Works full of Latin magic

Art: Using color and imagination, Hugo Marin and Gloria Ortiz Hernandez both express different views of Latin America.

June 08, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

It would be convenient if contemporary visual artists of Latin America could be made to fall into one neat catch-all phrase, like "magical realism," as do some of their literary counterparts.

The truth is rather more messy, which is to say it is more like everywhere else in the art world today. There is no "mainstream" to which Latin American artists have to conform any more than artists in New York or Paris must, other than to pursue their personal visions, which in principle are unique. (Even in literature, catch-phrases like "magical realism" are sort of a cop-out: Can one label really apply equally to, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Alejo Carpentier?)

Hugo Marin and Gloria Ortiz Hernandez, whose works are on display at the Gomez Gallery through July 31, each reflect in different ways both Latin America's folkloric traditions and its often tumultuous social history.

There is something quite magical about what I am going to call Hernandez's "box" paintings. They could just as easily be described as miniature stage sets or as assemblage, for they draw on the tradition of small constructions originated by the Synthetic Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists, as well as the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp.

This diverse pedigree is as good an indication as any of the unifying impulse behind Hernandez's art, which has the naive profundity of myth and the innocence of dreams. All her paintings take the form of a square inscribed within a square, and in each the inner square is actually a hollowed-out space into which a carved wooden figure or object has been placed.

The form can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of exterior vs. interior, body vs. spirit, the opposition of visible and invisible. The figures inside the interior squares -- a hunter, a ladder, a horse and rider -- are tangible manifestations of human activity and processes.

The hunter, for example, waits patiently and attentively (much like the artist attending his or her muse), while the rider, standing upright, perched precariously on a rearing horse's flank, is a player in a miniature morality play about balance and power. The ladder, which goes no particular place except up, seems to be ascendancy of some sort, evocative of the various kinds of emergence or transcendence that seems to be a universal human aspiration.

There is obviously a strong conceptual element to this work, with its sphinx-like demands on the viewer to participate in unraveling its riddles. But one is struck first of all by the artist's powerful sense of design and color and by the exquisite craftsmanship of the carvings and painterly finish. This is work of a high order, inventive and playful as well as original and deeply serious in intent.

Hugo Marin's paintings, sculptures and installation pieces are like the expressions of a garrulous and lighthearted traveler full of enchanting tales from faraway places. One can imagine him as the puppet master of a provincial village in a Garcia Marquez novel, or as one of those wizened old gold miners in Carpentier's wilderness who while away the hours, telling each other fantastic stories about brilliantly colored fish who scoop emeralds off the river bottom and of birds that miraculously transform themselves into beautiful women when the moon is full.

The centerpiece of Marin's part of the show is his mixed-media installation representing the symbolic ancestors of the Americas -- blacks, Spaniards, Indians, Chinese -- all ceremonially garbed in robes of strong primary colors. The piece is a silent meditation on the mingling of all the world's races that is the region's cultural and historical legacy.

Yet there is nothing political -- or polemical -- about the installation (as one might expect of, say, a politically correct North American show on similar themes on Madison Avenue). Marin is comfortable enough about who he is not to feel obliged to play the heavy for North American racial angst.

Instead, Marin is quite content merely to recall, as it were, that it took a whole world to make America. One wonders what an equivalent attitude of simple historical acceptance in the United States might look like: Sally Hemmings' descendants swapping recipes for sweet potato pie at the Jefferson family reunion, perhaps?

Bergman memorial

The Walters Art Gallery will hold a memorial tribute to former director Robert P. Bergman, who died last month, Friday at 2 p.m. on the Renaissance Sculpture Court at the museum.

The speakers will include current Walters director Gary Vikan; Adena W. Testa, president of the museum board of trustees; Jay M. Wilson, former board president; Peter Culman, managing director of Center Stage; Calvin Burnett, president of Coppin State College; Samuel K. Himmelrich Sr., Walters trustee; and Marci Bergman, wife of the late Dr. Bergman.

The entrance to the 1904 building of the museum will close for general admission at 1 p.m., when entrance to the service will begin at the museum's main entrance at 600 N. Charles St.

Standing room only will be available on the court and in the loggia. Hackerman House will be open to the public throughout the day. For more information, call 410-547-9000.

Pub Date: 6/08/99

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