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Solar Shines Light On Latin American Experience In U.S.

Originally Posted: October 08, 2008

Joan Baum

"Jets" by Sheila Breck


East Hampton - Although exhibitions at Solar tend to feature artists whose background or identity reflects South American, Caribbean, or Mexican culture, the current show, "What Can Brown Do For You," could not be more timely, coming as it does in the middle of National Hispanic Heritage Month. But with what irony do these local artists depict how Latin American immigrants are often seen in this country, or more to the point, not seen. It's not all "black" and "white" anymore. What would happen to the economy of our country, to our own East End villages, were "brown" to disappear, gallery owner Esperanza León wondered. This thought prompted the exhibit "What Can Brown Do For You" (a riff on the motto of UPS). This is not, however, a shrill display of art as propaganda. The spirit of most of the critiques is "playful," León points out, and two of the seven artists are not even Latin American - they just wanted to express their empathy with the plight of immigrants as invisible workers.

Sheila Breck, who intends her paintings as an "acknowledgment of the unacknowledged," uses acrylic and watercolor augmented with graphite and charcoal to depict brown-faced men and boys, many in sports attire, their faces expressionless, sketch-like pieces that may suggest their subjects' tenuous connection to their new land. Christa Maiwald, whose intricate embroideries often take a satirical turn, strikes a more pointed note with work from her "Cybrids" series (human faces on animal bodies) and "Latin Songbirds," a witty representation of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa perched on a branch - the left attempting to bridge economic inequality?

"Catwoman" by Dulce Pinzon

Michael Pribich, whose mother is Mexican, puts his design skills to manifest critical purpose with graphite drawings and sculpture that represent his stencil letter series, "A Mexican in Every Kitchen." Using these words in two and three-dimensional form, Pribich comments sardonically on the fact that many poor Mexicans in America wind up as "cocineros." The drawings, alluding to some of the colors of the Mexican flag (one piece also references Aztec and Christian motifs), are effective as graphic designs. It is the imaginative installation, "A Pot to Piss In," from Pribich's Brass Border Series, that particularly impresses, with its clutch of colorful broom handles held in check by a border brass rail (Mexicans are border people, after all) and stuck into a chamber pot.

Aurelio Torres, of Uruguayan descent, captures the sense of being alien and outside in his large, dark-hued "Boy With Blower," a reminder of Latin Americans who serve as gardening assistants. With thin applications of pigment, Torres limns a blank-looking, slightly out-of-focus young man who plies his trade against a gray and black background, the only bright color in the painting being the red blower strapped on his back, and his sun-streaked working arm - a sad depiction of a human being who seems less significant than his mechanical apparatus.

Santiago Garza takes an edgier view, as seen in his black and white photographs of underground, gay, yet vulnerable Latin Americans who live and work at the margins of society, exemplifying what Garza calls the problems of "Hispanicity." Here is the urban underclass - blurry close-ups, sharply focused muscle guys, hooker nudes covering up a bit (or advertising), men and women who stare at the camera, and images of legs, legs, legs with all manner of adornment. In-your-face shots, they prompted Colombian-American comedian and actor John Leguizamo to write in a side note, "There's a new color in town, baby."

"Latin Songbirds" by Christa Maiwald

Mixed media artist Esperanza Mayobre works a subtler vein, hinting at the poverty of relying on religion. Spiritual belief, while it may bring some comfort to the poor, cannot effect change. In her installation, "Virgin of Hope" viewers are invited to donate (25 cents and up) to an unspecified cause. In return they can take a spoofy prayer card (in Spanish/English) and a small packet of "protective balsam" for "hopeless immigrants." The prayer cards depict the artist in costume, holding in her outstretched hands a passport, a green card, and U.S. currency. In "Immigrant of the Month," Mayobre, now clearly The Patron Saint of Illegal Immigrants, plays on Employee of the Month posters, only here, a Latin American face is encased in one photo while a second frame remains blank. A gallery alcove contains eight lighted "Virgin of Hope" candles - nothing avails.

Dulce Pinzon's bold color C-Prints, arguably the most sardonic pieces in the exhibit, show real people costumed as heroes, except that the real people are "heroic" immigrant workers doing America's dirty work. A nanny from Pueblo wears a Catwoman suit as she tends to white babies; a demolition worker dressed as the Incredible Hulk blasts away; a window cleaner garbed as Spiderman hangs outside a skyscraper; a gigolo lolls about in Times Square, a police car nearby. Slyly, Pinzon uses blurred backgrounds in some images but sharply focuses on details in others where context carries its own commentary.

 • On Saturday, Oct. 25 at 4 p.m. some of the artists will discuss their work and answer questions, as part of the gallery's series of art talks. "What Can Brown Do For You?" runs through Nov. 3. Solar is located at 44 David's Lane in East Hampton, www.artsolar.com, 631-907-8422.




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