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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  ¡Viva El Arte!
News & Columns

¡Viva El Arte!

How Latino artists are adding hues to Utah’s canvas.

By Stephen Dark
Posted // June 11,2007 -

The Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Christmas Gala, 2005. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is walking around in a circle. He has a svelte Miss Latino on his arm, a rather gaudy Mexican poncho slung over one shoulder, while before him a child walks strewing petals from a basket in his path. One of the gala’s hosts explains to the dining crowd that this is a ritual of honor, reflecting the governor’s ties to the Hispanic community. Some Hispanics close to the governor are heard to mutter darkly about this being way beneath the dignity of his office.

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But judging by the look of schooled politeness on his features, the governor is perhaps reminding himself why he attended this event in the first place: According to figures from the Utah State Office of Ethnic Affairs, Latinos represent a substantial 10.6 percent of the state’s population. In 1970, there were just 35,000; today there are more than 250,000. But the figure perhaps most on his mind is their annual spending: a muscular $3.6 billion a year, says the Ethnic Affairs Office. Is walking over a few petals too much to ask?

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But if that catchall label “Latino” has achieved a new prominence because of population numbers and purchasing power, exactly who Latinos are remains a mystery for many Utah Anglos. Admittedly there is the business and political leadership of the Hispanic community, highly visible in the media but often, according to Hispanic activists, wrapped up in long-running feuds as they jockey for power.

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Meanwhile, the far right has managed to wrestle away driver-license privileges and is now trying to deny higher education to undocumented Hispanic youths who have grown up here by forcing them to pay out-of-state tuition. This has led to criticism from within the community by those who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they remain somehow marginalized, voiceless while the Hispanic movers and shakers pursue their own agenda.

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But are there signs of change in the air? Are Latinos mounting a counterattack?

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Perhaps.

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The Park City-based Kimball Art Center’s second annual Arte Latino exhibition, opening March 11, heralds a beginning, a germination of possibilities'both artistic and political'that, whether the anti-immigration fraternity likes it or not, might well end up changing the way Anglo-Utahns view both themselves and their Hispanic neighbors.

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Mediocre.

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That was the word that came to the lips of several visitors to last year’s Kimball Art Center’s first Arte Latino exhibition. Of course, opinion about art is subjective, but, with several exceptions'notably Carlos Matamoros Maldonado and Guillermo Colmenero'the work was curiously self-effacing, lacking in individualism. It was more a recycling of stereotypical Latino images and the inevitable bright palate of colors than work that sought in any way to connect with the gallery’s visitors.

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Ask curator Erin Linder about the first exhibition and she explains that the gallery’s director Pam Crowe-Weisberg wanted to celebrate the Latino presence in Utah: “She was aware of the Latinos being a driving force in the Park City community, fueling our tourism industry. She saw an opportunity to honor them, to welcome them and to educate non-Latinos.?

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The first year, according to Linder, “We were focusing on providing space. It was about community more than premiering quality artwork. In many cases, it was less how the work was constructed than the message that came through.?

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Certainly from the gallery’s point of view, that first exhibition was successful'it sold 10 out of the 50 pieces on exhibit. In a town where art galleries sell a preponderance of overpriced and often hackneyed Wild West paintings, that in itself is quite a feat. Yet despite the success of last year, only 15 artists submitted their work to the gallery for the 2006 exhibition. All of them were accepted.

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One stumbling block for this year’s exhibition was resistance by some artists to the Latino umbrella. A number of Hispanic artists turned down invitations to submit for the exhibition admits Linder, although she will not reveal whom. “They felt like they were being put in a box,” she says. “We respect them wanting to be on their own.”

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Perhaps the irony here, though, is that terms like “Latino” and “Hispano” simply cannot contain the immense range of different nationalities and cultures'from Chile to Mexico, from Spain to those born in America of Latino parents'they somehow are supposed to represent. What this exhibition demonstrates is that individual voices, if forceful enough, can break through this labeling to reveal stories of life, whether from rural north Mexico, the Salvadorean jungle or the Peruvian countryside. And the stories are as relevant to Anglos in their quest for identity as they are to the Latinos who work in construction or to clean rooms behind the scenes in Park City.

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Pilar Pobil and Ruby Chacón are the first ladies of Latino art in Utah, and both are exhibiting at the Kimball. Pobil’s work is full of energy and languid, strong women with expressive features. Chacón is adept at exploring her own image through different cultural eyes, painting herself as a Madonna with tears that fall like stalactites from her cheeks. Besides these two forceful artists, both experts at self-promotion, you might expect others to pale, but the vibrancy of some of the work suggest otherwise.

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A face sculpted out of stone by Park City art dealer Felix Saez'whose parents were Puerto Rican and American Indian'is primitive, ancient and yet utterly knowing, its heavily lidded features staying with you long after you’ve gazed at it.

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Georgina Alvarez-Gutierrez’s photographs from a visit to Cuba seem all too familiar. One however, “La bicycleta roja” features a broken bicycle seat taped together and a large crate of cabbages which the unseen bicyclist hauls round the city. It speaks volumes of the day-to-day struggle to survive in Cuba.

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“Tres chicas” by Enrique Reyes who'like several other artists'is self-taught, takes traditional Mexican imagery and provides a luminous perspective, perhaps the best example of Linder’s comment about theme overcoming execution. The three girls are seen from behind, holding hands, their long braids seeming to swing back and forth. There’s a deep love for women evident in the painting, perhaps oversimplistically explained by Reyes having been a single parent who raised two daughters.

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But arguably the most exciting work this year is also in some ways the most political. Three artists who, having pursued personal agendas rather than easier-to-sell landscapes, have effectively raised their heads above the parapet, celebrating not only cultural identities but exploring their own as well.

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Two of the Kimball’s painters, Karen Dreyfus and Carlos Matamoros Maldonado, are from El Salvador. The name of the country gives rise to images of death squads and left-wing guerrillas, “campesinos” caught in the middle and American government officials cozying up to Latin American dictatorships to stop South American communism from spreading to the United States.

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Maldonado, in his early work in Utah in the late ’70s'he was an established painter in San Salvador but left he says because it “wasn’t a good time for artists?'took on difficult themes about his country’s political problems: images of starvation, blood splattered on a wall, a body sprawled backwards so you can’t see the face. “They were very strong, not for decoration,” he says.

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His more recent work, however'drawing heavily on images of Salvadorean peasantry'is less aggressive politically, while remaining challenging. “I saw this guy with his son on the sidewalk in San Salvador, and I asked him if I could sketch them,” he said. “Afterwards, I gave the little boy some money and asked why he wasn’t at school. His father said he didn’t need an education to pick through garbage. Things like that motivate me to paint.?

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In “La Familia,” a man sits with his arm around his wife, both of them barefooted, both looking at the ground, an uneaten banana by his side. Their torsos are square, as if poverty and a lack of food are pressing against them on all sides. “They are disfigured from hunger and cold,” says Maldonado. “They look at the ground so people don’t see them. They feel marginalized. We live together as a society, squashed against each other, and yet we are isolated, abandoned.?

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Another painting called “Maternidad” features a man with his arm around his pregnant wife. She is holding her stomach on which is painted a smiling face. Next to them, sitting on a step, is a boy cradling his belly. “They are happy about the pregnancy, but the father is worried there is no food for them. The boy is protecting his empty stomach.?

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Two of his paintings on the walls of his family home'one showing a woman from behind looking out the window as her husband leaves her, while the baby she’s holding cries; another of his father taking up half the frame watching a sunset, again his back to the viewer'reflect a sense of Maldonado’s own division between looking at his old life and exploring his identity today. There is a sense of weight, of burden to his paintings, even a suppressed anger. He talks about going out for walks and being splashed by passing cars, of a neighbor who ignored him because he was Latino until he found out he was an artist. One Anglo asked him how his Thanksgiving with burritos was, assuming by his skin color he had to be Mexican.

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While Maldonado’s peasants draw you in because they refuse to meet your gaze, Dreyfus’ portraits challenge you and look into you, asking you who you think they are and who you want them to be. Employing a palate much darker than the traditional image of Latino art would lead you to expect, she takes old black-and-white photos of strangers and paints them over ephemera she’s collected. In so doing, she effectively reinvents anonymous faces by giving them stories, hints and clues from the collages that surround them.

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There are “The newlyweds,” the woman standing behind the man who’s vaguely reminiscent of Kafka and yet'with his dark skin tone'could easily be a member of the upper middle class that Dreyfus’ family belonged to before they fled El Salvador’s civil war. In the case of “Half-Sisters,” Dreyfus made one of the two girls in an old sepia-toned picture she found darker-skinned than the other. A girl dressed for Holy Communion is surrounded by old prayer cards and becomes a meditation on Catholicism and the importance of first communion as a Latino rite of passage.

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“This is who I am,” she says about her paintings that manage to be both playful and solemn at the same time. “One of the things these pictures share with me is strength.” The colors, the lines, the dark linear motives are clear, the subjects well delineated. “Up to now, Latinos have been noticed only in terms of economics and marketing. But these paintings are confrontational, they ask that you pay attention'that you see me, that I have a history, an identity, a voice.?

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At first sight, three of the sculptures that Guillermo Colmenero is exhibiting at the Kimball seem almost willfully chosen because they have no Hispanic theme. But then that is the point, he says. There’s a woman with flowers around her neck who represents spring, another with bare branches growing out of her head that is autumn and three ballet dancers who represent three generations of women. They are strong, striking images, but there’s nothing identifiably Latino. “I want people to go, ?Wow, I didn’t expect this.’ I want to challenge stereotypes.?

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Colmenero built his reputation on whimsical, elongated skeletal figures about the Day of the Dead. “It’s the Mexican Memorial Day,” he says, “only more satirical. You clean the grave, put out fresh flowers, you remember those who passed away, but you also think about your own death, about the way you wish to go, about having fun with the life you have.” His Day of the Dead sculptures feature skeletons gossiping, swinging a golf club, bullfighting, playing the violin or the cello. It’s as if he’s showing the collision, even the overlapping of Mexican and American cultures at a time when thanks to immigration and groups like the Minutemen, distinctions between the two countries have never seemed more prominent.

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Sitting in his workshop in the Pottery Circle just off 900 South and State, he’s trying to decide which other two pieces to send to the exhibition. There’s an unfinished bust of Frida Kahlo, a couple in “A kiss to die for” and two homeboys in the kind of poses you find, he says, in low-rider magazines. He’s named the unfinished homeboy piece “Xolotel?'Mayan for dog'a play on the traditional “dawg” greeting. Finally, he decides to take all six and let the gallery decide.

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“You lose and you gain when you move to another country,” he says. “It gives you a new culture, people, new scenarios, but you lose part of your identity. When I go back to Mexico, I’m seen as a tourist.?

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Erin Linder says she wants the Kimball exhibition to encourage Latino artists to push themselves more. “When we first set out to do this show last year,” Linder recalled, “I researched what had been done across the United States and realized it was an umbrella for a diversity of ideas, points of view.” That said, however, she is careful about walking the line between promoting art and agit-prop. “We are trying to maintain neutrality. We don’t want to be political but rather celebrate traditions as opposed to focusing on everyday reality.”

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If Linder’s ambition to nurture more Latino voices in Utah’s art world comes to fruition'and certainly artists like Chacón and Colmenero work hard behind the scenes to encourage that'then the debate over the Latino presence in this society can only become more clear and balanced. While no one is insisting that Latino artists should be politically motivated, as Colmenero says, “I believe that all artists have a responsibility to express themselves.”

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He’s working with Ruby Chacón on a large-scale installation for Westminster College for next year. It will be about the more than 370 women and girls murdered in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua, Mexico, since 1993, at least a third having suffered sexual violence according to reports by Amnesty International. It has only been in the last couple of years that local institutions have begun to investigate the murders, although a number of men who were arrested and allegedly confessed to killings later recanted their confessions, claiming they were extracted under torture.

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An HBO documentary on the murdered women was what inspired Chacón and Colmenero to take on the project. “This will be very strong criticism toward both countries,” he says, “blaming one for not caring and the other for not putting pressure on for change.?

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Nationally, there are several bills waiting for Senate approval. One calls for a wall to be built between Mexico and the United States; another would make it illegal to hire or even help the undocumented. The situation, say Hispanic activists, has never been more dire. Some talk dispiritedly of giving up the fight.

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As Latino art grows more confident, more ambitious, it provides a voice for those who have not yet been heard in the public arena. Arte Latino proves that Utah has now become home to visions of life rooted paradoxically in worlds both far beyond the borders of Utah and yet next door. These images enrich and embolden our understanding of those who immigrated to this state in recent times and of families and neighbors who have been here for generations.

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But what the best of these art works show is that, like the anonymous faces in Dreyfus’ paintings, our identity is often defined less by our own efforts than by those willing to suspend judgment and prejudice to simply engage with what they see before them and so embrace the sense of universal humanity that true art seeks to inspire in us all.

 
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