Is it a good thing for an exhibition to leave us wanting more? “The Body Says, I Am a Fiesta: The Figure in Latin American Art,” which recently opened at the Norton Museum of Art, feels like it’s merely scratching an impressive and variegated surface, and when I reached the end, I was momentarily taken aback by its brevity.
That’s because, in part, any survey of Latin American art that spans just two or three galleries (awkwardly divvied between the first and second floors of the Norton) is bound to leave out multitudes—the region encompasses 20 sovereign states and territories. And yet any recognition of this vital artistic diaspora is welcome, especially in South Florida communities where Latin American natives are often our friends and neighbors.
Drawn from the Norton’s eclectic permanent collection, curator J. Rachel Gustafson eases the potential problem of excluding important voices by smartly narrowing her focus to depictions of the human body through the lenses and brushes and pencils of 28 artists from 10 countries. Within this framework, a rainbow of approaches ensures a steady stream of surprises and left turns, with some artists favoring realism, others abstraction; some outwardly raging against machines of oppression in their countries, others looking inward; some rooted in the cultures and religions of their ethnic countries, others reflecting on their displacement from them. You might call the exhibition “I sing the body eclectic.”
The show opens with figural art at its most distilled and essential—Francisco Zuniga’s “Reclining Nude,” an elegant crayon drawing of a curvy female subject in repose—and quickly spirals into more esoteric representations of the human body. Miguel Covarrubia’s ink wash “Woman & Dog,” with its stick-figure, fur-wearing socialite, is an angular, humorous satire of the bourgeoisie, and Amelia Palaez del Casal’s “Mujer” is a modernist classic, almost cubist in its colorful, geometrically precise evocation of a womanly form.
Then, like a returning boomerang, we’re back to a foundation of realism with Jose Clemente Orozco’s lithograph “Unemployed,” which depicts four laborers appearing downcast, stooped, agonized, their emotions chiseled in time—one of many instances of these artists viewing their countries’ sociopolitical status quos with jaundiced eyes.
The aforementioned works all appear in the downstairs portion of “The Body Says.” Upstairs the art grows still more diverse, especially in its breadth of mediums. Cesar Cornejo’s creative “Calamina” is a shadow painting of two figures atop a building, completed on a vertical slab of corrugated metal not unlike a hurricane shutter. Vik Muniz’s “Frank Stella, Quathlamba,” a re-creation of a photograph of the abstract artist painting the titular work, is itself painted with Bosco chocolate syrup. Ronald Moran’s “Boots” are just that—military-style boots covered in Dacron, a polyethylene resin that seems to coat the objects in an ominous frost. Here, the body is defined by its absence: One thinks of shoes abandoned on some godforsaken mountain, their owner’s whereabouts unknown.
Ditto the impactful “Green,” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a site-specific installation of cellophane-wrapped green sour candies on the gallery floor, spread out horizontally until it is roughly the size of an adult body. The work is participatory: Spectators are encouraged to take one of the candies, and they’re delicious. By doing so, the number of elements in the artwork decrease, like the minutes and days and years of a person; Gonzalez-Torres was inspired to create “Green” after losing a friend to AIDS. Yet the candies are replenished regularly throughout the run of the exhibit, suggesting rebirth.
Like the nearby “Hands of Hope” painting by Oswaldo Guayasamin, in which hands sprout like tree branches and form a cocoon around a fretful man, it functions on a dual level—at once frightful and uplifting—and speaks to the very best of this compelling tip of the Latin American iceberg.
“The Body Says, I Am a Fiesta” runs through March 1, 2020, at Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Admission runs $5-$18, and is free for all visitors on Fridays and Saturdays. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.