Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 2, 2022
Victoria Lyall and Jorge F. Rivas Perez, eds. ReVisión: A New Look at Art in the Americas Exh. cat. Denver and Munich: Denver Art Museum in association with Hirmer Publishers, 2021. 176 pp.; 80 color ills. Cloth $25.00 (9783777434346)
ReVisión: Art in the Americas
Denver Art Museum, October 24, 2021–July 17, 2022
ReVisión: Art in the Americas, installation view, Denver Art Museum, 2021−22 (photograph by the author)

As its title suggests, ReVisión: Art in the Americas seeks to revise traditional approaches to the visual history of the Americas and provide a distinct perspective. Its principal method for doing so is to challenge the separate treatment in scholarship and museum practices of visual production from before and after the arrival of Europeans in Latin America—specifically, by collapsing chronology and showing works of ancient, colonial, modern, and contemporary Latin American art side by side in a thematic presentation. As curators Victoria Lyall and Jorge Rivas Pérez state in the exhibition’s catalog, rather than seeking to present a “comprehensive history of the arts of ancient and Latin America,” their achronological, bilingual exhibition focuses on how artists today critically mobilize the pre-Hispanic and colonial pasts in their work (8). Inaugurating the Denver Art Museum’s long-anticipated renovated campus, the exhibition displays around 180 objects grouped into five major themes: land, material riches, exploration and exploitation, ways of organizing the world, and shaping identities in the Americas. The catalog, also bilingual, includes five essays with ample color reproductions and short catalog entries.

In discussing the exhibition’s juxtapositions of objects of Indigenous making, past and present, with objects that address processes of domination, essay contributor Julieta González theorizes ReVisión as meeting historian James Clifford’s call to make museums into contact zones and open collections to non-Western epistemologies. The exhibition also serves to test out an approach to integrating more contemporary work into the Denver Art Museum’s touchstone collections of ancient and colonial Latin American art, a new objective of the museum’s Frederick & Jan Mayer Center, which is home to the arts of the Americas collections. By foregrounding the work of contemporary artists from Latin American and from Latinx and emigrant communities who activate the past to address ongoing social, political, and economic issues of the region, the exhibition asserts the persistence of transhistorical concerns in a way that helps viewers make sense of 2,500 years of artistic production and get a feel for how artists today grapple with historical memory. Indeed, works of contemporary art, many of them newly acquired by the museum, anchor the thematic sections and are among the most impactful objects in the show.

One of the works flanking the start of the opening theme, “Connections to the Land,” is Carla Fernández and Pedro Reyes’s Pueblos originarios del continente (Original peoples of the continent; 2020). It takes the form of a large map of the Americas but replaces geopolitical borders with Indigenous communities’ names hand embroidered by Otomí artisan Endy López, underscoring the diversity of the continent. Even as they acknowledge this diversity in this section, the curators have identified shared beliefs in the animacy of land and its ongoing centrality to the communities of Latin America. A large, semianthropomorphic Marajó Island ceramic jar (400–1500) from the delta of the Amazon River balanced on a pedestal embodies these ideas and invites viewers to cycle around and observe its bulbous form and human iconography as they advance into the gallery. The Amazonian jar initiates the first subtheme, “Water that Sustains.” Cascading from ceiling supports just beyond it is Encontro das Águas (Meeting of Waters; 2016–18), by Clarissa Tossin; this work features a forty-foot-long “river” woven of vinyl-printed satellite imagery of the Amazon and Negro rivers where they converge near Manaus, Brazil, the site of an important free-trade zone. Terracotta models of electronics produced in Manaus occupy one corner of the gallery, borne in baskets the artist wove from boxes following traditional techniques. In this way, the piece points to how global consumerism is transforming local life, a critique made all the more poignant by the cataclysmic burning of significant portions of the Amazon rain forest since the work’s completion. Juxtaposed with Tossin’s work are three lidded Maya vessels that conjure constituent levels of the Maya cosmos, including the watery underworld, detailed in Lyall’s catalog essay. Also included in this grouping is a colonial painting of the Virgin of Valvanera that depicts Spanish belief in life-giving water, thereby initiating the pattern that dominates the exhibition. Bold contemporary works tend to take center stage and ancient and colonial works enrich the intended dialogues of “transformation and hybridity, shifting perceptions of identity, and the persistence of memory and place” through visual and/or functional connections (8).

In the next thematic section the exhibition shifts its focus to the Americas’ material riches with critical attention to their exploitation by imperial and neoliberal capitalist forces, a subject that is broached primarily through commentary provided by the contemporary works in these sections. Feathers that were used and traded across the Americas as signs of wealth and status to adorn clothing and other objects are the subject of Eduardo Sarabia’s installation Ceiba Sagrada (Sacred Ceiba; 2016), which features a framed image of a cross-cut green ceiba tree surrounded by more than two-dozen vibrantly colored, cast-metal birds perched along the wall. Sarabia’s work addresses how the destruction of the environment and the illegal feather trade have endangered many native birds, a predicament that is foreshadowed in the adjacent pair of colonial-era paintings documenting real and fictitious American birds for European patrons. A fourteenth-century Tiwanaku feather tunic and a seventeenth-century feather painting of St. John the Evangelist exhibit the primary ways feathers were used as media in the pre-Hispanic and colonial periods. By contrast, the color-shifting acrylic-and-wood bas relief Physichromie No. 387 (1968) by the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez uses no actual feathers, but it harnesses the same effects of color and light that interested Indigenous amanteca (feather workers) to create this work of Kinetic and Op art. A subtheme on the native cochineal dye features a newly acquired lacquered cabinet by Gloria Cortina made using the centuries-old Mexican maque tradition. Nearby, a richly dyed Chimú tasseled tunic and an eighteenth-century Mexican painting Young Woman with a Harpsichord (1735–50) convey cochineal’s perceived luxuriousness and potency across continents and time periods.

The last two sections, “Exploration and Exploitation” and “Organizing Our World,” tackle difficult issues related to displacement and the use and abuse of people and natural resources for profit raised in several of the contemporary works in the first half of the exhibition. The screening of Harun Farocki’s Das Silber und das Kreuz (The Silver and the Cross; 2010), which critiques Spanish extraction of silver at what is now the Bolivian city of Potosí by examining a colonial painted landscape, is a poignant foil to the dazzling display of roughly 1,400 years of silver and gold work in the “Heavenly Metals” subsection that immediately precedes it. As Elena Shtromberg describes in her essay, Farocki’s work and that of other video artists in the exhibition demonstrate how the medium of video allows contemporary artists to examine the past and make it relevant for today’s audiences. The subtheme “Borders and Displacement” contains two particularly powerful contemporary works. Sandy Rodriguez’s Mapa de los Child Detention Centers, Family Separation, and other Atrocities from the “Codex Rodriguez-Mondragon” (2018) is a map of the southwestern section of the United States, northern Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean hand painted on amate paper, an Indigenous Mexican painting support. It conflates time periods, layering depictions of detention centers in the southwestern United States that held large numbers of children as part of the 2018 family separation policy, which separated immigrant children from their parents, with visual and material allusions to other human rights disasters related to the border and US-Mexico relations. Violence and the ethics of border enforcement are also explored by Rafael Fajardo in his playful yet sobering video games Crosser (2000) and La Migra (Immigration; 2000), which visitors could try out.

The exhibition concludes with a thematic section on identity, “Creating My Place in the Americas,” in which the curators show that identities in the Americas are diverse and not fixed. This section aptly contains the most divergent range of works in the exhibition, many of which address the legacies of colonialism. Examples include an ancient Maya cylinder vessel depicting a tale of social mobility, a set of sixteen casta paintings that rank members of colonial society according to race, a rare signed colonial portrait by African painter Rafael Ochoa, and a powerful selection of contemporary works, such as Dominican artist Jorge Pineda’s life-size sculpture of a teenager on a skateboard, which explores anti-African racism, and an embroidery by the Argentine artistic duo Leo Chiachio and Daniel Giannone titled Calaverita (2014), which addresses anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

The catalog begins with an introduction by curators Jorge Rivas Pérez and Victoria Lyall. The opening essay by Lyall examines the centrality of place and landscape to artists in the Americas. After Shtromberg’s essay on the medium of video, Beverly Adams historicizes the critical ways that contemporary artists draw on the ancient American past. Julieta González discusses how the exhibition challenges museums’ organizing principles by drawing on critical anthropological concepts, including those of the safe house, the contact zone, and the “denial of coevalness,” anthropology’s tendency to view other cultures as unalike and not existing in the same time as one’s own culture.  The final essay by Jorge Rivas Pérez uses Homi Bhabha’s concept of a hybrid, negotiated “third space” to discuss how Latin American visual cultures of the colonial, republican, modern, and contemporary periods often play with time, combining visual elements from different periods and cultures to create new meanings and engage with viewers (112, 116).

ReVisión successfully positions the importance of the arts of the ancient Americas and historical memory vis-à-vis contemporary Latin American and Latinx art production. By organizing the exhibition thematically rather than chronologically, the curators create provocative conversations between works from distinct periods; however, important context is sometimes lost for older works, which receive leaner interpretation and for which the curators often rely on visual cues to connect to the exhibition’s themes. The problems with chronological approaches that the exhibition rejects could also be more clearly defined in the exhibition literature. That said, the exhibition does an excellent job communicating the museum’s commitment to collecting and integrating contemporary Latin American and Latinx art in meaningful ways into their historic collections. The installation is visually stunning, and overall the exhibition constitutes a refreshing and thoughtful reframing of the expanding collections of the museum.

Kristin Enright
Department of Art and Art History, University of Colorado, Boulder