Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 1, 2010
Edward J. Sullivan The Language of Objects in the Art of the Americas New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 336 pp.; 162 color ills.; 49 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300111064)

Rare is the traveler who won’t admit that one of the joys of exploring a “new world” is bringing home cherished souvenirs. Conversely, sometimes access to a place is limited to an armchair traveler’s fantasies about a precious relic, which signifies, imaginatively, a distant land. Such was the case for the Medici in Florence, who are known to have collected feather cloaks from Brazil, and for Albrecht Dürer, who marveled at objects exhibited in Brussels from “the new land of gold” (13). As Edward J. Sullivan discusses in The Language of Objects in the Art of the Americas, objects can signify desire and possession, truth and fiction. Through “wondrous objects,” and no less through two-dimensional representations of them, the strange is made familiar. Over the course of his thought-provoking book, readers come to appreciate, as well, how objects or their representation can signify pain and alienation, resistance and dissent.

Building on his long and distinguished career as a teacher, scholar, and curator, Sullivan studies objects created across six centuries in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Americas (including the United States). In many regards, Sullivan privileges Mexican works ranging from sixteenth-century feather mosaics, casta paintings, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century genre scenes, post-mortem portraits, cubist and nationalist still-life paintings, and conceptual works; but he sets these in a productive dialogue with art from Brazil, the Andes, Puerto Rico and Cuba, and South America. As the title of the book suggests, Sullivan strives to articulate how objects speak both about and from the Americas. He demonstrates how objects and their representation express the fluidity of exchange across “intersecting dimensions of time, space, materiality and artistic practice” (viii). He affirms that, while there were and are immense differences across the region, much was shared; as a result there emerged a “language of objects” that is distinct from that of other places (xii). This ambitious thesis holds up, if at times unevenly, across the seven chapters. If the book suffers, it is due to a sometimes necessarily cursory contextualization. Nevertheless, Sullivan strives to move beyond the essentialist category of “Latin American” art by engaging objects created in Europe about the Americas, as well as works that attest to a lively mutual dialogue, from the sixteenth century onward, between artists in the Americas and their counterparts in the United States and Europe.

The volume is amply illustrated and divided into seven discreet yet interrelated essays with an introduction that also serves as a bibliographic essay. Sullivan’s dialogue with scholars such as Wanda Corn, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, and Bill Brown is most explicit in the introductory chapter. While the chapters that follow may have been informed by this dialogue, at times the theoretical foundations of Sullivan’s arguments seem diluted. As with any project of this scope, the argument risks losing coherence; however, Sullivan’s approach of bringing unexpected works together through the thematic of the “object” is intriguing and allows for several engaging surprises along the way. The essays are arranged sequentially in chronological order, but as Sullivan affirms in the introduction, the book is neither a “history of things,” nor is it intended to serve as a history of Latin American art (viii–xii). Instead, he emphasizes how the visual representation of objects from the Americas informs a variety of topics, including the process of colonization; the exchange of commodities as gifts or plunder; artistic and cultural dialogue across and beyond the region; the formation and expression of distinct, cultural identities; the construction of cultural clichés and stereotypes; the ways in which contemporary artists use objects as visual metaphors of resistance or as codes when direct narrative is impossible due to censorship or the threat of violence; and finally, how objects can also enter “into a realm of consciously undefined objecthood, [symbols] of nothing but [themselves]” (xv). While Sullivan acknowledges that the objects and images studied are highly selective, together the essays offer a solid introduction to the issues that attend the study of art and culture from the region. In a field where textbooks are few, and those that exist often suffer from scant color plates or fuzzy black-and-white illustrations, this insightful book could serve as a springboard for a thematically structured course. At the same time, for scholars and graduate students, the book poses and raises many provocative questions, not least of all by affirming a cross-cultural and transhistorical mode of inquiry.

Chapter 1 establishes the fundamental premise of the book: that objects and their depiction are metaphors for human desire, demonstrating the wide-reaching networks of human interaction and exchange, and standing in for distant places and people, frequently construed as exotic. Sullivan begins with an examination of actual objects—precious things—accumulated through conquest and transferred to a European context. These include familiar objects such as the British Museum’s Aztec mosaic-inlay skull mask. He also includes less familiar objects such as a Mexican jade mask set into a gold-and-inlay Renaissance-style niche by an early eighteenth-century European craftsman. As Sullivan explains, objects such as these, along with feathered capes produced by the Tupinambá in Brazil, and even “objectified human bodies” in the form of native people sent to Europe and put on display (30), not to mention foodstuffs and other goods, were received with astonishment by Europeans, for whom they signified the “wondrous” nature of the New World and its possession. The particular strength of the chapter resides in Sullivan’s discussion of the appearance of such objects in visual images such as Dürer’s depiction of a Tupinambá Indian from 1515, Ludovico Buti’s frescoes in the Uffizi depicting the Aztec emperor Moctezuma and his warriors (1588), Jan van Kessel’s encyclopedic depiction of New World objects in his America of 1666 (oil on copper), and Albert Eckhout’s renowned series of paintings depicting the inhabitants of the Dutch colony in Brazil (ca. 1640–41). While the fanciful nature of the first three cited examples make it easy to understand them as conditioned by a European imagination, a comparative analysis to Eckhout’s, which have often been examined for their ethnographic veracity, leads Sullivan to the astute conclusion that all of these images “convey, and betray, truths and fantasies” (55). Here, Sullivan’s skill for visual analysis shines as he observes that Eckhout’s still lifes include foods from both the New and Old World, and that these are set not against the backdrop of the luminous Brazilian sky but against gray clouds, suggesting that they were painted from memory, after Eckhout’s return to Europe. Sullivan interprets them as evoking a mixture of longing and loss, as much as a fascination with exotic otherness.

In chapter 2, Sullivan explores images from eighteenth-century Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador that reveal a shared interest in objects as commodities and their representation as expressive of desire, possession, and status. The chapter ranges from genre scenes, to nun’s portraits and casta paintings from New Spain (Mexico), to Andean statue paintings of the Virgin Mary and a series of ethnic “types” painted in Quito. Sullivan’s argument is that this broad range of images attests to the increasing importance, across the Americas, of commodities as indicators of cultural merging and commercial, intellectual, spiritual, and symbolic/nationalist aspirations.

The next three chapters all focus on modes of still-life painting as more conventionally defined. In chapter 3, Sullivan affirms the capacity of still lifes to challenge more exalted genres by drawing directly from the realm of the senses. In keeping with the theme, to paraphrase Norman Bryson, of a threat posed from the realm of the “lowly,” Sullivan features works by lesser-known artists such as Hermenegildo Bustos, a provincial painter from a village in Guanajuato, whose work demonstrates, simultaneously, an intense local feeling and a precocious relationship to photography and Flemish still lifes. Eulalia Lucio was one of several women who excelled in the still-life genre in Mexico City. Her career attests to the fact that while women were included in annual academic salons only as honorary members they ably mastered the visual codes of identity in formation. The chapter concludes with two still lifes by Francisco Oller of Puerto Rico, who studied with Thomas Couture and Charles Gleyre and maintained longstanding friendships with Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne. Oller’s still lifes of local tropical fruits manifest the realist idiom of Gustave Courbet modified by a technique related to Impressionism (112). In comparative analysis, these artists’ still lifes attest to their ability to exceed the “decorative associations of the genre” and “articulate an undercurrent of visual and ideological power” expressive of local experience and identity (115). Here, Sullivan invokes Kaufmann’s masterful postcolonial revision of centers and peripheries, in his Toward a Geography of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), proposing that the artists studied in this chapter, as throughout the book, were "freer from the accumulated power of tradition than those working within places that could be defined as the central cores of artistic creation [and were therefore] less constrained in their creation of alternative modes of visuality that corresponded more to the circumstances in which they lived (110 n.32).

In chapter 4, which serves as a companion to chapter 3 and a bridge to chapter 5, Sullivan elucidates post-mortem images to examine how they express regional attitudes toward death. While he examines several Mexican examples, his overview of the “pervasiveness of death imagery in pre-Hispanic [Maya and Aztec] art” seems somewhat gratuitous (121). It does little to explicate the Mexican examples nor is it relevant to the other non-Mexican examples he treats. More compelling, however, are his comments on how as a subcategory of the still-life genre, post-mortem portraits draw on metaphoric power to express an awareness of social injustices. Images examined range from Oller’s depiction of a rural wake to documentary images of the fallen Che Guevara, executed by CIA-backed Bolivian government forces in 1967, and a post-mortem scene by Colombian painter Alejandro Obregón whose image of a wake, from 1956, reveals a dialogue with Cubism and gestural abstraction but uses these modes to depict a martyred student rebel set amidst a poignant, if no less symbolic, image of the everyday.

Chapter 5 seems the least resolved of the essays, examining the modernist representation of objects and the representation of objects of modernity as indexical of alternative experiences of the modern and of “Americanness.” If the previous chapters examined far-ranging works unified around a common theme, chapter 5 casts, perhaps, too wide a net. Under the rubric of the avant-garde it seeks simultaneously to examine works that express an “ambivalence about the role of modernization” alongside others that “stress a sense of local or regional place,” and yet others that question the “viability of the object as an appropriate emblem of cultural definition” (189). Thus Sullivan’s compelling reading of Armando Reverón’s figural compositions as object-bound and as expressive of an impulse to fix a parallel reality in the seaside village of Macuto, Venezuela, against the experience of rapid modernization make for a strange cross-cultural comparison to Diego Rivera’s Cubist still lifes executed mostly in Paris but studied here under the subheading of Mexico City as a vanguard metropolitan center. Similarly, while Argentine Emilio Pettoruti’s early Cubist still lifes certainly engage with the changes wrought by diverse processes of modernization, including Cubism and Futurism and the experience of World War I, their relationship to the “cannibalist” compositions of Tarsila do Amaral in São Paolo or the “American” universalism of Joaquin Torres-García and his disciples in Montevideo seems tenuous and even at odds with works by Georgia O’Keefe, Marsden Hartley, Emily Carr, Palmer C. Hayden, Wilmer Angier Jennings, Frida Kahlo, Amelia Peláez, and Wifredo Lam, all discussed in this chapter.

In the final two chapters, “Objects of Anxiety” and “The Object Reconfigured,” on art since 1960s, Sullivan examines artists who share an impulse to comment on a variety of “traumatic situations,” not the least being political and drug-related violence, as well as an engagement with the legacy of Marcel Duchamp (192, 239). In most contemporary art from the region, any sense of collective or even locally specific identity is set aside. Sullivan discusses as wide a range of artists as attempted in chapter 5 but to greater effect, given the focus on political conceptualism, participatory interventions, and the “debased-” or “non-object” (200, 242). Insights range from a provocative comparison of Goya’s still lifes, completed during the Peninsular War, to Fernando Botero’s The Butcher Table; Still Life with Pig’s Head of 1969 and Antonio Henrique Amaral’s banana paintings, both “deceptively benign” yet anguished, shocking metaphors for the physical and psychological terror incited by events such as the Viet Nam war and Colombia’s bloody civil wars, known as la violencia (196). The special strength of these two chapters is in the shared concerns and disturbing sensuality that Sullivan teases out among both familiar and relatively unknown works. These include Rafael Montáñez Ortiz’s Archaeological Find, 3 (1961), one of the artist’s “destruction rituals” in which he burned a mattress; Artur Barrio’s Situations Series, in which the artist deposited bloody bundles in public spaces in Brazil in 1970, relying on the public’s participation (or not) in order to express a critique of political repression; and Rubén Santantonín’s Thing 1 (1961), which when shown in Buenos Aires “provoked an analogous aura of suspicion” (242). The chapters build on recent scholarship, particularly that of Mari Carmen Ramírez, which affirms the pioneering role of conceptual artists from distinct Latin American locales. In addition to exploring the Duchampian legacy for artists ranging from Hélio Oiticica to Liliana Porter, Regina Silveira, Betsabee Romero, and Josefina Guilisasti, Sullivan emphasizes how the emotive as well as ironic qualities in these artists’ work enable them to complicate any simple “evocations of place or time” (263). Instead, what unites them is the way banal elements become “vehicles for larger ruminations on universal concerns” (265).

Sullivan concludes his meditations with Gabriel Orozco’s Black Kites (1997), a human skull upon which the artist drew a black-and-white checkerboard pattern. The object beautifully synthesizes the issues explored throughout the book. As a “primordial ready-made” the skull itself is an object, but as Sullivan observes Orozco has also used it as the subject of photographic documentation (268, 267). While the skull “may be viewed as the ultimate Mexican stereotype,” Orozco is quoted as affirming that it “‘must not be interpreted as an identification or a refus[al] of Mexican culture. Probably it’s both, and that’s what makes it so strange’” (268). With this “both” Sullivan concludes his eloquent analysis of “the language of objects,” affirming and yet challenging their “viability as metaphor[s] or barometer[s] of people, time, or place” (270). Through his erudition, his always-perceptive visual analysis, and his evident love of objects of art, Sullivan takes the reader on a pleasurable journey indeed.

Adriana Zavala
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Tufts University

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