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Staying connected Nine-venue event celebrates Latin art and culture

It was that 1971 movie that started it. "The French Connection" seemed to suddenly make everyone on the planet realize that if you put a subject -- any subject -- in front of the word "connection," you would make the reader of the resultant phrase feel -- how can I say it -- connected.

It could be the Date Connection, the Pizza Connection, the Hollywood Connection, the Hair Connection, the Career Connection, the Blue Grass Connection, the Blue Cheese Connection -- it didn't matter. You sensed that this was where all lines on this particular subject intersect. It felt that you had reached the nexus.

Some connections connect, some don't. But "The Latin Connection: Arts Across the Region," an ambitious, nine-venue event organized by the Castellani Art Museum, is one that surely will. It features an arresting array of art exhibitions by national, international and local Latino artists, various hands-on workshops, concerts and other musical events, storytelling, dance and dance instruction and poetry and spoken word programs.

Castellani Director Laurene Buckley, the connecting force behind the "The Latin Connection," first got the idea of a region-wide Latin event when she discovered the wealth of work by Latino artists in the museum collection. "It was amazing to find that we have more than 200 works by Latino artists," she said in a recent telephone conversation. "They come from seven or eight countries across Latin and North America, including Cuba, Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile and Venezuela."

After the success of the collaborative "Beyond/In Western New York" exhibition mounted by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery last year, Buckley was enthusiastic about bringing in other arts organizations. "We wanted to see if we had partners out there. And we did -- nine altogether," she said.

Among the collaborators is the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which will offer a special exhibition devoted to Latino abstract artists from its permanent collections. It will also turn two of the popular Gusto at the Gallery Fridays over to Latin-themed activities.

With a handle that encompasses the first Latino impressionist artist (the Puerto Rican Oller painted in Paris with Renoir and the rest) and Mexico's most famous muralist, the Allen Street gallery El Museo Francisco Oller y Diego Rivera could hardly be overlooked. It will show minimalist works by well-known poet and University at Buffalo professor Jorge Guitart.

The Kenan Center, St. Bonaventure University's Quick Center, UB's Anderson Gallery and Art Dialogue Gallery are the other participating organizations. The Quick Center will present an exhibition of posters from 40 years of Puerto Rican history. Anderson will host the graphic works of the prominent Juchitan-born artist Francisco Toledo. The Castellani's collection show will hold works by major figures like Matta, Wilfredo Lam, Marisol and Rufino Tamayo, among others. (The Burchfield-Penney Art Center last night held a Caribbean dance workshop and a lecture by Michael Zwack to coincide with a current Zwack exhibition.)

Well before she began her investigation of the Latino works in the collection, Buckley was aware of the presence of a number of prodigious local talents with Latin backgrounds. "Alberto Rey is a key local figure whose work is in our collection," she said. "And the work of another local Latino artist, Lillian Mendez, will be featured in the Topspin Gallery ["Lillian Mendez: Lily's Funky Parade" opening this evening from 5 to 8]. Lily will also be offering demonstrations and workshops in Puerto Rican carnival mask-making."

Because they are crucial to the carnivals in Puerto Rico and other parts of the world, Vejigante masks (see sidebar) will play a prominent role in the Castellani exhibits, according to Buckley. "On display will be a wonderful Vejigante mask and costume by Orlando Ortiz -- Ortiz did a workshop for us in 1996 -- and a Vejigante mask by Cesar Romero, both from our collection. We will devote a whole wall to masks, and Lily will demonstrate how they are produced."

Buckley worries that museums tend to be too insular. When they are, whole communities may be cut off from participating in what she sees as an irreplaceable life experience -- interaction with art.

"An event like 'The Latin Collection' will give museums and art organizations and the arts generally an increased visibility in these communities," she explained. "And you hope that it's an ongoing thing, that it gets people coming to the museum and attracts lots of school groups. Then, suddenly, Latino art becomes incorporated in our daily lives."

e-mail: rhuntington@buffnews.com

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