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Back to Reviews 98

  seven latino artists and the narrative tradition

by Victor M. Cassidy  

Silvia Malagrino

The South/Missing

Is there such a thing as Latino art? If so, what characterizes it? We sought answers in the work of five men and two women who have come from Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Puerto Rico to live in Chicago. These artists make representational work that usually embodies a narrative. Some pieces communicate directly; others need explanation. The subject matter ranges from history and culture to literature and autobiography.

Los desaparecidos
Silvia Malagrino is a truth-teller whose work confronts the ugly realities of Argentina's history. Between 1974 and 1976, following the death of Juan Peron, Argentina slid into civil war. The military took over and restored order, but embarked on an anti-subversion campaign that went completely out of control.

Over the next six years, at least 8,426 men, women and children were arrested or kidnapped, charged with terrorism and other crimes, tortured or executed, and buried in mass graves. Most of these people simply vanished: no records were kept. Worldwide human rights protests and defeat in the 1982 Falklands War with Great Britain discredited Argentina's military, forcing it from power in favor of a democratically elected government. An investigation of los desaparecidos (the disappeared) followed; some of the guilty went to prison.

During the first two years of the Argentine terror, Malagrino was studying literature and modern languages at the University of Buenos Aires. "At a time of institutionalized repression, persecution and murder," she states, "I turned to photography as a way of resistance. I moved to the U.S. in 1978 and have lived here ever since."

Today, Malagrino is a photographer and university professor with a record of exhibitions at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Brazil's FundaÇao Athos BulÇao, and many college and university galleries. This U.S. citizen still loves Latin America and claims to have "a foot in both camps."

Malagrino makes wall-sized black-and-white photo-murals about los desaparecidos that also suggest archeological traces and the workings of memory. Inscriptions (1993), which looks like an aerial surveillance photograph that might be introduced as evidence in court, reminds us that many desaparecidos were killed and then dumped into the ocean from airplanes. "You see the markings, but not the event itself," the artist says. "You can only approximate what really happened."

The South/Missing (1993), with small portraits arranged in a grid, is a more direct treatment of los desaparecidos that will remind many of Arnulf Rainier's work. "The surface of the photograph is very rich," says Malagrino. "It suggests a stone wall with persistent images on it which keep coming back, even when they're painted over."

Vestiges (1995) could be archaeological imagery, but it also suggests the human body and aerial photography. To get her effects, the artist layers appropriated images and her own photographs. She manipulates negatives by hand and employs digital imaging techniques.

In other works, Malagrino scans and pixelates photographs of ordinary people, giving them an evanescent look that hovers between reality and dream. These images suggest los desaparecidos and the shadowy way that people and events exist in our memory.

Though Malagrino's large, drab photo-murals rarely delight the eye, they have "an inner urgency," she says. Malagrino has found a way to make compelling art from dreadful events. She is a serious woman with much to tell us.

Bibiana Suarez
Untitled from Dominó

Untitled from Dominó
Volunteer exile
"I'm a volunteer exile," says Bibiana Suarez, "for I belong neither in Puerto Rico nor in the U.S., but in my work." Suarez grew up in Puerto Rico, studied art there and emigrated to Chicago at the age of 20 when a teacher told her she had no future in her homeland. "I came here 17 years ago," she says, "graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and have made my entire career in the U.S. I'm married to an Anglo who speaks Spanish."

The artist acknowledges that she has acculturated to the U.S. by modifying her manner of living after many years here. But she has not embraced American ways and become assimilated. Her ambivalence inspired Dominó (Dominoes), a two-year body of work that is still in progress.

Dominó is a wall-sized installation of round drawings laminated onto 18-in. wooden disks and grouped to suggest 5 x 11 ft. wide domino game pieces. Dominoes, a "favorite pastime in Puerto Rico," involves "matching game pieces," Suarez explains. Dominó presents her "analysis and redrawing" of the "fine line between acculturation and assimilation." The round drawings -- images from "the history, literature, and popular iconography" of the U.S. and Puerto Rico -- show how difficult it is to make a match between the two cultures.


Paul Sierra

Paul Sierra

Only a few stories
Paul Sierra, who left Cuba more than 30 years ago, has become a nationally-known artist with galleries in several U.S. cities and frequent museum shows. He is a narrative painter whose images suggest a human presence whether we see a figure or not. Death is a major theme in his work.

Sierra's tight cropping is influenced by Japanese art; the elaborate mise en scène comes from film. "Cropping can bring a lot of energy to a painting," he states. "It creates ambiguity. Dégas learned this from the Japanese and so did Mary Cassatt."

Sierra's recent work -- mostly unpeopled, profusely vegetated landscapes -- is still distinctively narrative. To understand how he got there, we asked him to describe three paintings that were turning points in his career.

Diptych (1988) shows an artist's studio with a two-piece landscape leaning against the wall. In front of the diptych is a blue chair and a table with paints and brushes at the ready, which could mean that the landscape is unfinished. "Diptych is the first time I began to fragment the image," says Sierra. "Prior to that, I did only single images.

"An artist has only a few stories to tell," he continues. "The canvas is not just one plane. Fragmenting the image allowed me to develop more complex ideas. After that point, my work improved technically."

In Harvest (1993), a dark-haired man wearing a rumpled suit stands in a patch of green vegetation under a darkening sky, watching impassively as a fierce brush fire encircles him. The entire landscape seems to be tilted. This man -- he resembles the artist -- appears often in Sierra's work. Sometimes he wears a hat and overcoat like a film noir character.

"At the time I did Harvest," says the artist, "I began to realize that I am more a landscape painter than anything else. The man staring at the fire -- this is what he's harvesting. The painting invests the landscape and the figure with clear emotional meaning."

There's no figure at all in Cradle (1995) which, like Harvest, has a strong diagonal orientation. The foreground contains unnaturally bright-colored grass and trees. There's a dark green middle ground and mountains in the distance. The brushwork is energetic with much impasto.

"At this point," the artist states, "I began to leave out the figure and make the landscape more panoramic, like Cinemascope. The illusion of depth grew in importance. The image was more like nature itself."

Sierra grew up in Havana and left Cuba as a teenager so he has no clear memory of Cuba's landscape -- it's not what we see in his paintings. He lifts images from house-plant handbooks, inserting them into his scenes with no thought of botanical correctness. Landscape is simply the vehicle through which this artist speaks.

"Those landscapes are tropical, not Cuban," he states. "Plants started out in warm places and spread north. They are the most basic form of life -- we came from them. Unlike plants, humanity is a passing thing. No one's death can be that important."


Eduardo de Soignie

Three Bridges

At the Garden

From Island to Island
A bit like Cubism
Cuban-born Eduardo de Soignie is abandoning culturally-based art for more purely visual concerns. He is still so young and so unsettled as an artist that it's hard to say where this will take him, but he has the requisite gifts, self-discipline, and determination to succeed.

Pangaea (1997) and Three Bridges (1997) challenge our sense of proper landscape perspective. "Westerners are accustomed to viewing scenes from one vantage point," the artist explains. "These paintings present landscape from several perspectives at once. My technique is a bit like Cubism."

De Soignie's landscapes grew from explorations of pictorial space and figure-ground relationships in his El Valiente (The Brave One) series of silk screens. El Valiente, a character in a popular Mexican card game, is a muscular man who holds a machete. The artist says that El Valiente personifies his own journey to the U.S. and the immigrant's courageous willingness to risk everything for a better life.

The artist silk screened the El Valientes "floating and groundless, onto empty white paper," then added a simple colored background. This procedure created what he terms a "spatial challenge" and a tense figure-ground relationship. The final image suggests a Japanese print whose flat perspective intensifies formal elements of the composition.

At the Garden is an elegant image with five El Valientes floating on a field of blue behind a picket fence. Shadows that fall in front of the fence lift and strengthen the composition. From Island to Island shows an El Valiente and four semi-abstracted figures who seem to walk over an off-shore island of Cuba. Here again the background is very simple.

Born in Havana in 1970, de Soignie started his art training at the age of ten in a "strictly academic" environment. When he was refused admission to the next level of art school, he worked on his own and liberated his creativity after discovering Klee and Miró, and watching children make art.

In 1988, De Soignie's crude, spontaneous drawings of animals won him a place in Cuba's best art school. Instead of enrolling, he left for Miami when a long-sought visa came through. After a frustrating time in "Little Havana," he came to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and began to make his own way.


William Cordova


Narrative suggests itself
William Cordova makes postcard-sized mixed media works on cardboard or coarse paper which he affixes to the wall in grid-like groupings. Individual pieces may be decorated with written or typed texts, scribbles, splotches of color or tiny silhouettes of chairs, parachutes, houses, tables, buckets and the like. Flat and diffuse, these works suggest graffiti. "Each card is a little narrative, a little poem," the artist says.

In the studio, Cordova begins by writing or typing texts on blank paper. These may be fragments of spoken English or Spanish -- or invented words in "Spanglish." The artist likes puns and deliberately makes misspellings. Next, working on ten pieces at a time, he creates imagery in black and white or subdued color. All this is done on the wall. "Canvas bounces back," he says.

Cordova uses "whatever materials are immediately at my disposal like liquid paper, china markers, pens, pencils, house paint, etc." The work must "form itself with what's at hand," he states. As the artist paints, his texts and images begin to suggest a narrative of some kind. "It works itself out," he says. "I let it flow and never force it." No individual piece gets a title, only the installation. If the pieces are rearranged, he retitles the group.

When Cordova installs, he draws grid lines on the wall -- they're a "central thing," he states -- and then, with no advance plan, mounts the pieces. He sells several cards at a time and thinks that collectors should arrange them in any order they choose.

Cordova's most ambitious installation is Cartas para Josefina (Letters for Josephina), which he exhibited at Chicago's Cultural Center in 1997. The title of this work comes from a volume of letters that Miguel Hernandez (1910-1942), the Spanish poet and playwright, wrote to his wife from prison. Hernandez, a Communist, opposed Franco during the Spanish Civil War, was imprisoned at war's end, caught tuberculosis, and died. His letters were not published in Madrid until 1988.

According to the artist, Hernandez' first letters are very loving and romantic, but they become fragmented and abstract as his health and mind deteriorate. "I was in a love relationship which fell apart because of distance," Cordova explains. Cartas para Josefina is my personal response to Hernandez' letters."

The Cordova family journeyed "with suitcases" from Peru to Miami in hopes of a better economic life. "My father worked for the government, but he was not political and we had no money," the artist says. "When we got here, we lived in Miami's Peruvian community. You don't assimilate there. I came to Chicago because I wanted to be an artist."


Photograph of Rotary Club International
breakfast, 1943, Mexico City

Pablo Helguera
Honoring the Rotary Club
Pablo Helguera is the most literary -- and surely the most tirelessly enterprising -- of Chicago's Latino artists. In the past two years, this 27-year-old has had a solo show of paintings that suggest Mexican advertising posters, and has written, produced and performed in two evening-length plays --The Palace, about Chicago ghosts, and Juruá, which featured the author in an ice cream suit, two very talkative Spanish explorers and a mermaid wearing a seashell bra. In addition to all this, Helguera writes art criticism for a Spanish language newspaper and works full-time for the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Do these activities have anything in common, we wondered, or is Helguera hopelessly scattered? We asked him to explain.

"My development is not piece by piece," he states. "Instead, it functions in phases and projects. I get fascinated by an idea -- signs, banners, images, text -- immerse myself in it for several months, and make something from it. Some of my projects work and some do not."

One success was Survival, a 1993 installation and performance at Gallery Two, which is operated by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Helguera's inspiration was a group photograph taken in 1943 when his father and grandfather, both businessmen, attended a breakfast in Mexico City that honored the president of the Rotary Club International, who was visiting from Chicago. "That photograph made me want to comment on the connection between my family and Chicago," says Helguera. "I did a very complex, convoluted project."

Using both genuine and faked documents, the artist created a museum-style display about the life and achievements of the president of the Rotary Club International in 1943. Then, after asking his father to recall all the details he could of the breakfast, he set up a banquet table in the gallery and replicated what he saw in the old photo.

At the opening of his show, Helguera gave a speech, showed the 1943 photograph, and declared that Gallery Two had once been the office of the president of the Rotary Club International (this was invented out of whole cloth). "To pay tribute to this man," the artist said, "we shall recreate February 6, 1943, when all these people had breakfast together in Mexico City." He invited his fellow students to sit down at the banquet table where waiters served them flan (Mexican custard) while music played.

The artist's father, who had come up to Chicago for the opening, was asked to sit in the exact place at table where he had been 50 years before. (He was not told in advance that he would be part of the performance.) When everyone finished eating, Helguera took their Social Security numbers and promised to contact them for a 50th anniversary reunion in 2043.

"I was not sure why I was doing this," the artist says, "but the performance brought up many things that are part of me. It touched on subjects -- space and its history; personal and collective memory; the importance of language; and truth and falsity -- that are central to my work. These have been my themes ever since."


Marcos Raya
Night Nurse

The Anguish of Being
The anguish of being
There's little reason to smile at Marcos Raya's memories. Born in a village near Mexico City, he came to Chicago as a youth and has made art full-time since he was 18 years old. Along the way, Raya became an alcoholic who went off on benders with buddies (the "sons of the bad life"), slept in doorways, landed in hospital detox wards, got out, worked in his studio and started drinking again. Dry for several years now, he puts his alcoholic past into paintings and installations. He is truly an outsider artist.

Night Nurse (1996), a mixed media installation, recalls Raya's "dog years." He lies on an examining table with a breathing tube in his nose. The doctor stands behind him. A painting on the wall shows a street crossing in Pilsen, the Mexican-American neighborhood where the artist lives. Next to it is a painting of a "night dog" or street alcoholic. On either side are personal symbols and hospital instruments in glass cases.

Of all the "sons of the bad life," Raya is the only one alive today. "I always had a wife, a very good wife," he states. "When I asked her why she didn't leave, she replied that I was always funny and never violent. I have a dealer and a little money now. My work is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It's payback time."

Raya thinks his best painting is The Anguish of Being (1992), a self-portrait from inside his head. "It deconstructs the self-portrait," he states. "It shows the real world as seen through my eyes and my brain, where the imagination resides. I started the painting when my son was two years old -- you can see him there with his mother -- and finished it when he was 19."

The Anguish of Being recalls drawings of dissections or surgical procedures. Pin-like objects at the four corners seem to hold the skin down. Some portions of the head look stitched together. Ghostly tubes enter a vortex between the eyes -- the "center of perspective," says Raya. The vertical peapod-like shape in the middle of the forehead suggests the imagination.

Raya thinks that many Mexican-Americans romanticize their homeland. "Mexico is not a paradise," he states. "There's poverty and corruption. Our artists should deal with contemporary realities. Paintings of pyramids and masks are Aztec trash.

"Instead of dreaming about Mexico, let's improve things here," he continues. "By day, this is an ordinary neighborhood. At night, armed gang members control each block and sell drugs. You can get killed just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Some Mexican-Americans dream of going back, but Raya's not one of them. "Chicago is one of the most dynamic cities in the world and one of the most beautiful," he states. "I have much more freedom here, much more opportunity. I don't even want to be buried in Mexico. Where would I go? The graveyards are full."

VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.