Baroque Redux

Latino artists give a modern twist to an old art style

Dark, grotesque, and elaborately wrought, baroque art rippled through Latin America and became the dominant school during colonial and post-colonial times. But it evolved under the Latino influence. While its subject matter was frequently religious, many of its practitioners were indigenous and mestizo, which infused the tradition with non-European aspects both sacred and secular. Eighteenth-century Brazilian sculptor Aleijadinho (“The Little Cripple”) provides a case in point. The son of a Portuguese architect and his African slave, Aleijadinho carved ornate soapstone statues, wooden pulpits, and church facades for the burgeoning colonial cities of the Minas Gerais region of Brazil. Stricken with leprosy, he was unable to walk, let alone hold tools; he relied on assistants to bind hammer and chisel to his withered hands and wheel him around on a cart. Now revered as Brazil's most significant colonial-era artist, Aleijadinho draws busloads of tourists to snap photos of his churches and visit museums that bear his name.

“Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post – Latin American Art,” opening this Saturday at SFMOMA, looks critically and cheekily toward such figures of baroque art. Sixteen current artists from the Americas present work that riffs modern on the form; they explore the style's cross-cultural exchange as a precursor to today's globalization. Organized by San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibition not only highlights a diverse range of approaches but plucks some common threads — history, legacy, and religion among them — that bind contemporary Latin American artists.

Among the artists gathered here is Mexican cultural critic Miguel Calderón, who reinterprets the highbrow elevation of figures like Aleijadinho. In his “Employee of the Month” photo series, Calderón reprises many of Mexico City's National Museum of Art's colonial-era portraits by employing the venue's vacuum- and feather duster-toting janitorial crew to re-enact the paintings' scenes. The series is both a hilarious critique on museums and an homage to heavyweights like Velázquez and Caravaggio, who relied on folks off the street as models for their work. Brazilian mixed-media artist Adriana Varejão touches on the theme of violence during the Ibero-American conquest with Carpet-Style Tilework in Live Flesh. A wounded slab of distinctive blue and white Portuguese tiles is gutted to reveal the eviscerated organs beneath. In a less serious ode to conquest, Venezuelan Meyer Vaisman's taxidermied turkeys (an indigenous American species) arrive gussied up in fancy European finery.

The artists gathered here don't force a revision of history; they aim to reclaim “baroque.” The term once implied a bastardized, deficient, and hybrid art; these artists' “ultrabaroque” is borderless, a reflection on the present. From Rubén Ortiz Torres' Simpsons-meets-Picasso Bart Sánchez to Yishai Jusidman's paintings of Mexico City mental patients displaying their favorite images from an art history book, this mestizo art resuscitates the baroque and sends it kicking and screaming into the modern world.

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