature, and sexual adventure.” In this way, Minaya politicizes the Conceptual tradition that is the life-blood of Latin American art.
Oblitas uses sculpture in an almost symbolic way, showing how familiar objects are embossed with sigils of power. Art critic Max Hernández Calvo has noted of her work, “by incorporating symbolic elements into the architecture that limit our possibilities of displacement, Raura Oblitas reminds us that we are facing a total order that goes beyond the institutions in which we participate: less prison than school, less religion than culture. An order that lives in us as a lesson that left a mark.”
Typical of Oblitas’s recent work, her large-scale installation Soldados del amor (Soldiers of love) (2016) melds together the Church, the army, the school, and the prison. Viewing these disciplinary institutions are repressive structures that mandate conformity against our will, she stages a sort of “intervention” that uses the iconography of the Christian cross against itself. The allusion to the cross indicates crucifixion across different kinds of ethical scenarios: scenarios where we must choose to either go with the dreary flow of the status quo or transcend towards something much more difficult to realize but ultimately better.
José Carlos Martinat
The Saatchi Gallery describes the work of Jose Carlos Martinat as lying “at the interface of real and virtual worlds.” Taking inspiration from architecture and urbanism, there’s a constructed quality to Martinat’s works, like something realized from a blueprint, which nevertheless bears the inimitable tracings of the artist’s hand. Using a range of materials—from found objects to uniquely built contraptions, from spray-paint to more rarefied paints—Martinat always questions our sense of belonging. Blurring the line between everyday perception and the forms of installation specific to a gallery setting, Martinat questions identity itself, examining the place of pre-Hispanic and post-colonial crafts relative to the construction of Latin American cultural identity and tradition.
Art in Latin America: A Legacy of Protest
Although separated by factors such as region, age, and preferred medium, many Latin American artists work to reveal art’s political and critical value. Rather than priding themselves on recreating the virtues of formalism— which is what many North American artists continue to do—the best artists working in the Latin American tradition are highly conscious of the fact that their work can serve as a mouthpiece for the voiceless. Perhaps this is why Conceptualism is valued more highly than representational art.
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In the works of such a painterly artist like Luiz Zerbini, there’s a non-visual aura of protest surrounding the work, as though he was inviting viewers to look at a neighborhood or landscape for the first time. Joiri Minaya, Raura Oblitas, and José Carlos Martinat do something similar, using industrial, digital, or found materials to protest misinformation and political treachery. Even Gabriel Orozco, whose recent work is probably the most “formalist” of the five artists discussed here, comes from a place of quotidian observation. In his early work, as well as though those works he’s known for today, an air of cosmopolitan universality poses a challenge to provincial narrow-mindedness.
Agora Gallery sponsors the Latin American Contemporary Fine Art Competition, an ideal way for Latin American artists to gain valuable exposure for their artwork and to exhibit their talent to a wider international audience. It is also an excellent opportunity to foster their talent and develop the résumé of a successful professional artist. With a distinguished panel of jurors and more than $55,000 invaluable prizes. The Latin American Contemporary Fine Art Competition is an event not to be missed. The 2019 edition will kick off with Early Bird submissions on May 12.
Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer and curator based in Berlin, Germany. Articles, reviews, poems, and essays have appeared via Drag City Books, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, American Art Catalogues, Hyperallergic, and other venues. Recent curatorial projects include the reading and discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street.