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At play: German Pérez’s Cat Guide by the Moon.

Colorful Traditions
By David Brickman

Uncovered Treasures: Contemporary Latino and Latin American Art
Chapel + Cultural Center at RPI, through Feb. 28

If, like me, you were disap-
pointed to have missed the show of Latino and Latin American art at the New York State Museum last fall, there’s another chance. The same collection of work (minus just three pieces) has been rehung at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and will be on view through the end of February.

To clarify definitions, Latin America comprises all the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries and territories in the Western Hemisphere; the term Latino refers to people in the United States whose roots are in Latin America.

Curated by Laudelina Martinez of the Martinez Gallery in Troy, this cross-section includes work by artists from Argentina, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, New Jersey, New York state, Puerto Rico and Texas. All the works (paintings, prints and photographs) are two-dimensional.

Martinez has a good eye and clearly enjoys art with plenty of gusto. She also has eclectic taste, not only in terms of the variety of media included, but across many genres. In this comfortably crowded installation, abstraction meets satire, photorealism rubs elbows with symbolism, and straight photography tosses secrets back and forth with surrealism.

Unifying factors include a strong sense of color and references to many of the traditions in Latin American art. But this show would be equally valid without considering those traditions: Virtually all the work reveals a solid foundation in European academic artistic training, and the artists all exhibit strong individual styles.

Equally, one can discern many specific European and American influences upon the work here: I was reminded of artists such as Chagall, O’Keeffe, Tápies, Dubuffet, Malevich, and the Bechers, among others. But don’t take this as a criticism—like the work in this show, all excellent art reveals influences and then goes on from there to transcend mere imitation.

A number of these artists boast impressive credentials; it would be a fun exercise to try to guess which are the heavy hitters and which the up-and-
comers without referring to biographical information first. If you were to do that, I’ll wager that Alberto Mijangos would be one of your picks for heavy hitters—and you’d be right.

This Mexican abstract painter has both the chops and the recognition (“collected by American philanthropists and Mexican industrialists”—and the reverse as well?); his four paintings shown here reveal a master in top form.

All dated 2001, they are consistent, yet strikingly individual: One distills its composition down to nearly naught but a black square in a gray field; another activates the picture plane with many subtle dashes of color; still another presents a low landscape presided over by two hovering black shapes.

Among the new discoveries, Roxanna Melendez (of New York by way of Puerto Rico) shows great promise. Her figurative paintings combine Fauvist color with a fantasy element to create an unabashedly exuberant look at life’s simple moments. Fans of local artist Lori Lawrence may notice an affinity in Melendez’s use of line, gesture and expressive color.

Another painter in the show who exhibits almost childlike glee is German Pérez, a Dominican with a wide international following. His three offerings are all circular and heavily textured; their neon colors and primitive style evoke the mystery and joy of the tropics while hinting at historical references.

Pérez operates on different levels at once: His work could illustrate a children’s book, but it also has the depth to hold an adult’s attention.

There are several artists in this show who make specific references to Latin music. The best among them is Armando Soto, a “Newyorican” who now lives in Troy. His 2002 canvas El Sol Brilla: Tribute to Tito Puente combines an impeccable sense of color and design with a heartfelt sense of loss to create a worthy memorial for the recently departed king of Puerto Rican bandleaders.

Anthony Montes, a Cuban now living in Saratoga Springs, uses an old-
fashioned graphic style to make nostalgia-tinged paintings of musical venues. His Cuchifritos celebrates guilty-pleasure food items alongside the healthier joy of conga drumming; En El Punto is a portrait of an elegant percussionist striking a cowbell with dignity and concentration.

Cesar Chelala, one of the artists in the show with another profession (medicine), presents a trio of photographs in which street musicians hover at the edges of deep shadows in the central image. On either side are brightly hued, geometric studies of vernacular architecture.

Architecture also informs Mercedes Guerric’s photographic triptych from the Blue Series. A Puerto Rican professor of architecture who has worked in preservation, Guerric slyly raises questions of seeing, space and architectural history by capturing a certain shade of blue on the side of a half-timber house, then repeating it in the sky near a medieval fortress.

Personal histories seem to be the subject of work by Puerto Rican painter Angel Rodriguez Diaz and Mexican-American photographer Kathy Vargas, both of whom live in Texas.

Diaz evokes myth and ritual in two masterful paintings that combine pattern, dream imagery and very careful rendering to make strong statements about change. Vargas also uses pattern in her hand-colored black-and-white prints that impart an aura of the mystical to simple objects such as a broken chair and a white dress.

Layered images of oversize orchids by Jaime Arredondo and biting prints by Cruz Ortiz are also well-realized. Only Nora Quintero’s solitary mixed-media painting falls short of the high standard set by the other work on view.

It should be noted that the C+CC—a Catholic church supported by the independent Rensselaer Newman Foundation that also hosts a Buddhist meditation group and provides a venue for music, theater, poetry and art—has recently come under the direction of Metroland contributor J. Eric Smith. Smith has put together a broad slate of events for the coming months and is seeking more artists, writers and performers for this and subsequent seasons.

The Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer is located on Burdett Avenue in the midst of the RPI campus; gallery hours are 9 AM to 4 PM, Monday-Friday, or by appointment at 274-7793.

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