The Power to Evolve, at FIG
El Poder del Arte Latino / The Power of Latino Art opened September 23 at Future Ink Graphics gallery at the Pivot Center. The exhibition brings together a couple of generations of Cleveland artists of Latin ancestry: some well-known, some not so much. The title of the show has the power to draw viewers in via identity. The content shows that the identity is as broad and varied as humans can be. It represents environmental concern, civic, national and racial pride, and purely aesthetic pursuit. And in the work of the better-known artists, it shows aspects of their practice that may be less familiar to viewers, because their most familiar works have followed different paths. Curated by Hector Castellanos Lara, it is on view at FIG through Friday, November 4 2022.
Curator Hector Castellanos is well known for his own artwork, as well as for organizing and curating the Dia de los Muertos celebration at Cleveland Public Theatre, and for commitment to community events. He was on the original CAN Triennial 2022 Curatorial Team until health concerns intervened. The realization of this exhibition and, right on its heels the Dia de los Muertos event are both great news.
The first objects one sees on entering the show at FIG are from the curator’s own collection of Central American masks. The idea of a mask implies something about a show that puts identity in a place of prominence. These are masks created from a cultural perspective, perhaps for ritual or performance, and in that sense are essential, of those cultures. A mask by nature, though, projects a different identity than the person who wears it. That is something people deal with in culture all the time: the identity they project to the public, especially, for immigrants in a new cultural context—is different.
How is it to be in an unfamiliar, potentially confusing place? Look at Kenron Morgan’s The Rhythm of the City. It’s bright and energetic and exciting, popping with contrast and color. And it shows a convolution of roads leading in and out of a surreally distorted cluster of buildings, which by the presence of one of the Guardian monuments is easily identified as Cleveland.
A bright painting by Mariela Paz celebrates the city, too: It’s focused on a crowned Black girl, with the word “Cleveland” filling the form of a central heart beneath her. The heart is wrapped in a ribbon reminding that Black Lives Matter. The girl’s fist is raised in the classic Black Power gesture, but against a bright, cheery palate and the words Faith, Hope and Love, this pride is anything but confrontational.
Ray Rodriguez offers surreal works that evoke the solitude of making one’s way in the world: In Time Traveler and Still, he offers Human figures in barren landscapes. In Still, there are two figures—one male, one female. Both are naked, but for flowing ribbons that wind around their necks and waists. Neither have legs. Their backs are turned on each other; they are not communicating. In Time Traveler, the figure is a bearded man with headphones that have antennae, as if he were an alien, or as if he were getting signals from some other place. In one of his three hands he holds a chef’s knife. In another, he supports a vitrine that contains a sliced avocado—a symbol of life.
Works of Amelia Casiano are vividly colorful and mostly abstract, though in their details they seem to tell stories. Her painting Wonderful evokes the possibility of financial salvation out of the blue, lottery-like. The words “win an oil well” peak out from behind its ground of colorful, tangled lines, and beneath the words, from behind the curtain of swirling color, a scene emerges: A woman with her arms raised in an exalted gesture stands at the foot of an oil derrick while dollar bills rain down around her, and on the ground at her feat a man reclines on a bed of paper money. Wouldn’t it be nice?
The works in the show that call to mind Latinidad the most are mixed media dioramas by Ana Luisa Sanchez. They have a macabre look that evokes the Day of the Dead, but not with skulls. In the case of Nesting, it’s a figure made of sticks, feathers, plant material, and miscellany seated on a log, and because of all the dried, organic material, it evokes mortality, decay, the passing of all things. Another work, The Girl Behind the Mask, shows three figures—mother, father, and baby, looking for all the world like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo–though their tumultuous marriage, divorce and re-marriage never produced children. Rather, the child in the piece alludes to a painting by Kahlo—Girl with Death Mask, which Kahlo painted during their first marriage.
The best-known artists in the show offer works in styles and series they have long pursued, but which may be new to a lot of people who though they knew their work. In both cases, the work on view at FIG shows the multi-dimensionality of the artists’ ideas and practices.
Bruno Casiano, for example, is a painter born in Gary, Indiana, whose family moved back to their rural hometown in Puerto Rico when he was ten years old. As an adult in Cleveland he has a long record of fine art making, including commissions and having run his own gallery in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland years ago. He is familiar for his folkloric graphic designs, which incorporate flora and fauna of Puerto Rico, both on canvases and available through his Latino Greetings company. But Casiano has a long-running pursuit of colorful abstraction, and the mixed-media collage at FIG all show it. All these pieces are mixed media collage, all about their composition and lines. They also have a beautiful palate of umber and ochre with black and red. The lines are not hard-edged, but very strong as they draw the viewer’s eyes through the works. There’s a touch of nostalgia in the presence of lace.
Angelica Pozo, meanwhile, is an artist known for her ceramic works, especially tiles incorporated into public art. Those include her brick and glass Word Wall at the intersection of Buckeye Road and East 116 Street, the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Memorial Wall in University Circle, The Winding Wall of Fairfax History in Fairfax, the Stephanie Tubbs-Jones Memorial Wall in University Circle, and dozens of collaborative installations in Cleveland, Columbus, and Baltimore. The works at FIG, though, come from her Luscus Naturae (Freak of Nature) series. They are more intimate in scale and reflect the artist’s concerns for the environment, as well as her practice as a gardener. Pozo says her commissioned public art practice often takes her away from working on her own projects in her studio, and sometimes that means a long break from working like this. These small sculptures are plant-like forms, but from a dystopian world wherein the plants have incorporated wires, beads, and in one case a golf ball. In Pozo’s words, its as if the plants are saying, “We evolved past recognition and survived you, and this new and ruined earth no longer supports you, but it suits us beautifully.”
Tenacity and evolution are something plants and cultures have in common, even as the world around them changes. That’s a great takeaway from this show.