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From the Page to the Street: Latin American Conceptualism, curated by Julia Detchon, the 2017–2018 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Latin American Art at the Blanton Museum, draws from its collection of prints and drawings to reconsider the role of paper in translating the concerns of artists into political protest in Latin America during the 1960s and early 1980s. Whether designed to evade the censorship of regional dictators or to bind the concerns of art to the conditions of daily life, postcards, lithographs, newsprint, and butcher paper, hanging cold and quiet within the museum’s Paper Vault, represent an archive of human protest—a considered documentation of acts, thoughts, and ideas which, more often than not, were not meant to be documented.
With an outstanding sampling of Latin American drawings, mail art, and other paper-based interventions by Brazilian artists Anna Bella Geiger, Cildo Meireles, and Paulo Bruscky as well as Argentine Leandro Katz, Venezuela’s Gego, Chile’s Eugenio Dittborn, and Cuba’s Ana Mendieta, From the Page to the Street unfolds across the Paper Vault’s three rooms. In the first gallery, drawings such as Anna Maria Maiolino’s Black Spiral (1975) and León Ferrari’s Barrio (1980) place the exhibition within both the academic history of works on paper and the more poignant history of drawing as a means of chronicling human responses to personal and structural oppression.
Articulating the emotional geography of a society in turmoil, Barrio, made using India ink and Letraset icons including beds, tables, and human figures, at first glance seems of a piece with traditional uses of heliography, a process used by architects before the advent of computers to create plans and technical drawings. After threats from the Argentine government, which ended in the “disappearing” of Ferrari’s son in 1977, Barrio was completed while the artist was in exile in Brazil. Close study reveals the work’s complicity in what the artist calls the “architecture of madness,” domestic and urban spaces that open into one another in labyrinthian form, while a parade of identical human figures seem to move like ants through a melding of intimate places, like bedrooms and toilets, with public roadways and workplaces. Through line and its absence, Ferrari articulates the dissolution of personal privacy and the chaos of daily life under the watch of an all-seeing dictatorship, as the piece transforms its architectural print medium into a record of personal and social anguish in the face of repression.
Complimenting and perhaps homing in on the individual who was universalized in Ferrari’s structural response, Maiolino’s single smooth gesture—an open spiral incision in acrylic over black paper—registers and records an otherwise intangible history of personal affect by giving form to both uncertainty and the dark and foreboding nature of fear. Housed in a wooden box that both contains and sets the incisions’ widest possible boundaries, the intentional, indeterminate nature of the work’s open spiral makes it unclear whether the conditions it marks are about to spiral down into greater turmoil or spin out into a more open future.
In the second room of the Paper Vault, works such as Meireles’s Zero Cruzeiro (1974–78) speak to circulation strategies employed by Latin America’s conceptual artists, working to both circumvent state censorship and decouple art from objecthood. Part of Meireles’s Insertions into Ideological Circuits series, Zero Cruzeiro uses lithographs of Brazilian banknotes to literally put his ideas into circulation. The work formed an implicit critique of the nation’s so-called economic miracle, driven by industrialization and agricultural expansion, which coupled currency devaluation (for the sake of foreign investment) with a vicious series of authoritarian dictatorships that peaked in brutality during Emílio Garrastazú Médici’s military rule from 1969–74. Throughout the 1970s, as the value of the nation’s currency was artificially decreased year after year by successive military rule, the Brazilian art world became one of the nation’s secondary banks, as those with means turned to art and other object-based investments to stabilize their wealth. Recognizing this state of affairs, Meireles lithographed slight changes onto the cruzeiro, Brazil’s currency at the time, maintaining the bank note’s moiré pattern while using the very same paper employed by the national mint. Two formal changes to the standard cruzeiro gave the work its distinction: first, the artist replaced the bank note’s standard numerical denomination (i.e., one, five, twenty, etc.) with a zero. And, in further critique, in the place where a heroic portrait would otherwise be printed, the artist inserted two very different images: on one side, a naked indigenous man representing the populations targeted by the military dictatorship for modernization and improvement, and, on the other, an asylum patient, tucked into a corner, speaking to the effect of Brazil’s monetary policy on those with the least means to defend themselves. Putting his hybrid ready-made Zero Cruzeiro project into circulation, Meireles leveraged the ideological apparatuses that support state monetary policy in order to bring all who came in contact with his currency into both the artwork and its critique.
Lending a touch of levity to the exhibition’s focus on conceptualism’s participatory propositions, Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s Obras Incompletas (Incomplete Works) (1970) activates a series of lithograph and letterpress labels designed by the artist, on wove paper, for random use and application by an unknown end user. One of the earliest examples of mail art, Vigo’s labels may have been received by post or could have been found as an insert in his magazine, Diagonal Zero. From there, it was up to the recipient to decide the label’s fate. While Vigo photographed a few of his labels on the traditional Argentine earthenware jugs of gin, the curator inserted another more humorous use into the exhibition, displaying a poster-sized photo of a family of four with Vigo’s Obras proudly displayed on their own naked backs. Across the gallery, Dittborn’s Sin rastos (Pintura aeropostal num.13) or No Tracks (Airmail Painting No. 13) (1983), brings back the work’s political force using a system of transformations and dislocations to make censored material unrecognizable.
Progressing into the last space of the Paper Vault, Katz’s gelatin silver prints from the Catherwood Project (1985–95) nod to practices employed by early conceptual artists in North America, while firmly situating his project in the broader Yucatán. Following the footsteps of nineteenth-century expeditioners Frederick Catherwood and his colleague John L. Stephens, Katz made his way across Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala. His work not only questions the impact of early travel writing and photorealistic drawing on the colonial and neocolonial histories of the region, it examines Catherwood’s efforts to accurately render Mayan art and architecture, presenting it not as ancient, but as entirely new. Nearby, small photographs from Mendieta’s Rupestrian Sculpture (1981–83) raise questions pertinent to conceptual art, though it is difficult to see how her project fits under that umbrella. As an adult returning to the island of Cuba, her childhood home, Mendieta created a series of modern artifacts in keeping with her previous works of performative body art, which were made by pressing her silhouette into the landscape. In her homeland, however, rather than pressing her body into that land, the artist instead carved her own goddess iconography, inspired by symbols of the native Taíno population, into the rock and sand of the island’s geological formations. While these acts of carving fit more easily into the long tradition of sculpture than conceptual art, Mendieta’s project does highlight the dyads raised by the exhibition, namely the juxtapositions of performance and documentation, concept and materiality, and ephemerality and commodification.
While the Blanton galleries that contain From the Page to the Street open to the viewer like a jewelry box filled with Latin American treasures of the era, from the first room of the exhibition, there is a discrepancy between the works described here and others like them that were born of political subversion and pieces that simply represent outstanding work on paper from the period, i.e., Gego’s Untitled (1967). In an attempt to shed new light on the conceptual experiments of a generation of Latin American artists by emphasizing their paper-based materiality and downplaying their political and contextually sensitive strategies, the exhibition misses an opportunity to highlight the very thing that distinguishes conceptual art in Latin America from conceptual art elsewhere. Marked by activism embedded in its context, the works reveal social and political realities that can speak from the political conditions of the past to the conditions of the present. In our current political climate, with the return of the global strongman, the ideological questions raised by these conceptual works continue to exceed their physical expression.
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, Rice University