Integrating the Museum: Contemporary
Latino Art in Context
the PDF version
The making of a work of art is one historical process
among other acts, events and structures—it is a series of actions in but also
on history. It may become intelligible only within the context of given and
imposed structures of meaning; but in its turn it can alter and at times disrupt
these structures. A work of art may have ideology (in other words those ideas,
images and values which are generally accepted, dominant) as it material, but
it works that material; it gives it a new form and at certain moments that new
form is in itself a subversion of ideology. 
—T. J. Clark
In his assessment of the influence of new media on
the construction of culture and the writing of history, Nestor García Canclini
discusses the significance of photocopiers, VCRs, videos and video games. As
his text was originally published in 1989, I would add color ink jet printers,
DVD players, CD burners, and hand-held video recorders to this list. García
Canclini reflects on the uses of such tools, noting that:
Their simple formal innovation implies cultural changes, but the final sign
depends on the uses different actors assign to them…they crack the orders that
used to classify and distinguish cultural traditions; they weaken historical
meaning and the macrostructural conceptions to the benefit of intense and sporadic
relations with isolated objects, with their signs and images. 
These new technological objects, have deeply influenced
a series of other powerful carriers of imagery and, subsequently, meaning: print
media (specifically magazines), billboards, commercial signage, and television
as a whole. For my purposes in this paper, I would also specify that music videos,
in particular, have been deeply influential due to the radical filming and editing
techniques frequently used in their production. The final part of this equation
is the corresponding influence between new resources, current media and the
work of contemporary artists. In hoping to depart from traditional explorations
of ethnic identity, I am interested in organizing exhibitions that take the
influence of such media and various contemporary themes as their point of departure
and feature the work of artists from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Today, young Latino artists create work
that occasionally addresses some of the same themes engaged by their predecessors,
but through very different formal and conceptual statements. Having grown up
with a different set of critical and theoretical parameters, not to mention
different life experiences, the work of a newer generation of Latino artists
should be examined for its relationship to the work of other non-Latino artists
and their mutual exploration of a variety of important contemporary topics.
Indeed, I believe it is vital to artistic production and to the revitalization
of institutional discourse to integrate aesthetic statements that illuminate
In the work of these young artists, old hierarchies
are displaced, old paradigms are inverted or reconfigured and new aesthetic
statements consider a variety of persepectives, reflecting the Bhaktininan notion
of “heteroglossia.” The re-arrangement of hierarchies is particularly significant
for our purposes, as the description locating the self within contemporary culture
becomes the decisive factor marking the development of the entire work of art.
The crosscurrent of cultural influences apparent in these works illustrates
how their aesthetic borrows from an ethnicized and racialized past that has
asserted itself in the present. This presentation of difference is mediated
through knowledge of art historical practice and through texts inspired by particular
rhetorical “statements” or artistic productions.
This strategy seeks to re-negotiate the language game
played by the voice of authority (the grand narrative) as epitomized through
the development of various art historical movements.
 In their rhetorical strategy, the new artists purposefully
incorporate operating systems and significations put into place by artists such
as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Tony Oursler, Nan Goldin and others. The heavily
masculinized and inherently first-world movement is referenced and reconfigured
by the two young artists who work through its influence to articulate a specifically
Caribbean post modernity. By selectively using the formal rhetorical “speech”
of various art historical movements, young Latino artists share a system of
signs and references in the development of these aesthetic forms that refer
specifically to subject matter relevant to the heteroglossia of contemporary
life. As part of the language game they play with historiographical narratives
is what Homi Bhabha refers to as “a double dimension, a dramatic action”:
The signified is distanced; the resulting time lag opens
up the space between the lexical and the grammatical, between enunciation and
enouned, in-between the anchoring of singifiers. Then, suddenly, this in-between
spatial dimension, this distancing, converts itself into the temporality of
the ‘throw’ that iteratively (re)turns the subject as a moment of conclusion
and control: a historically or contextually specific subject. How are we to
think the control or conclusion in the context of contingency? 
Particularly significant in this passage in Bhabha’s
use of the word “(re)turns,” for is various allusions. The turning of the content,
context, function and meaning of various subjects in the work of these artists
underscores their position as speakers, uttering original statements about a
tradition with which they are intimately familiar. Their ability to turn—or
re-negotiate— its aesthetic meaning in terms of an aesthetic practices that
draws from an historical movement as well as from a contemporary perspective
Perhaps even more significant, however, is the de-territorialization
or de-nationalization that is evoked in the artists’ imagery. They work decidedly
against the modernist project of articulating a national culture, or the utterance
of an ethnic or racialized self. The historiographical narrative of art history
places modernist movements in the Americas and the Caribbean in the position
of articulating an aesthetic created for the express purpose of nationalizing
an art form or giving rise to a national art that expressed the ethnic and racial
make up of the country. These statements can also be understood as engaging
in a primitivist aesthetic drawing specifically from European interpretations
of the influence of “authentic” objects from Africa, the East and the Americas.
This new generation of artists addresses the modernist struggle over the very
notion of authenticity and the power of representation in their attempt to create
a non-nationalist statement through their work. Seeking to create, instead,
a statement about their particular subject matter, their reductive aesthetic
works to extract the work of the Latino artist from the rhetoric of nationalism,
ethnocentrism and essentialism. In their work, subject matter becomes not specific
to the ritualized ceremony, performance or act of one country or even region,
but instead can function as a system of signs for the concept behind the statement—still
unequivocally recognizable as a system of signs for the ideas presented but
without national or even necessarily ethnic specificity.
Creation of a discursive transaction whereby the viewer’s
knowledge of or familiarity with the way that photographs, collage, video and
In bringing up music videos, I also want to underscore
the role of contemporary urban music, particularly the genres known as hip hop
and R & B and the codes of language, dress, lifestyle and attitude subsequently
associated with them and their influence on contemporary art. The work of the
Cuban American artist Luís Gispert is a prominent example. Featured in this
year’s Whitney biennial, Gispert’s work has also been seen in galleries in Chelsea
and at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, among other institutions and galleries
in this country. Trained in photography at Yale University, Gispert’s unmistakable
style is the result of training in the history of art, watching telenovelas
and teenage American culture. This seemingly incongruous melange of sources
becomes a logical blending of influences once the images are deconstructed.
In an early two-person exhibition, titled Bling
Bling, Gispert’s work, with its potent visual messages, immediately took
possession of the exhibition’s title and created a range of meanings and associations
that were absent in the work of his fellow artist.  His image of two
young women seated in the back of a limousine adorned with
Beginning initially with an intense study of self-portaiture,
Alexandra Exposito made a study of gender and self-knowledge. The ever present
rooster in her works eventually became their own subject matter.
Method of production underscores essential meaning
of the work—layers of self that are worn or created by societal impulses.
Use of object/referect to stant for the self/sign—reversal
of portraiture to the inverse “the inverted portrait” or “the inverse of portraiture.”
The sign is twice removed from its context, so that
we see a representation of a representation. The dual removal of the real subject
acts, contrarily, to re-inscribe notions of presentation.
As she was growing up in New York City, Ms. Alba saw
her mother, who worked in a clothing factory, constantly at her sewing machine.
Given this history, Ms. Alba sought to incorporate this kind of labor—a feminine
labor—into her work. Her installations with handmade shoes are an attempt to
unify high art with the work of women who do manual labor. By incorporating
hand-crafted work into her sculpture/installations, Ms. Alba acknowledges the
history of women’s labor and its role in contemporary society. In a labor-intensive
process, Ms. Alba dyes and makes the shoes by hand. By piling the shoes together
or, occasionally laying them out side by side, Ms. Alba underscores the endless
work that is involved in women’s labor. In addition to the shoes, Ms. Alba will
also show a photographic work in which her hand-made “dollheads” are placed
in an urban landscape. Taking photographs of friends or acquaintances, she minimizes
all gender references in the portrait and transfers the print onto fabric, which
is then stuffed into a pillow form. The pillow/doll heads are then placed in
water, on doorsteps, in telephone booths, in interior settings and other seemingly
incongruous environments as metaphors for the human experience.
Vargas Suarez Universal
With his colossal wall drawings, the artist who calls
himself Vargas-Suarez Universal inserts himself and his work into a liminal
terrain between architecture, line drawing, biology, astronomy and myth-making.
Beginning with the plan of a building such as the Kuala Lampur International
airport or the Tate Modern, the artist builds not only upon the literal image
of the building’s footprint, but also incorporates, sometimes into the same
drawing, elevations, cross-sections and fantastic experimentations. As an undergraduate,
the Vargar-Suarez Universal studied astronomy; he combined this with a strong
interest in biology, physiognomy and physics. This intense examination of the
functioning of the universe and the natural world is apparent in his obsessive,
powerful, excruciating creation of systems of lines. Prior to the larger-architecturally
based works, the artist created blue ball-point ink drawings that took months
to finish, even though their finished size is only 20 x 24in. Each drawing,
unique, constructs a mesh of woven miniscule ink lines that eventually form
soft undulations of lush, royal blue, ocean-like waves. Eventually, VSU began
to place several of the drawings in an environment to which he added a soundrack.
The scratching of the ball-point pen against the surface of the paper, magnified,
re-configured, distorted, sampled, looped, and overlayed becomes the envrionmental
sound that accompanied installations such as this one at the Thomas Erben Gallery
in New York City’s Chelsea. In addition to including framed drawings, the artist
moved his lines directly onto the walls of the gallery, leaving a maze of lines
in his wake and surrounding the spectator with his linear speculations. From
here, he broadened his concepts and began working specifically with architectural
plans as the starting point for his drawings. This work was shown at the Queens
Museum of Art, where VSU was including in the colossal exhibition Crossing the
Line. The monumental drawings here are based on plans for the General Motors
pavilion and the NAME pavilion, both created for the 1939 World’s Fair.
Cross-section, plan, elevation are all inscribed within
corpus of wall-drawing. Representation of the outline of a building—the ghost
of itself relates the working preocess, so that outline, inline, underline are
in tension with one another.
Tension also created between original line—plan of
the first architect—and the superimposed line of the artist. The second line
works with and against the first, highlighting and, at the same time, obliterating
Original line is followed in it essence but then obliterated
by an ordered frenzy of carefully orchestrated “super” outlines. What does
work way about the relationship of order to chaos? Here is ordered chaos?
What is the significance of using architectural plans
and maps? Maps and plans represent attempt to create order—basis of urban planning;
map represents political entity-—tate; architectural plan represents sign for
power as embodied in structure, whether corporate or public. Public buildings
represent the aspirations of the civic center.
Re-inscription of the state’s power? Power of function
of the building read as symbolic purpose—ie to move people, to contain and foment
the productionof knowledge, to present aesthetic enterprise—but in particular
one associated with the status quo.
To overwrite the outlines of these kind of structures
signifies an important move in positioning the self. To cirsumscribe and yet
(obliterate) shadow; render to imagination—transparency? Skeleton of form of
building plan alludes also in infrastructure and complexity of urban environment.
Astronomical relevance relates to chaos/order dichotomy.
Spent time exploring notion of self and concepts behind
portraiture. Questioning purpose of portrait and self. Uses portrait at first
to explore own identity and then to explore possibility portrait holds as a
cultural metaphor. What is the function of the portrait bust? Portrait of
rooster as metaphor for cult of fame. Rooster as Elvis. Also closely connected
to emblem of nationalism, creole culture, independence, authenticity and masculinity
within Latin culture. Rooster is frequently cymbolic of the countryside, the
location of an authentic national clture. Associated with poswers—symbol being
taken up by a woman becomes subversive act.
Glossiness of surface reflects formal interest in
minimalist aesthetic; influence of media culture also evident in thei kind of
surface—polished, smooth, impeccable.
Playfulness is reconsideration and subversion of purpose
of portrait. Contemporary version of pet portraiture. Animals appear frequently
within history of art and especially within tradition of portrait painting,
but here becomes focus of work.
Reflecting on the ways in which the female body is
fractured by commercial media, Sandra Bermudez focuses on specific body parts,
such as the mouth or the hands in order to prove how images, particularly those
prevalent in the media, manipulate the conception of the female body. Her wall-sized
installations of multiple views of her lips underscore the frequency with which
such images are shown and, ultimately, taken for granted. By fracturing her
own body in her works and focusing particularly on her lips, she underscores
the power of the media to construct images and concepts about the female body.
Implicit in the work is a critique of the influential power of the cosmetic
industry. She also considers the saturation of images of the woman’s body through
her creation of wallpaper covered with stylized images of her own body in a
pose that might be seen in an advertisement for a commercial product. By using
her own body as the site of her studies, Ms. Bermudez uses self-portraiture
to explore how the body can be used to negotiate the co-optation of gender.
 T. J. Clark, “On the Social History
of Art,” from Modern Art and Modernism : A Critical Anthology(CITY:
PUB), p. 252-253.
 Nestor García Canclini, Hybrid
Cultures: Strategies for entering and leaving modernity. Christopher L. Chiappari
and Silvia L. López, trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
 Here, I am using the concept of
language game as expressed by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his The Postmodern
Condition: A Report on Knowledge; Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi,
trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 9-11. Among
the rules stated by Lyotard to pertain to language games are a mutual understanding
that there are rules involved in the creation of an utterance and that every
utterance constitutes a “move” in the game. While Awai and Boddie are not
in a language game with the Minimalists directly, they are in dialogue with
the historiography of the movement as articulated by art historians and critics
and with the “utterances” of the original formal moves through systems of
knowledge passed on to them through education.
 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of
Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994): 186.
 This exhibition was held at Massimo
Audiello Fine Arts (now Audiello Fine Arts) in Chelsea in late 2000.
Copyright © 2003