A recent exhibition at The Davis Museum at Wellesley College and its accompanying catalog put forth a suggestive premise: Art_Latin_America: Against the Survey is not, as its title says, a survey.

And yet it is.

Editor James Oles, senior lecturer in Wellesley’s art department, states in his opening essay, “Art_Latin_America: Filling in the Blanks,” that his inclusion of underscores in the title was intended as a way to separate the words and still connect them — sidestepping, he states, the dilemmas posed by the idea of “Latin American art” as a field and “Latin America” as a place. Why? Simply because these terms, when related to major exhibitions, are not broad enough, he says. They are subject to the whims, no matter how well informed, of art historians and curators who inevitably view them through a limited scope and invariably leave some important artist or movement out of consideration.

The catalog includes 70 essays by leading scholars of Latin American art, including Oles. The essays are mercifully short; otherwise, the book would be a lot longer than its 256 pages, which include 200 color illustrations. The catalog is not an encyclopedic treatment of its subject, although it encompasses a lot of material. In Oles’ view, the title’s underscores are also meant to be seen as gaps to be filled with new narratives and meanings. Art_Latin_America doesn’t pretend to be the last word on the subject: It invites further dialogue.

The exhibition Art_Latin_America was mounted in full consideration of a widening hemispheric vision. Oles says the art world is waking up and rejecting restrictive biases that inevitably accompany how Latin American art is characterized. He writes, “As a result, the most critically acclaimed museum and textbook surveys of modern and contemporary Latin American art now avoid essentializing stereotypes (such as ‘magical realism’) in favor of conceptual structures that acknowledge the region’s political and cultural diversity, and the complex aesthetic and intellectual trajectories of its leading artists.”

Part of the book’s strength is in its inclusion of so many voices — experts in their fields — including art historians, college and university professors, museum curators, and associate curators. That it manages to pack so much in without feeling hefty, or daunting, is impressive.

Oles didn’t arrange the book as a chronological history of Latin American art, although chronologies are included in several chapters. Each is a treatment of a particular theme, such as “Identity and Territory,” “Protest and Propaganda,” and “Gesture and Geometry.” This approach lends the work an ebb and flow, a back and forth from past to present, which lets the reader see how the themes developed over time or how they impacted Latin American art in general.

The brevity of the accompanying essays ensures that many of them are concise and to the point. In her statement on Mexican muralist Raúl Anguiano, for example, Patricia Berman, the Theodora L. and Stanley H. Feldberg Professor of Art at Wellesley, places him in context by briefly exploring the subject matter of his murals, paintings, and prints.

Anguiano, she writes, was committed to using art to speak out against fascism. He was a founding member of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (The People’s Print Workshop), an influential artists’ collective that was formed in Mexico in 1937 and frequently promoted revolutionary causes. But his subjects went beyond national concerns to embrace leftist causes on the international scene. In his 1939 lithograph 1 de mayo de 1939; salvemos el mundo del fascismo (First of May 1939: Let’s Save the World From Fascism), a globe is held aloft by two hands above a scene of artillery, gas masks, a swastika, blood, and bones. Text on the globe reads, in Spanish, “Workers of the world unite.”

Artists also took on issues closer to home. In that same chapter on art in the service of protest and propaganda, George F. Flaherty, director of the Center for Latin American Visual Studies at the University of Texas, at Austin, discusses Mexican documentary photographer Héctor García and his treatment of the crowds at violent protests and pro-democracy demonstrations in Mexico in the 1950s and ’60s. Flaherty cites García’s photograph Agua as an example of how the photographer would keep his focus on the people: The image of a closely cropped sea of faces strikes the viewer with both its intimacy and the claustrophobic crush of bodies, lending a sense of immediacy to the protesters’ struggles and demands. In the case of Agua, the issue was public access to water. A protester holds a sign bearing only one word: “agua.”

García was the personal photographer to politician Luis Echeverría during the latter’s campaign for the presidency of Mexico (he served in that role from 1970 to 1976). Echeverría is believed to have been behind a 1968 military attack on the Mexican student movement. Although Agua was printed in 1970, it may have been shot earlier, during the campaign. Flaherty says of it, “Here, the arms-length perspective of the state met his ‘into the middle of things camera.’ ”

But the support of communist causes, workers’ rights, land issues, water rights, and other social and political causes — while they might feature prominently in Mexican art of the last century — are not a defining characteristic of Mexican or Latin American art as a whole. Aesthetic and conceptual interests, too, are of primary concern. Chilean artist Roberto Matta, for instance, used abstraction to explore the relationship between the inner workings of the mind and the natural and technological worlds of external reality. In the 1930s, Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García came up with an artistic philosophy called Constructive Universalism, which combined formal attributes of geometry with the spiritual and intuitive nature in man. He saw no contradiction between the ancient art of the Americas and the avant-garde artists of Europe and America, in whose circles he spent much of his life. In drawings and woodcuts, he created reductive, elemental abstractions that were also evocative of the older, Andean art forms that inspired him.

“In keeping with his beliefs that contemporary art should reflect not only its time but also the ancient art of the region, and that the high mark of any style — past or present — is both classical and abstract, he found Tiwanaku and Wari textiles and Inca stone to be ideal models,” writes Cecelia de Torres, a scholar of the artist and creator of his online Catalogue raisonné.

In the work of Matta and Torres-García, we see two very distinct styles of abstraction, but each reflects a similar bridging between the interiority of the human animal and the surrounding external worlds. This is not emphatically stated in the book but is its own “underscore,” inspired by material presented in it.

Such a book, ultimately, is not didactic — the connections are to be found and built upon. In his summation of past surveys of Latin American art, Oles states that “Some have followed standard chronologies, but the most innovative have uncovered complicated networks and constellations that expand but also reshape and even warp the modernist canon.” Art_Latin_America is in the latter category. ◀

Art_Latin_America: Against the Survey by James Oles, University of Texas Press, 256 pages, $65

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