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    Real Life
by N. F. Karlins
Francisco Oller y Cestero
Still Life with Coconuts
Diego Rivera
Still Life with Bread and Fruit
Frida Kahlo
Weeping Coconuts
Francisco Matto
Fernando Botero
The Butcher's Table
Ana Mendieta
Mutilated Body on Landscape
Liliana Porter
Dialogue with Penguin
Franco Mondini-Ruiz
"Latin American Still Life: Reflections of Time and Place," Feb. 10-May 21, 2000, at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10029.

A still life can be a humble arrangement of everyday forms or it can stand as an allegory of an entire culture. The exhibition "Latin American Still Life: Reflections of Time and Place," recently on view at El Museo del Barrio on upper Fifth Avenue in New York, proved to be a masterful demonstration of the ways that artists transform material objects -- whether tropical fruits or religious icons -- into markers of a very specific time and place.

This wide-ranging survey, organized by Clayton C. Kirking and Edward J. Sullivan of the Katonah Museum of Art (where it first appeared), presented works by 43 Chicano, Caribbean and South American artists dating from the late 19th century to the present. The exhibition opened with two works by Francisco Oller Y Cestero of Puerto Rico, Plantains and Bananas and Still Life with Coconuts (both from around 1893). In these two large oils the artist excludes all else from view but the fruit, which he renders in loving detail, celebrating the luscious flora, and by extension, the land that produced it.

Altar de Dolores from 1943, by Mexican María Izquierdo, incorporates assorted fruit and folk art cut-papers, recording the personal religious offerings that continue to be an important part of everyday life to Catholics in Latin America.

Form is more important to the Paris-trained Mexican Diego Rivera, evidenced by his pears (or are they apples?) in one of his last large Cubist compositions, Still Life with Bread and Fruit from 1917. Emotion takes over in his wife Frida Kahlo's Weeping Coconuts (1951), a heart-rending self-portrait of this fervent Mexican nationalist in pain after a series of traumatic surgeries.

Francisco Matto of Uruguay, one of a number of artists who absorbed the grid-based Constructivism of Joaquín Torres-García at his influential workshop in Montevideo, shows an oil-on-wood relief, Removedor (1959), which depicts fruit in a bowl. Anne Mercedes Hoyos from Colombia takes a Pop Art approach to melons in Palenquera (1988), and fellow-Colombian Hector Camargo with Bananos (1998) brings back the tradition of exotic and slightly mysterious fruit, front and center, to round out the century. And these are only a few of the pieces with fruit. Diabetics beware!

Death shows up frequently and in many guises in Latin American art. Mexican Alberto Gironella's El Glotón (The Glutton) from 1958 presents a skeleton sitting down to a meal. It functions as a Vanitas painting -- a reminder of mortality -- and evokes the Day of the Dead.

A wonderful early Fernando Botero oil, The Butcher's Table, tackles corruption and violence in his native Colombia. It dates to 1969, before the artist developed his more gently satiric pneumatic style of representation. In this show, a later bronze and a later marble by him just looked, well -- bloated, unfortunately.

Ana Mendieta's slides of her 1973 site-specific installations are impressive, especially her Mutilated Body on Landscape, featuring a very large, very still heart atop what looks like a bloody, wrapped corpse. It's gory but beautiful.

The sensuality of death is also captured in the black-and-white photo, Sacrifice (V) (1989) by Brazilian Mario Cravo Neto. A child runs his dark finger through the white feathers of a soon-to-die bird.

The slow killer AIDS appears, too, in the haunting, delicate drawing Cultivo Una Rosa Blanco (I Grow a White Rose) from 1988, dedicated by the late Cuban-born artist Juan González to those whom he knew who suffered from this disease.

Equally formidable in technique is Chilean Claudio Bravo's Still Life with Paint Tube (1983). A shower cap is a witty addition to this traditional table-top piece. His most recent exhibition of oils (which closed at Marlborough on Apr. 22) were drapes of cloth with titles referring to Catholic liturgical matters. Perhaps their surfaces were wrinkled for more than one reason.

For something both surreal and funny, the cibachrome Dialogue with Penguin (1999) of an electric Jesus bust and a toy penguin, face to face, by Argentina-born Liliana Porter is hard to beat.

In the gallery next door to the exhibition, El Museo del Barrio presented the installation "Mexique," by Chicano artist Franco Mondini-Ruiz of San Antonio. He recreated the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán as seen through the eyes of Rococo Europeans. Hundreds of pastel heart-shaped candies, cupcakes, cigarettes, vessels with colored water, candles, plastic miniatures, Rococo ceramic figurines and pre-Columbian reproductions were arranged on several white platforms that evoked Aztec pyramids, Catholic altars and a giant ring-toss game. It was a tongue-firmly-in-cheek reminder of cultural collision that playfully pushed the Latin American still life into the 21st century.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.