A Latino Biennial That Bucks a Global Trend, The New York Times

Sebastián Patané Masuelli - Art & Design - Art Review | 'The (S) Files 007'                                  


This age of international art biennials has produced a class of continent-hopping artists identified less by nationality and ethnicity than by an allegiance to issues raised by globalization — or, as the art world likes to call it, “globalism.” (An exception is the Venice Biennale, founded about the same time as the modern Olympics and following a similar protocol, with nations selecting those they consider their strongest artists to represent them.) 

Curiously, the opposite has occurred in cosmopolitan New York, where surveys of contemporary art at the smaller museums — they don’t all call themselves biennials or happen every two years — tend to emphasize ethnicity or where an artist lives. 

This is to be expected at El Museo del Barrio, a museum devoted to Latino and Latin American art (that is, art by artists of Latin American descent living in this country, and Latin American artists or émigrés living abroad). At the same time you feel the growing pains and attempts to stretch out in the fifth edition — the largest yet — of “The (S) Files.” Short for “the selected files,” the show provides a survey of 51 emerging artists working in New York and from this year’s invited “guest country,” Ecuador. 

Some of the works, like Eduardo Gil’s installation, “Atlas of Bolívar,” distinctly consider location, displacement and identity. Mr. Gil has assembled a display of objects — postcards, matchbooks, police badges, license plates — from towns in the United States named after the 19th-century Venezuelan independence-movement leader Simón Bolívar. They both allude to the current tensions between the United States and Venezuela and poignantly mirror the way immigrants see reflections of their old land in their new one. Mr. Gil calls each object in the display a “memento without borders.” 

The Latina experience is explored in Adriana López Sanfeliu’s series of black-and-white photographs titled “Life on the Block,” which documents young Puerto Rican women living in Spanish Harlem. There is a dated look to Ms. Sanfeliu’s images. They could have been taken in the 1960s or 1970s. But the grit of old-school, straight-ahead photography is still effective in images of a pregnant woman examining herself in a mirror and a woman displayed in an open coffin. (The title indicates she was stabbed to death.) 

Immigrant struggle is depicted in a lighter but more aggrandizing way in Dulce Pinzón’s photographs of men and women going about ordinary tasks while dressed in comical superhero costumes. A nanny in a Catwoman outfit looks after her charges; a man in a padded Hulk costume unloads boxes outside a fruit and vegetable market. 

Among the Ecuadorean artists in the show Maria Teresa Ponce’s lush color photographs of the oil pipeline running from the Amazon region in Ecuador to the Pacific coast stand out. You can’t see the pipeline in every photograph; sometimes it is partly or completely buried. But a bucolic image of children playing near a stream where a woman washes clothing is an eerie reminder of how global trade can affect remote regions. (Even more unsettling, as Rodolfo Kronfle Chambers points out in a catalog essay, is that a promotional tourist campaign for Ecuador uses “Life at Its Purest” as a slogan.) 

Elsewhere in “The (S) Files” artists are less concerned with identity or issues that make for good biennial panel discussions and more interested in mining older art — Surrealism, Minimalism and Postminimalism — and in employing craft techniques. 

Two works that pay homage to Surrealism are Sandra Valenzuela’s “Midnight,” photographs and a sculpture in which fruits and vegetables are cradled in colorfully knitted hammocks suspended from the ceiling. (The title, “Media-Noche,” also plays, in a fittingly Surrealist way, on the Spanish word for stockings, “media.”) Sebastián Patané Masuelli’s installation, wedged into a gap in the gallery wall, is like a dream space, outfitted with a narrow bed and table and papered with old documents from the United States House of Representatives, the Interior Department and the Bureau of Reclamation, and lighted by hypnotic fragments of video. 

Minimalism and Postminimalism are expanded upon in Courtney Smith’s white, modular cube propped on furniture legs, and by Analia Segal’s simple spread of lavender carpet squares wrapped around a corner and raised in places by suggestive pieces of rubber, which poke through where the tiles intersect. 

Many of the artists in “The (S) Files” have appeared in other local biennials and contemporary survey shows, particularly the Queens International at the Queens Museum of Art, but also in the Bronx Museum’s “Artist in the Marketplace,” P.S. 1’s “Greater New York,” the Studio Museum of Harlem’s “Frequency,” and “L Factor,” a survey of contemporary Latin American art held at Exit Art in 2003. 

This exposure is undoubtedly good for the artists. But if the same people turn up repeatedly in local shows, just as a different group does in the name-brand international biennials, what separates “The (S) Files” from the Bronx Artists Biennial or from art fairs like Scope? 

On the positive side this might mean that Latino and Latin American artists have entered the mainstream, now that the mainstream has gone “global.” In her brief, astute catalog essay E. Carmen Ramos, an assistant curator at the Newark Museum, makes the wry point that “hyphenated institutions” like El Museo “were global — defined then as bicultural, Nuyorican, Chicano, etc., and now as multicultural, biracial, diasporic, or transnational — before global was in vogue.” 

Where a visit to the Whitney Biennial used to prompt the question “What makes an ‘American’ artist?” (a criterion that has all but been discarded), here you are prodded to consider what makes a Latino or Latin American artist. Short of administering DNA tests or certifying residency, who can say? 

Of course the repeat appearance of artists in local biennials might be a sign of something less positive: the homogeneity some claim is the result of the biennial movement, in which attempts to cover the waterfront of contemporary art end up making the waterfront look, from every angle, increasingly featureless. 

“El Museo’s Bienal: The (S) Files 007” through Jan. 6 at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, at 104th Street, East Harlem; elmuseo.org, (212) 831-7272