"From Aguirre to Zuniga: The Figure in Latin American Art" is a short but beguiling jaunt through work by a selection of 20th century Latin artists. Along with a quirky solo installation by Buffalo artist Lillian Mendez, this appealing survey is the Castellani Art Museum's contribution to the eight-venue exhibition "The Latin Connection: Arts Across the Region," a project instigated and organized by the Castellani.
"From Aguirre to Zuniga," curated by guest curator Ben Ortiz, begins with a graceful leap over "A is for Aguirre" and heads right for "Z is for Zuniga." In the first beautifully installed gallery, the Costa Rican artist Francisco Zuniga is represented by a serene pastel of a nude (1975), whose awkward position is belied by the gentle touch of Zuniga's stroke. A lithograph of a mother and child (1973) conveys an even more tranquil mood. It is only in the bronze "Woman," a bulbous sculpture from 1965, that the more robust artist that Zuniga was comes through.
The exhibition's major drama arrives in the same gallery with the facing off of two fabulous suites of prints by Wifredo Lam ("Visble/Invisible," 1972) and Roberto Matta ("Centre Noends," 1971), two major figures in modern art. On the end wall, separating the glorious banks of prints, is a 10-foot-wide oil called "Interrupteur de la Memoire." It is one of Matta's great, other-worldly fantasies.
The combination of painting and prints, all of which dip into the same surrealist morphological stew (via Picasso) of crazily merged animals, humans, objects and plants, is imposing.
While the figures within come from the same cross-wired gene pool, the prints themselves project quite different moods. In Matta's etching/aquatints, his ever-pliable figures are set in a blotchy, ferociously mottled environment of dark and intense colors, giving what might be bucolic activities (flute-playing, dancing) ominous overtones. Lam's prints, on the other hand, also done in etching/aquatint, are crisply drawn combo-creatures that seem to grow out of one another in an alarming evolutionary process that takes place in the no-space of abstract surrealism.
As this small selection shows, Matta played an important role in surrealism. The Chilean-born artist was also on the scene in New York City during World War II, influencing the fledgling artists who would become the abstract expressionists. Lam, generally lesser known, was a key figure in Paris as the vocabulary of cubism was integrated into surrealism.
Because it is drawn entirely from the Castellani's permanent collection, the exhibition can't help but have its bumps and holes. Another example or two of Zuniga's sculpture would have helped immensely, and fewer of Enrique Araujo Grau's sentimental plaster figures would have made the second gallery better balanced. Grau, a Colombian, in the 1990s fashioned anecdotal figures that were made marginally comic by giving all his rather immodest women (evidently one immodest woman named "Rita") fat piano legs and stump-thick torsos. This work reflects the sometimes eclectic tastes of the museum's namesake, Armand J. Castellani, who began as an amateur collector and despite his eventual understanding of the complexities of modern art would slide back into the easy comforts of a contemporary art occupied by mere bench-warmers such as Grau.
One of the obvious holes is the absence of work from the great Mexican mural painters. And the only relatively recent work (setting aside Grau's) is a big, three-part painting by the Cuban-born, Western New York-based Alberto Rey. Rey's "Transition" is a riveting work, packed with dark self-reflection and inventive use of materials, but hardly enough to represent the far-reaching work of Latin artists at the close of the 20th century, here and elsewhere.
Rufino Tamayo, the great Mexican artist, makes up for a lot, however. His prints (some in a heavily textured process he called mixograph) are knockouts. His crude, silhouetted figures look like they have been steamrolled onto the paper. They are daringly blunt, darkly humorous beings that seem caught in some existential plight that hit them while performing a mundane act like, say, donning a hat.
The section devoted to the horned and colorful Puerto Rican vejigantes masks (Cesar Romero) and a vejigantes costume (Orlando Ortiz), and also containing some of Mendez's masks and her big charcoal parade drawings, is a pleasant and informative transition to Mendez's own separate installation further on.
"Lillian Mendez: Lily's Funky Parade" employs many of the folk techniques common in Latin countries and travels over some of the same metaphoric ground through her use of dolls. Her display is a kind of spilling out of wire-haired, fully costumed figures who join in extravagant vignettes involving such things as a tricycle, a bird cage, a baby's crib and a cute little pull-cart.
At first the dancing, cavorting dolls look like figures of amusement. But then things go dark. The seeming merriment of the scene turns explicitly grotesque with a freezer full of "ice-cream treat" dolls. Disturbing details in the photo-collage faces emerge. There are painful allusions to forced confinement and danger. The masklike heads take on strangely immobile expressions. And those "jolly" accompanying figures that hang around a self-portrait construction are not necessarily Mendez's friendly guardian angels.
There is much that is hokey about Mendez's project. The picturesque assemblage technique -- antique dolls and attic junk -- is a badly worn aesthetic. And at times emotions are pushed to such extremes that they can't be contained by the formal limits of her constructions.
But even with its flaws, the installation has its stirring effect -- a kind of off-handed nightmare told with wit and extravagant invention.
WHAT: "From Aguirre to Zuniga: The Figure in Latin American Art" and "Lillian Mendez: Lily's Funky Parade"
WHERE: Castellani Art Museum, Niagara University, Lewiston