El Museo Looks to Define ‘Latinx Art’ With a Major Survey

For much of the past year, New York City’s museum clock has been running on Covid time. When lockdown hit last March, exhibitions in progress went dark. Some later reopened for a last-gasp run. Others never saw the light again. Still others, originally scheduled to debut during the past several months, have had to carve out new slots. “Estamos Bien — La Trienal 20/21” at El Museo del Barrio, is one of the late-landing arrivals.

The show is El Museo’s first national survey of what it calls Latinx art, using the much-debated gender-neutral and (the museum argues) culturally embracing alternative to Latino or Latina, to describe artists of Latin American descent working primarily in the United States or the Caribbean. The museum’s original plan was to have the show coincide with, and reflect, two defining 2020 political events, the United States census and the presidential election. It missed both, but still looks plenty newsy. Immigration, racial justice and assertions of identity, ethnic and otherwise, are undying features of the national story. And the show is very much about them.

Its title, “Estamos Bien” — “We’re fine” — was inspired by a work in the exhibition, a 2017 painting by the Chicago-based Cándida Álvarez done in the wake of Puerto Rico’s devastation by Hurricane Maria. Tinged with irony, the words suggest both resilience and bitterness. And much of the work by the show’s 41 other artists is complicated in a similar way.

Organized by the El Museo curators Rodrigo Moura and Susanna V. Temkin, along with the artist Elia Alba, the Trienal begins in an introductory gallery installed with hard-copy versions of digital works commissioned by the museum. One, created by the San Diego duo Collective Magpie (Tae Hwang and M.R. Barnadas) and titled “Who Designs Your Race?,” is an interactive, census-style survey, but driven by personal feelings, not statistical facts. It’s geared to revealing the racial and ethnic biases in its participants.

A second piece, “Obituaries of the American Dream” by Lizania Cruz — born in the Dominican Republic and now based in Brooklyn — takes the form of written, short-statement answers by dozens of people to a question posed by Cruz: When and how did you lose your faith in the dream? The entire archive of responses, once readable only online, has been printed in a takeaway publication available in the gallery, and it’s a keeper.

Finally, a third introductory work is a single large photograph by the Philadelphia artist Ada Trillo of a 2020 Black Lives Matter “die-in” that took place in her home city after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The image of a mass of prone bodies, male and female, light-skinned and dark-skinned, stretching out as far as the eye can see — and surrounding a civic monument to George Washington, the nation’s slave-owning first president — catches the spirit of history-revising, justice-demanding energy that served as a background for the exhibition.

And that spirit is in the show, though often obliquely, in modest gestures and at low volume. A fair percentage of the work takes popular culture as source material. Yvette Mayorga paints in an 18th-century European rococo style but does so using cake-decorating techniques familiar from the Mexican bakeries in her Chicago neighborhood. Still life paintings by the artist and gay activist Joey Terrill — born in Los Angeles in 1955, he is, with Alvarez, one of the show’s two senior entrants — combine images of grocery items, buff brown male bodies, and H.I.V. medications. Another, younger Angeleno painter, Patrick Martinez, incorporates LED signage advertising face masks, Lysol wipes and toilet paper into his panoramic riff on marked-up city walls.

And in a sweet, short 2016 video titled “Dinner as I Remember,” Francis Almendárez revisits the family meals of his working-class childhood, presenting each dish as a lovingly produced masterwork.

Acknowledgment of family, near and far, is a recurrent element. It is evident in Groana Melendez’s photographic portraits of relatives networked between the Dominican Republic and the Bronx, and in portraits — each gold-framed — by Xime Izquierdo Ugaz, of an extended family of queer friends widely scattered across the Americas.

And for anyone for whom migration is still-recent history, place — where you leave and where you come to — is a resonant subject. Eddie R. Aparicio makes curtain-like rubber casts of the surfaces of ficus trees — which grow fast and disappear faster — in Los Angeles neighborhoods with large populations of Central American immigrants. María Gaspar, a first-generation Mexican-American, photographs herself embedded, half-hidden by camouflage, in landscapes encountered on her travels.

Gaspar made a memorable contribution to the exhibition “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” at MoMA PS1 earlier in the season. Imprisonment is a dark part of the Latino story in America, and the show acknowledges this. Among the digital entries is a team-produced visual database called “Torn Apart/Separados,” which includes images mapping the United States in terms of its hundreds of immigrant detention centers, public and private. ICE facilities are indicated by bright orange dots, and it comes as a jolt to see them spreading like cancer cells up and across the country.

Only one other work in a declaredly political show, a wall-filling video animation by the Texas-based Michael Menchaca, delivers a comparable information punch. Titled “A Cage Without Borders” and commissioned by El Museo, it’s a video-game-style version of a history of oppression of Indigenous peoples going back to the earliest European arrivals in the Americas. Installed in the show’s final gallery, a space the museum is using for the first time, the piece is hyperactive, assaultive, nonstop and furious, all good.

It can also stand on its own outside the context of the show, which can be said of a few other works too.

Among these I would point to Luis Flores’s life-size crocheted double self-portrait; to Ektor Garcia’s openwork column of butterfly forms, also crocheted but in this case from copper wire; and to a monumental smokey-gray print piece by Simonette Quamina. I also recommend a survey within the larger survey of work from the permanent collection of the Museum of Pocket Art (MoPA), established in 2004 in El Paso, Texas, by the artist Robert Jackson Harrington, and represented here by a changing selection of small fine things.

And then there’s a video by the Puerto Rican puppet-and-performance collective that calls itself Poncilí Creación and consists primarily of the twin brothers Pablo and Efrain Del Hierro, who live and work in San Juan. They were quarantined there in 2020 when they made the video, and by the look of it they had the town almost to themselves, as they paraded through its locked-down streets, one brother beating out a catchy tattoo on a drum, the other wearing, strapped to his body, a mobile assemblage of fantastical soft-sculpture creatures. The two-man theater troupe goes where it pleases — deserted schools and government buildings are not off limits — and at one point attracts a fellow performer who tags along, talking revolution. He knows radicals when he meets them.

El Museo itself began as a radical experiment, an attempt, in an unwelcoming time and environment, to both preserve Latino culture and, resisting assimilation, move it forward. This was, and is, a tricky balance. Today, nearly a half century after its founding, this museum is still the only one in New York — and one of the few in the country — that regularly exhibits, collects and documents Latino work. I’m very glad its first triennial, imperfect but stimulating, has successfully landed. But I’m also thinking: Three years is a very long time to wait for another iteration of it, when so much new Latinx work — to use the show’s preferred term — is being made and so little attention is still being paid. All this being so, I encourage El Museo to keep this art always, somehow, in front of us, to give us fresh updates on it often, and to make those updates bold and open-armed — in short, to continue to push the envelope, hard.

Estamos Bien — La Trienal 20/21

Through Sept. 26, El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street, (212) 831-7272; elmuseo.org. Timed tickets should be reserved in advance.

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