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Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art at SFMOMA

By Rachel Churner

Can you create an exhibition around a title? Co-curators Elizabeth Armstrong and Victor Zamudio-Taylor have done just that in Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art currently at SFMOMA. What emerges from this masterful title is a collection of the contradictions and multiplicities inherent in the baroque itself. Used to describe a style of art prevalent in the 17th century that was characterized by bold ornamentation and contrasting elements, the term baroque also denotes grotesqueness, extravagance, and flamboyance.

The exhibition focuses on the resonance of the baroque in contemporary art from Latin America, where the style is inextricably linked to colonization and its aftermath. Organized for the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego last year, it contains eighty-two works by sixteen artists from South America, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States. Ultrabaroque is a generational cross-section, a "conscious decision to present artists that came of age in the 90s." (Zamudio-Taylor). And though not all of it is profound or even engaging, the very gathering of the works for this bilingual, multimedia exhibition is exceptional in its exhilarating reinterpretation of the baroque.

Rubén Ortiz Torres' Bart Sánchez The artists are connected by their inclusion in the exhibition, not necessarily the concepts in their work. Which is why Miguel Calderón's video of a Mariachi band covering punk classics and José Antonio Hernández-Diez's painted skateboards hang near delicate silk curtains upon which Lia Menna Barreto has violently melted plastic baby dolls. Adriana Varejão, a Brazilian artist explores the baroque rather bluntly with her "meat paintings," literally gouges the pristine landscapes of 17th century artists, wounding the canvas to expose the corporeal remnants of colonization.

Decidedly one of the most intriguing works is The Source: Virgins and Crosses by the brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre. Both respectful and irreverent, the numerous hand-blown glass sculptures are of two forms: crosses labeled with men's names and vaginal voids labeled with women's names. What seems like a male revision of Judy Chicago's dinner plates, each with an abstracted vagina design, becomes much more with the artists' explanations. When asked if they were strictly referencing the female body and its role in Catholicism, the brothers showed the complexity of the work with their reply: "What would happen if the Virgins in every household shrine ran away? All that would remain would be these voids." The Source spotlights the horror vacui or fear of the undecorated surface inherent in the Catholic religion, as its attempts to fill every space with text, image, and decoration.

Elizabeth Armstrong notes in her catalog essay that there is a third definition of baroque: irregularly shaped pearl. In Ultrabaroque, this third definition connects the artists perhaps more than the others, for in their works each artist valorizes imperfection. In this age of cultured pearls, where farm-produced matching sets of spherical gems are the norm, it proves worthwhile to focus on that lowest category of pearl, the baroque. For in an ever-more assimilated world, collections of imperfection strung together produce something uniquely beautiful.

Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art is at SFMOMA now through January 2, 2002 and is accompanied by a 212-page bilingual catalog.