Transnational Identities/

Cultura en Proceso

at DePaul University,

through May 20

The group show is primarily the work of the curator, who brings art by many disparate artists together like found objects to make a point. In fact the curator often functions like a critic, and the exhibit’s words–in the form of wall texts, catalog essays, taped explanations, and panel discussions–often dominate. This discourse frequently reflects the current cultural debate on issues of “globalization of capitalism,” “transnational migrations,” “centers and peripheries,” “difference,” “identity,” “postcolonialism,” and “multiculturalism.” And though to the uninitiated the discussion can sound like incomprehensible babble, behind the language lie very real political and economic changes that affect the nature and practice of art making.

Take the Art Institute’s sudden and unprecedented recognition of the contemporary art of the Americas in “About Place,” a mainstream show that’s in sharp contrast with DePaul University’s “Transnational Identities/Cultura en Proceso.” We’ve reached the point that the art institution can recognize the demands of the marginalized because such capitulation is both politically and economically expedient. James N. Wood, the director and president of the Art Institute, himself justifies this radical change in a catalog statement: “The exhibition’s north-south axis is particularly appropriate today given the increasing economic, social and cultural interdependence among nations.” If it was necessary during the cold war for the United States to claim modernism for itself and to insist that real art is apolitical, it is now necessary, with NAFTA and a free-market economy, to become diverse. A global economy demands new markets–cultural as well as economic.

The premise of “About Place,” curated by Madeleine Grynsztejn, is interesting: to bring together diverse artists from the Americas. But the result is not so much a dialogue or an exchange as an expression of hyperalienation. Most viewers must be perplexed by the lack of contact between these works, a disjunction so extreme that what we learn from an overview of the exhibit is that, in this age of exile and displacement, each of us carries his own concept of home within. It follows then that there is little shared experience and we’re all just talking to ourselves.

The work of Chilean Eugenio Dittborn reveals another insidiously destructive feature of inclusive multicultural shows. Dittborn made a name for himself in the 80s with his airmail paintings, a form he developed during the Pinochet dictatorship after the coup of 1973–a way of sending out his critical works to international exhibitions. But the two large airmail paintings here disappointed me. Artist and critic Luis Camnitzer suggested a reason for this disappointment in a gallery talk at the Art Institute where he argued that since the fall of Pinochet and Ditt-born’s inclusion in the international mainstream, the airmail painting has become unnecessary and is therefore a mere formal exercise or “trademark.” But if the need for recognition and the demands of the marketplace force artists to repeat themselves, they’re in danger of relinquishing art making to pursue the alienated tasks of performing a mere job.

The recent globalization of U.S. culture may be simply a new form of colonization that seeks to absorb the peripheral art world into an already dead “avant-garde” and thus destroy it. Furthermore, the discourse of multiculturalism coming from high-art institutions is problematic because it determines what themes are permitted to marginalized artists as the price of admission to the mainstream. Such artists are forced to show how their works relate to their national, social, or sexual origins, thus continuing their marginalization under an “altruistic” umbrella of inclusion.

If “About Place” represents the institutional side of the debate, “Transnational Identities” presents us with voices from the periphery. Like the Art Institute show, “Transnational Identities” is about place, since all the artists are Latin American, but they’re linked by another place: Chicago.

The debate about how Latin American art is to be interpreted and exhibited in the United States has gone through some changes in recent years. In the 1980s there was a boom in Latin American art in the United States, but it was always described, primarily by curators, as exotic and fantastic. This focus developed into a new curatorial concept, “cultural identity.” Monica Amor, in her essay on last year’s exhibition at the Bronx Museum in New York, “Cartographies: 14 Latin American Artists,” questions the advisability of focusing on this feature: “One must question for how long we are going to limit Latin America’s artistic critical discourse to a subject which so far seems to be the only one permitted for it, namely, cultural identity. It is not a matter of dismissing issues related to cultural identity, but to stop treating them in general terms, as abstractions, and to move toward a closer reading of the images, objects, performative aspects of our cultures.” “Transnational Identities” seeks to transcend national boundaries by examining the loss of cultural roots and national rituals to gain a more experimental culture through new alliances.

Curators who are also artists tend to make works of art out of exhibitions, and this show by nine Latin Americans living in Chicago, curated by artists Bibiana Suarez and Encarnacion Teruel, is no exception: it has an immediate impact, as if all the pieces had been composed like the elements of a painting. Or it may be the curators’ involvement in their own art that has ensured a lively dialogue between the pieces despite their varied techniques, styles, materials, and subjects. Whatever the reason, the viewer does not experience that void between the works so strongly evidenced in “About Place.”

In the current political climate we’re conceived to be posteverything, and in particular postoppositional, engulfed in an ever more encompassing circle of acceptance and subsumption. However, there are three artists in this exhibition–Elizam Escobar, Carlos Cortez, and Sylvia Malagrino–who in their lives or their work or both exemplify a quiet opposition that I hope will become more dominant.

One issue in recent critical theory is postcolonialism. Although it’s not referred to by the curators of this exhibit, it does get mentioned in Dave Hickey’s essay in the Art Institute catalog: he says that “the world in which we live today [is] the undeniably full, demonstrably round, and increasingly centerless world of postcolonial reality.” But Escobar’s work here, six small self-portraits, reminds us that we cannot be living in a postcolonial world, that colonies still exist. He’s the only artist in this show who does not reside in Chicago, but his connections with the city are very strong: he was arrested and tried here and his work is shown here frequently. Now a political prisoner, he’s served 15 years of a 68-year sentence for membership in the Puerto Rican independence movement. His art is a potent reminder that the theories of postcolonialism may be premature–he’s “making himself visible to the world outside of the prisoner’s invisibility.” His six small acrylic paintings here (a departure from his earlier work, which resembled assemblages) express the complexity of who he is: one of them shows his face, with horns added, atop the body of a spider/cockroach with ten legs.

Older immigrants and the children of immigrants who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s have often seen themselves as part of the working-class movements of their adopted countries, and Cortez is of this generation of socialists. The five examples here of his beautiful woodcuts and linoleum prints, showing some German expressionist influence, cover subjects from labor-movement martyr Joe Hill to immigration in De la tierra somos. No somos legales (“We belong to the land. We are not illegal”).

It may seem paradoxical that powerful avant-garde art should emerge under military dictatorships, where art does not depend on patronage but must flourish underground, in the severe stress and horror of life-and-death situations. But because I believe that in our age the true function of art is to be critical and oppositional, it doesn’t surprise me that the unimaginable horror of the “disappeareds” has produced some of the finest and truest and often the least didactic and most poetic art to come out of South America in the last 20 years. Malagrino treats this subject in her large gelatin silver print triptych The South–Missing, a piece created against forgetting; in the words of Walter Benjamin, “Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”

The two end prints of this triptych incorporate photographs of the desaparecidos from the political persecution in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, while the center panel contains a photographic reproduction of an ancient Mayan image. The Mayan image places the desaparecidos in a larger context, one that includes the cultural and historical “disappearance” of the other Americas in the modern world. Malagrino’s process, which involves manipulating photographic images by scratching the negatives and incorporating sand, results in the illusion that the images are emerging from behind a filmy surface. This effect reminds me of the translucent animal skins covering the shoes of the disappeared in Doris Salcedo’s piece Atrabiliarios at the Art Institute. Both artists favor techniques that partly obscure the images, suggesting that the act of remembering what is almost lost is a difficult but important struggle in a world always sinking into layers of dust and ambiguity.

Together these two exhibits reveal the interaction and the politics of aesthetic theories about inclusion and exclusion. Many traditionally marginalized artists are at this point faced with what looks like a no-win situation: either enter the mainstream and be “directed,” or remain outside, isolated from the major currents in art making. Maybe the strategy should be to enrich and develop the periphery and wait for the destruction of an increasingly bankrupt center. If so, the passionate commitment to an art of opposition, seen in flashes in both of these exhibitions, gives hope.