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Art Explained: Chilean artists you’ve not seen come to create

By Michele Langevine Leiby,

A visitor walking into the exhibit “Traveling Light, Five Artists From Chile” is likely to stroll right past the glitter-covered strand atop the entry doorway without realizing that it is the first piece in the collection.

Rodrigo Canala, creator of the ephemeral “Banderines Vacios (Empty Banners),” wanted his work to float high above the heads of viewers, to fill the in-between spaces separating the exhibit rooms.

Canala is one of five contemporary Chilean artists in this show, now at the Art Museum of the Americas. “It is called ‘Traveling Light’ because we shipped the artists instead of their artwork,” explains curator Laura Roulet.

They buy local materials and create art to match the sites they are visiting. They teach art students — in this case, students from Corcoran College of Art & Design — then collaborate with them to crochet or plaster-cast or whatever is needed to install the art. A representative piece is Tomas Rivas’s “The Room Next Door,” a plaster-and-wood conceptualized version of the famed Salon Dore, the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s gilded 18th-century room, which was originally part of an aristocratic French residence. Here, monochrome tiles float three feet above the floor, in sharp contrast with the ornate gold-paneled walls of the original Parisian room. The piece, says Roulet, transforms the decadent Salon Dore into “a deconstructed ghost of the space in the lowly material of plaster.”

Roulet explains the exhibit:

“All of the work shows the process of its creation. There are also thematic threads throughout the exhibit, such as a contrast between high and low art or materials, or the concept of drawing in space. Another thing I would say that is unique is that there is no other museum in Washington that would do an exhibit like this.

“The AMA offers an opportunity to see this group of exceptional Chilean artists that have not been vetted in the U.S. yet. All of the work is site-specific, and responds to the museum space, being in D.C., being at the [museum of the] Organization of the American States, and [in] proximity to the Corcoran.

“Materiality is one of the exhibit’s main themes, basically exploring the possibilities of what an artist can do with common, everyday materials. Perhaps create the illusion of richer materials. Egg tempera becomes marble. Plastic and glitter become a festive pennant. Perhaps create the illusion of spatial depth in the way that artists since the Renaissance have used linear perspective. All of the artists also call attention to their process of making the work. We can see the brush strokes, irregular knitting, and hand-carving. Those signs of process make them present in the work long after they have returned to Chile.

“Gerardo Pulido’s mural uses egg tempera, an ancient form of paint associated with the Renaissance — high art — to create a marbleized surface, in contrast with spray paint — a low form of paint associated with graffiti and street art — to simulate a knotty pine surface.

“Catalina Bauer’s crocheted floor piece emulates the feminist artists’ elevation of traditionally female craft and craft materials to — high— fine art. The communal act of labor in producing the piece is a major component of her art.”

The five artists created “Traveling Light” in 2009, first showing it in Melbourne, Australia, at Victoria Art College. They collectively operate a studio in Santiago called Taller BLOC. The artists have exhibited extensively in Chile, but only Rivas, who was an intern at the National Gallery of Art, has previously shown in Washington.

Traveling Light, Five Artists from Chile

through Jan. 22 at the Art Museum of the Americas, 202-458-6016, .

Last week’s Art, Explained was a profile of the piglet star of the Signature Theater play “Heir Apparent.” You can find it at http://wapo.st/littlepig.

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