Monday, November 9, 2009

El Museo del Barrio: Illuminating Past, Present and Future of Latino and Latin American Art

By Stephanie Jurburg

After a year-and-a-half renovation break, El Museo del Barrio reopened its doors in October to reveal a more varied and robust look into Latin American culture in New York.

Founded in 1969 by artist and educator Raphael Montañez Ortiz, El Museo sought to represent the large Puerto Rican population of the area, whose art had no place in Museum Mile. The museum’s collection quickly grew, and forty years later, the museum reopened as an enhanced platform for education in Latin American and Caribbean art and for the promotion of Latino and Latin American artists. Today, it stands as the gateway to El Barrio, the city’s traditional Spanish Harlem.

The reformation has been both structural and conceptual. The lively new logo and the new glass façade modernize the institution's presentation and aesthetics, and the brand new Carmen Unanue Galleries allow for the display of El Museo's permanent collection, which currently includes more than 6,500 pieces.

Voces y Visiones: Four Decades through El Museo del Barrio’s Permanent Collection is a journey through forty years of thoughtfully recorded art. The exhibit features 200 works, and includes from Taíno pieces to photographs, installations, and videos. The eclectic collection not only serves to explain the wide range and variety of Hispanic art, but it also situates it in a global context. Some pieces have a strong Latin feel with defining colors, political ideas and religious imagery; others are best described as cosmopolitan. The evolution of art and its dynamic nature jumps out as one progresses from pre-Columbian vases to Montañez Ortiz’s primitive experimental videos, through modernism to postmodernism. The sense of urgency that the art-covered walls evoke is a clear statement of the dynamism of Latino culture and identity.

Wherever the permanent collection situates Hispanic artists in the world, the current exhibition Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis explores the effect that the early Twentieth-century city's art scene had on world-famous Latin American artists. Curated by Deborah Cullen, the show successfully seeks to elucidate how interactions with other European and American artists caused stylistic reformations that would pave the way for avant-garde movements throughout the 2oth century and beyond. Most importantly, the exhibit highlights the influence played by Latin American artists living in New York during that period on the local development of those same movements, an influence traditionally underestimated or bluntly ignored by mainstream art history in the United States.

Nexus New York consists of over 200 works by artists from Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay. U.S. and European artists working in New York at the time are also featured, as well as supplementary material that further illuminates the intricate network of collaborations and influences among them.

The gallery is divided into five sections, which explore both how New York changed the artists' style, as in Uruguayan innovator Joaquín Torres García, and how those creators revolutionized art in their home countries upon returning, as was the case with Puerto Rican realist Miguel Pou y Becerra and Brazilian expressionist Anita Malfatti. A whole section is devoted to Mexican modernism and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose experimental techniques would influence Diego Rivera and Jackson Pollock. Another section delves into the early surrealist New York scene.

The format of the exhibit lends itself to study: the choice of artwork and the way it is presented allows for greater understanding of how some of the most important art movements came into existence. The show's clear format and thorough nature allow for the viewers to use it as a tool to understanding Latin roots of modern art.

Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis , along with the permanent collection gallery, undertake to place Latino and Latin American art in their appropriate time and place, tracing its origins and influences, and bringing about a deeper insight on Latino art and identity. At the gates of Hispanic New York, the new El Museo stands as a clear, colorful beacon.

Nexus New York: Latin American Artists in the Modern Metropolis is on view until February 28, 2010. Voces and Visiones: Four Decades Through El Museo del Barrio’s Permanent Collection. At El Museo del Barrio,  1230 Fifth Avenue (at 104th Street). For more information, click here.

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