STORY and PHOTOGRAPHS by FRIDERIKE HEUER
My first visit to the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) began without expectations. All I knew was that the museum, founded in 1996, is dedicated to modern and contemporary Latin American art. I also remembered that there was some kind of brouhaha when it attempted to auction about 60 works from its permanent collection through an online e-commerce site three years ago (apparently unsuccessfully.) Given that the relatively small permanent collection was mostly provided by the late founder, healthcare executive Robert Gumbiner, an enthusiastic art collector but not necessarily a professional builder of museum collections, it made sense to find funds to diversify the collection (and perhaps offset the pandemic-induced financial losses, although that was never said.) Others disagreed, scornfully so.
I arrived at the Long Beach, California location on a day with cloudless blue skies, the light and coloring reminiscent of New Mexico, were it not for those imperial palms rigidly lining the building, its thrusting rectangular arches echoed by an equally thrusting sculpture. No softening, curved adobe in sight; just a pastel colored mural toward the back of the parking lot.
Much to see inside the museum. Three current exhibitions provide quite the gamut of what art can offer. One of them is “Festin de Sabores. Banquete Mexicano,” a collection of genre paintings that center on themes of food, harvest and markets, still life, and modern cuisine. Jointly curated by folks from MOLAA and MUNAL, the National Museum of Art in Mexico City, which provided many of the exhibits, it is a fascinating vehicle for time-travel through centuries of preoccupation with food and those who grow, sell, prepare, and consume it.
From 18th century paintings to present-day works, the Festival of Flavors contains a wide variety of artists and skill levels, all coming together to form a vibrant overall picture, a feast for the eyes. The center of the room is occupied with an installation of furniture that sets the scene: a table laden with colorful objects and utensils displaying craftsmanship.
The rest consists of primarily paintings of which I chose the examples below to give an impression of the variability of the work on display or because I particularly liked them. (I leave it to the reader to figure out which is which.)
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the second exhibition currently on offer, Argentinian artist Paola Vega‘s installation The Mystery of Painting, whose abstract patterns escape the canvases to continue onto the walls. Someone perhaps more knowledgeable than I called the site-specific work “aggressively pleasant.” I, unfortunately, only came up with “pleasantly innocuous.” Vega’s explicit goal (according to the museum signage) to immerse us until we are engulfed in enchantment just doesn’t fit with the way my mind works these days. Not an aesthetic judgment, just an aesthetic preference.
I get enchantment when my brain fires, not when my senses are calmed down. And that — a rapidly heating brain — is precisely what the third exhibition triggered: Intersected Horizons, a retrospective of the work of Afro-Cuban artist Alexandre Arrechea. For one, the number of artistic media expertly commanded by the artist and displayed across multiple large gallery rooms is impressive. Sculpture, painting, photographic installation, videos, and even fiber art are all represented. Here are examples of some of the latter; I will then focus on the former, sparking my synapses.
The galleries are filled with sculptures and installations that alert us to who owns space, how space is utilized, what price is paid for certain kinds of spatial usurpation and by whom. The artist communicates with wit bordering on parody, at least at first glance. He often uses scaling of familiar scenes and objects to make them smaller or larger than they actually are, eschewing all reverence for some of the mighty symbols of American achievement or pride: its skyscrapers, its sports arenas, its golf courses, its scientific achievements.
Golf courses, often serving privileged clienteles, force nature into artificial patterns rather than letting the land be as it was. They require immense amounts of water to boot, no longer an unlimited resource, to maintain the shiny greens and thirsty plants. They potentially displace greenery that was accessible to all; tree shade that is increasingly important for our health in a world heating up at an unprecedented pace.
Genetically modified organisms might be a scientific achievement, but also creatures best kept in an unopened Pandora’s box: A hint of surveillance eyes creepily following your gaze in the watercolor of a scaled-up ear of corn points toward potential consequences of artificial powers unleashed onto all of us.
The desire for limitless growth, as echoed in the magnificent watercolor below (painted during an artist residence with water from the Delaware River drawn daily) lets us lose sight of the subjects of creation. Only when you inspect the river do you eventually stumble upon the bird, the trees, the human being grabbing a bucket to hold onto. It is a remarkable fusion of stereogram-like tagging reminiscent of graffiti and the closer inspection of nature in distress with incredibly detailed paint marks.
Nowhere is Arrechea’s play with scale more obvious than in a set of maquettes that are small versions of New York City’s landmark buildings, in mutated forms. They are derived from his 2013 installation No Limits at Park Avenue in NYC, larger than what is on display here, at the time placed in close proximity to the actual buildings that provided the reference. The buildings named below were included in that outdoor exhibition:
The Seagram Building (designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson), the Helmsley Building (built in 1929 as the New York Central Building and designed by Warren & Wetmore), the MetLife Building (built in 1958-63 as the Pam Am Building, designed by Emery Roth & Sons, Pietro Belluschi and Walter Gropius). The Sherry Netherland Hotel from Fifth Avenue and 59th Street (designed by Schultze & Weaver with Buchman & Kahn), The Citigroup Center from Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street (designed by Hugh Stubbins, Jr.), The Chrysler Building from Lexington and 42nd Street (designed by William Van Allen), the Empire State Building from Fifth Avenue and 34th Street (Shreve, Lamb and Harmon), the MetLife Insurance Tower from Madison Avenue and 23rd Street (Napoleon Le Brun & Sons) and the United States Court House from Foley Square (Cass Gilbert).
Critics raved about the ways he sent up the iconic architecture, converting landmark elite hotels, courthouses, the Empire State Building and Wall Street banks into utilitarian objects. The sarcasm of the rich devouring themselves (Helmsley building), justice tilting, firehoses in Pentagon shape cleaning up for the Empire, banks as safety hazard, was applauded by quite a range of reviewers.
“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline.” — Ayn Rand
I believe that the range of reactions to New York’s skyline and landmark buildings, at least for the newcomer, extends from awe to dismay, with everything in between. It is certainly no surprise that Ayn Rand, she of the “unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive” philosophy, landed on the side of the passionate admirers, given how much the skyscrapers are associated with economic success, symbols of power and exclusivity, capitalism made good.
But the rest of us who flocked to New York in our youth also fell for a certain propaganda value of the architecture while we did not succumb to similar messages that other power seats exuded — Berlin’s Reichstag, Mussolini’s fascist architecture, the Bastille, the Tower of London, or farther back in time, the strutting heights of Christian cathedrals or the Egyptian pyramids, all promising and oppressive simultaneously. In NYC you had arrived at the most exciting city in the world, a sense encapsulated in the unabating virility and brinkmanship of its architecture.
According to one of the museum guards with whom I happened to chat, the artist had said in his artist talk that he, upon arrival, simply felt overwhelmed by the height and density of the buildings and wanted them cut down to size to deal with his alienation. The work is, of course, more complex than that. It asserts that we are the creators of architectural objects and can make them confirm to our will and our goals, be they playful, political, pragmatic or nefarious.
And we have — most often in ways that served a purpose beyond providing shelter or functionality for public needs.
What Arrechea’s sculptures — in conjunction with his large photographic installation of Black people whose mouths are covered and invisible, essentially rendering them mute — invoked in my head was the way in which architecture can exclude. I am not just talking about segregation via zoning laws, exclusionary convenants, or other legal mechanisms, nor about norms that people habitually adhere to when certain buildings or areas signal a get off my lawn vibe.
Consider how we design the physical environment — architecture of space — that we all move through, to enable discrimination. Take physical barriers, for example. Walled ghettos come to mind, but also barriers in modern cities, Detroit among them. The Eight-Mile-Wall segregating white from Black neighborhoods, built there in the 1940s, still exists today. A 1,500-foot fence that separated a suburb in Hamden, Connecticut, from a housing project in New Haven was removed only in 2014. A modern version of all this is gated communities. Or other communities that have exclusionary amenities, like golf courses, tennis courts, concierges, etc. (Ref.)
Residential parking permits have that function as well. I am renting during my visit in L.A. in a lovely historic neighborhood with friendly, interesting people, with lawn signs welcoming immigrants and professing inclusionary values. But you also get this besides parking permits to the tune of almost $100 a month:
Another scenario: If we configure the architecture of a place in ways that make accessibility hard — no sidewalks, one-way street-grid configurations that allow egress more easily that entering — it has consequences for certain populations. Here is a striking New York example: Access to the desirable parks at Jones Beach via the Long Island parkways was made impossible if you needed public transportation by bus. Architect Robert Moses had all the bridge overhangs built intentionally so low that buses could not pass under them. (Ref.)
Other examples include the fact that highways that separate neighborhoods prevent integration between them, in addition to favoring those who want to use their cars to get out of inner-city neighborhoods to the more exclusionary suburbs. (I was coincidentally reminded of that last weekend, when one part of a L.A. highway was closed to cars and permitted walkers and bikers to use the space for a few hours on a Sunday.)
Arrechea’s varied ways of providing different perspectives of space and the buildings and objects occupying it connect to history as well as the present.
Underneath it all rested an abstracted agrarian field with glass discs to represent water drops. Fertile ground, if we let it be and don’t waste what remains. Generating food, in theory, instead of symbols of domination; in practice definitely generating food for thought.
- 628 Alamitos Avenue
- Long Beach, Calif., 90802
- Alexandre Arrechea: Intersected Horizons until May 2024
- Paola Vega: The Mystery of Painting
- Festín de Sabores: Banquete Mexicano until January 2024
Originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on November 6, 2023.