at the Betty Rymer Gallery of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Since the earliest days of its life as an industrial center Chicago has pulled people from abroad, first from Europe and the Baltic states, then from Asia, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. People of widely diverse backgrounds and languages have bumped into the hard edges of our city and managed to survive. Diversity is nothing new here, yet genuine respect for cultural difference remains a remarkably novel idea.

So it’s still refreshing to find a forum like the Betty Rymer Gallery’s current show “Los Encuentros” (on view through October 14), where cultural difference is both celebrated and explored. Composed of 33 objects and images by 13 artists from Mexico, Central and South American, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, “Los Encuentros” (“Encounters” in English, “Los Encontros” in Portuguese) investigates how the styles and themes of artists from Ibero-American nations took shape in the context of their training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Robert Loescher, SAIC professor of art history, theory, and criticism and a specialist in the art of Latin America, selected these artists from among Latin American students who studied at SAIC during the 1970s and ’80s.

The formal and conceptual terrain represented in “Los Encuentros” is as vast as the geographical area from which the artists are drawn. The show includes painting, photography, sculpture, video, installation, and mixed-media work; crisply representational imagery and spare abstraction; religious symbolism, romantic landscape, and terse political commentary. Nevertheless there are common strains.

“This exhibition is . . . intended to show the process of artistic development,” explains the exhibition catalog. “Each artist was asked to choose a work from their SAIC period and something current.” Yet the show seems less about the process of each artist’s career than about the surprising affinities between the work’s native cultural contexts and ongoing concerns in U.S. contemporary art.

Some of the work in “Los Encuentros” investigates how we understand ourselves as physical creatures. In her Journal of the Body, a series of 13 laser prints, Laura Gonzalez (from Mexico, currently living in Barcelona) depicts the many ways she sees her own frame, in an effort reminiscent of the U.S. “women’s art” movement in the 1970s, when women turned to their own bodies to reclaim from a patriarchal culture their own experiences. Photographic depictions of a single female body–perhaps self-portraits–are overlaid by chalky drawings of body parts, Spanish text, and indecipherable scratches of color. Some of the inscriptions seem benign: que esta una caja (this is a body); agua (water) and tierra (land). But quickly the text turns somber. One body is labeled armadura, which translates as “suit of armor” or “reinforcing bars,” or, as in armadura de la cama, “bed frame.” One picture screams VIDA PRIVADA (private life), as if to warn the viewer of sacred territory or lament the subject’s loss of control over her own body. Another image features the head, and its look of blank incomprehension makes it appear the owner had little to say about how her body was defined.

Using a much more minimal vocabulary, Brazilian Ana Maria Tavares has created a site-specific installation that investigates how the physical world helps define our experience. In the center of a rear section of the gallery Tavares has placed a pair of shiny, waist-high metal forms; standing between them is something like the sandwiched, mechanical feeling of walking through a subway turnstile. A large section of an adjacent wall is covered in wavy, hairlike pencil lines–soft and sensual in appearance but hard to the touch. On another wall, above the viewer’s head, a jet black metal rod curves out over the floor like a blunted support beam, unabashedly phallic and tantalizingly out of reach. Like other successful architectural spaces, Tavares’s work illustrates the circular manner in which human beings construct the world, which in turn constructs us.

Other works explore less corporeal aspects of the self. Hanging next to Tavares’s stark installation is Puerto Rican artist Arnaldo Roche-Rabell’s imposing eight-by-eight-foot oil painting. No Matter What, Inside We Always Remain the Same has a haunted, spiritual presence. A highly stylized rendering of a body in anguish, its arms outstretched as in a crucifixion, floats over fiery hatch marks like a martyr being burned at the stake. Faint, pressed images of greenish white leaves hover around the dying form, perhaps signaling some inner purity hidden from the subject’s oppressors. As we step back from the image, we can see soulful eyes peering through the fire, as if some huge spirit-portrait were submerged beneath the surface of the canvas. Is the artist himself somewhere in the frame?

Raul Cristancho can certainly be found in his. Self Portrait With Emblem and Animal Alter-Ego is a triptych oil painting with a murky rendering of the Colombian artist’s face on one side and the head of a cat on the other. Between the two is a clean row of alternating symbols spanning the long, narrow center panel: fleurs-de-lis, centuries-old emblems of European imperial power, appear alongside iconic depictions of corn, the manna of the New World. Cristancho’s self-portrait positions him at the intersection of vastly different realms–one formal and one spiritual. He’s simultaneously a citizen of a postcolonial society and an older, precolonial world.

In contrast to these nearly mystical personal images are Inigo Manglano-Ovalle’s objects. Standing out like scoffers in church, they sound an articulate, unavoidably political note to anyone who walks in. Flotilla consists of three inflated inner tubes hung horizontally at waist height in the center of the main gallery. These meticulously placed and balanced rafts give a weightless quality to the area around them, making us feel momentarily adrift in some invisible sea. Each tube is doubly named, in rubber paint: La Nina, La Pinta, and La Santa Maria as well as Rio Grande, Key West, and Palm Beach. The little crafts reiterate the fragility of the threads that first linked Old World to New, but far from praising such sea journeys, Manglano-Ovalle incisively criticizes them, implying that brash European explorers skittered across the globe and claimed it as if they were children at play in some enormous swimming pool.

Manglano-Ovalle’s Multi-Cultural Fruit Juice (Six-Pack) beguilingly mimics familiar consumer products. He presents two series of six glass bottles each, filled with different colored liquids and bearing crisp IRIS-print labels. They look much like the cleverly named, costly fruit drinks with “exotic” flavors favored by upscale Anglos on their lunch hours, but they bear bitter names like “Native Nectar” and “Border Punch.” The ingredients lists are sobering, too, including “essential bodies of color, pronounced accents, marginal extracts, and type cast tokens.” In a world overtaken by profit-motive advertising, even ethnicity has been glibly commodified.

Manglano-Ovalle’s cynical insights effectively tap the experience of cultural marginality, of being adrift in an intolerant world constructed by others. But some of his works’ visual power also comes from the critical perspectives of other Chicago artists–Mitchell Kane and Tony Tasset, for example, who have built solid careers by creating visual puns that make art the ultimate object of commodity fetishism, among other profanities. Similarly, Gonzalez’s investigations of the body recall certain U.S. movements of the 70s. And ever since the Abstract Expressionists gained international attention for the U.S. after World War II, the self has been viewed as a legitimate, even sacred source for art; undoubtedly Roche-Rabell’s and Cristancho’s ethereal, highly self-reflexive paintings get some of their power from the fact that American viewers are prepared for this approach.

Yet while these artists share key concerns with many of their native colleagues, they also bring to their work a sensitivity to the importance of place in molding experience. El Salvadoran painter Rodolfo Molina’s Naturaleza Viva (Live Nature) initially appears to be a romantic impression of a garden courtyard. But quickly the romance dissolves when we see that the happy garden looks more like a prison–only one small, meticulously clipped tree grows within high, whitewashed walls. In her mixed-media work, Puntos Cardinales (“cardinal points” or “high points”), Peruvian artist Mariella Agois collages photographic images of a jet soaring over a high mountain, perhaps Andean, but partially obscures them with blue paint and flips one of the planes so that it flies upside down. She reminds us of how height obscures our perceptions of spatial relationships, of how air transportation collapses social space, and of just how far from Peru the midwestern prairie must have seemed for this artist.

Such geographic and cultural distances are shrinking, however. Once the nation’s busiest railroad hub, Chicago now boasts the world’s busiest airport. In 1987, the year Agois made Puntos Cardinales and finished her MFA, Illinois officially admitted 160 immigrants from her native country. Nearly 5,000 came to the state from Mexico that year, another 984 from Central America. Certainly many more people came unofficially, without documentation, green cards, or basic welfare entitlements. In 1980, the last year for which estimates are currently available, well over a million Illinoisans spoke a language other than English at home; nearly 141,000 children in the state spoke Spanish with their families. The world of “Los Encuentros” is, quite literally, at our doorstep. No visa required.

It was storming the last time I stopped to see “Los Encuentros,” and when I bent down for a closer look at Mirentxu Ganzarain’s Medicine Tablet, a concrete construction that rests low to the floor, a drop of Illinois weather fell irreverently from my head onto the sculpture’s hard surface. Inlaid with textbook renderings of a human skeleton and a rusty, scalpel-like tool, the object looks almost ancient, as if it had been excavated from some fading era. Ganzarain came from Chile, and I’m from Portland, Oregon, but we both needed an umbrella in Chicago that day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jerry Kobylecky.