Latin American Art at the New York Armory Show

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The 13th-annual New York Armory Show opens today. Descending the stairs that connect the two piers housing the art spectacle, one of the first things you’ll find under the pitched roof of Pier 94 is “Armory Focus: Latin America,” a section featuring nearly 20 galleries from Latin America, many from Brazil and Mexico. Exploring the booths, you’ll see a black, white, and red kinetic sculpture by Abraham Palatnik, like a delicate cousin to a work of Alexander Calder; you’ll see the image of a bronze Buddha on a mountaintop that will soon rival the Christ sculpture in Rio de Janeiro; and you’ll learn about what can happen when a human ingests cerulean blue paint. And while these booths at one of the foremost art fairs in the world represent a bid by Latin American artists for an international audience, when you see a live ballerina pirouetting in endless rotation, you’ll see that international audiences are also bidding for these artists.

“I wouldn’t say there is a very big distinction between Latin American artists and other artists,” said Alexandre Roesler, the Director of Nara Roesler gallery. We looked at black and white photographs taped against the wall of a naked man buried up to his waist in a sand dune and surrounded by what looked like a bird’s nest. “Antonio Manuel and Antonio Diaz, they’re very important Brazilian artists but have also these political works. This characterizes a lot of Latin American art, this political way. This was during the dictatorial period in Brazil and he was doing those performances naked in a museum. That was like breaking lots of rules. At the time this was not allowed.”

Mr. Roesler showed me a sculpture that had little metal plates affixed to fine wire arms which moved with the grace of a clock. It was by Abraham Palatnik, a conceptual artist prominent in the 60s. “Palatnik is one of the precursors of kinetic art in the world,” said Roesler. “He was using light and movement. MoMA has one of his pieces in their collection. Not only kinetic sculptures but also his paintings have this kinetic idea of movement.” I walked over to what looked like a fishing pole that had a gold thimble dangling from its end. I looked inside and saw a picture of a bronze Buddha on a mountain. “Marcos Chaves,” he said.“In Rio de Janeiro, one of the most recognizable figures is that Christ. So he plans to do a big Buddha over ‘Gavea’ rock. Another big rock that is in Rio. It’s not close, but in the landscape it’s very close.”

At Casa Triangulo, a premier gallery in Brazil that opened in 1988, Rodrigo Editore showed me an installation that involved the projection of light onto a sculpture made of crystal animals, which cast a scene of shadows and snow flakes of light around the booth.“For the MoMA, we brought what we have best like starting here with an installation by Albano Alfonso, work shown at the 29th Sao Paolo Biennial…. I don’t think you can look at it straight away and say it’s Latin American.” He claimed there was something “vibrant” about Latin American art, but could not specify what that entailed. He brought me to a painting that was a collage of bright floral-patterned fabrics blended with a background of tiles and stained glass.“She’s very successful,” he said of the young artist Mariana Palma. “Almost 30 people on the waiting list to buy her work. This I would say is more vibrant.” He showed me the work of Sandra Cinto, whose pen and acrylic drawings are also represented by Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York (which also represents Olafur Eliasson).

“He’s been working with the element of risk,” said Patricia Bessudo of Caja Blanca about the artist Gustavo Artigas. I looked at a small rectangular colored tablet painted blue. On it was written in white “Cerulean Blue: Skin contact causes specific skin allergies and irritation. Chronic ingestion may cause vomiting.”“This is part of his color risk sample book,” said Bessudo gesturing at the cluster of brightly colored canvases bearing these warnings, “and it’s the 25 most popular pigments used by artists.”

image Palatnik’s sculpture image Jen Denike’s “Another Circle” (courtesy Mendes Wood)

“We have a polar axis of Mexicans,” said Graham Steel of London’s White Cube referring to the Diego Orozco painting behind us and the Damian Ortega sculpture at the other end of the gallery of a bicycle loaded with a tall column of personal possessions, like an armoire, a large kitchen appliance, bedding, and some chairs, all strapped down with string. White Cube, which holds the plum location on the floor of the Armory Show, is one of the world’s most prestigious galleries, and is known for housing a large collection of Young British Artists, among them Jake and Dinos Chapman, Gary Hume, Damien Hirst, and Tracy Emin. Even they were pulling out their Latin American art. “We wanted to do something a little different this year. You know White Cube has a very prominent position as the YBA gallery, as much as the focus is on amazing international programs, so often it sort of ‘oh the Damien, the Tracy, the Marc Quinns’ so we wanted to show very different works, really highlight fantastic pieces because we have them, because we have these phenomenal artists….To help people see the depth of our program.” When asked if the Gabriel Orozco and Damián Ortega were brought out in response to the Armory Show’s expressed Latin American focus, Steele said he had forgotten about this year’s theme. It was more about upping the international dialogue generally as opposed to anything specific to one region. “It was much more about a personal looking in and wanting to show Sergej Jensen who is Danish, Beirut born Mona Hatoum. There were still works by Antony Gormley, Darren Almond, Tracy Emin but you know Christian Marclay just had a fantastic show in New York so it’s those kinds of dialogues we were really interested in promoting.”

At Mendez/Wood, American artist Jen Denike prepared for the arrival of a ballerina who would perform her work. “We just fell in together and had a dialogue,” Denike said about her Sao Paolo gallerists. “This piece came out of a performance ballet at MoMA last year that was a 13-minute balletballet with 3 acts, and I hired a choreographer, a pretty well known very young woman who danced with City Ballet…. The beginning of that ballet and the end has a ballerina pirouetting. One of my goals was to take this formal vocabulary and slow it down and distill it. And this was the piece that came out of that. And she’s just pirouetting endlessly. The top piece,” Denike said looking at two monitors which displayed a dancing ballerina,“is a 16mm straight shot, unedited of one of the ballerinas who performed at MoMA, and a video version of it…. The idea of the piece is the ballerina is the iconic ballerina, and the performance aspect can be reenacted any time.”

Denike, who shows with Smith Stewart in New York and The Company in L.A.,was brought to Mendes/Woods by an artist who had curated a group show she was in.“We just fell in together and had a dialogue.”She travels to Sao Paolo in Aprilto do a solo show based on a work by Gordon Matta Clark that involves teenagers tying strings to gravestones to create communication between the dead. About conventions of Latin American art Denikesays “I have no idea….I do know that what [Mendes/Woods] are doing is really exciting.”

Pictured top: Ortega’s sculpture at White Cube.