You get a low, insistent rumble and a sudden shining blare. "Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors" opens with a vision from the heat of East L.A.
The first thing that you see -- it growls there like a panther amid the fluted columns at the Corcoran Gallery of Art -- is a 1950 Chevy with its rear up in the air. Its painted flames are jalapenåo-hot, its seats are virgin-white. The sight is almost blinding, and sunny, too, and savage. Gilbert Luja'n's "Our Family Car," that Low Rider's delight, cuts the grayness of the atrium as if it were a blade.
The whole show wars on grayness. Its unashamed vulgarities, its mobilized vitalities, its pieties and rages somehow skip the middle registers. Its colors make one's eyes ache. Remembering their brightness, I kept thinking of that quip of Diana Vreeland's: "Pink is the navy blue of India." Pink is here accompanied by chameleon green, sky blue, shocking yellow, lipstick red. Almost all the artists here, and especially the younger ones, seem to have been torn between competing cultures, Anglo and Hispanic. You can almost see them bleed.
Their memories are dense with skulls and thorns and martyrs. Their show is filled with carnivores, sharks and white-fanged dogs, jaguars and coyotes. Cars crash in flames on freeways, people become beasts. The brushwork here suggests not a stroking, but a slashing. The sculptors of the dry Southwest fill their art with skeletons. These Mexicans eat sugar skulls on their Day of the Dead. These Chicanos wear their new tattoos as if they were badges. The pleasure that belongs to pain -- the vivacity of violence -- fuels their exhibition. Not all of them are masters. But none of them are weak.
These artists represent not one culture, but many. The intellectual from Colombia, the refugee from Cuba, the Harlem Puerto Rican, the pious Texas Catholic and the pachuco from Los Angeles share little more than language, and a sense of dispossession. And yet a shared self-confidence, a sort of pride upwelling, is felt throughout their show.
Though the Hispanic exhibition opened first in Houston, it is a local effort. If you've lost faith in the Corcoran, go and see this show. It is superbly put together. The Corcoran's Jane Livingston and John Beardsley, her colleague, worked on it five years. They raised the needed money, nearly $1 million. Their catalogue is splendid, and so's the beautifully and subtly sequenced installation (by Alex and Caroline Castro).
Livingston and Beardsley did not have an easy path. Perhaps it was the thought of Anglo art historians, both of them outsiders, judging a community and skimming off its cream. Perhaps their perceived politics, or lack of politics, offended. Perhaps it was resentment of the standards they applied, or of their exclusions, or anger at the way their ambitious exhibition soaked up so much cash. I find little here to quarrel with. But both Livingston and Beardsley say that numerous Hispanics, activists and artists, curators and critics, quarreled with them a lot.
"It is no coincidence," writes Mexico's Octavio Paz, "that the exhibition opens with the colored drawings of Martin Ramirez. He is neither a precursor nor a predecessor: he is a symbol."
Ramirez was born in 1885 somewhere in the Mexican state of Jalisco. In 1915, he stopped speaking. In 1930, he was picked up at Pershing Square, Los Angeles, and committed to a mental hospital. He never spoke again, but in 1945 -- it still seems a sort of miracle -- he began to draw. His images -- of trains and hills and tunnels, of holy men and animals -- have an eerie, rhythmic poetry. They feel like visual prayers.
Their sense of resurrection, or looking back toward one world while seeking out another, sets a sort of melody that runs throughout the show.
Its form might be called conical. The religious art and folk art with which the show begins suggest a single Latin source, part Spanish and part Indian, part Catholic and part pagan, so ancient and unchanging as to be out of time.
Luis Tapia's "Death Cart" with its wondrous yelling skeleton -- its hair is human hair, its teeth are human teeth -- was made in 1986, and yet might have been carved centuries ago. The wooden saints of Fe'lix A. Lo'pez, whose applied colors come from earth and plants, insects and dried blood, are similarly timeless. But then the show begins to wrap around the present, and steadily expand, until at last the boundaries between mainstream and Hispanic art have almost -- but not quite -- eroded and dissolved.
A sense of speaking in two languages, and a strange, compelling blend of recall and exploration, is felt throughout the later chapters of this open-ended show. The vigorous abstractions of Cuban-born Carlos Alfonzo seem wholly up to date, and yet they make one think of Cuba's links to Africa, of half-forgotten forest gods, of nighttime and of knives. Manuel Neri's monumental bronzes owe something to the antique past, and to the San Francisco figuration of Diebenkorn and Park, and yet their colors are not classical; neither is the sense of violence that is throbbing underneath their calm.
Chicago-born Roberto Juarez (his father was Mexican American, his mother Puerto Rican) conjures up Matisse. Ibsen Espada's energized abstractions similarly recall Pollock and Miro. The expressionists of Europe have given something (but surely not their colors) to the wild, vivid dreams of Carlos Almaraz. But there remains within these artists' work a sort of Latin soul.
Of the 30 artists represented, only one -- California's well-known Robert Graham -- seems wholly out of place. His athletes and acrobats of bronze chill the viewer's heart, they're so colorless and cold. Graham was born in Mexico. But it is as if he's frozen out the spirit of his heritage. One never gets that feeling elsewhere in this show.
Instead, one senses everywhere a peculiar metamorphosis, a voyage without leaving. Perhaps it is no wonder that so many of these artists seem somehow to portray themselves as half-human and half-animal, half-rooted and half-free. The flowers and the trees in Patricia Gonzalez's oils have a spirit partly animate, as if those fronds and leaves were in some way a self-portrait. These artists shift their shapes. They become dogs, like Luja'n, or birds, like Pedro Perez, or white-toothed sharks and lions, like Felipe Archuleta, or tigers, like Luis Stand.
"Howl," a bronze by Texas' Luis Jimenez is partially a monument to the cunning and the skill of the unconquerable coyote. But that sculpture has the spirit of a self-portrait too.
In Paul Sierra's "Mad Dogs," we seem to see the artist, his briefcase by his side, reclining in the grass, beside his canine brothers, baying at the stars. In one Frank Romero oil, it is as if the painter had somehow turned himself into a living, shivering car.
Nowhere is that sense of transmutation more compelling than in the unforgettable self-portraits of Puerto Rico's Arnaldo Roche. It is as if his skin is somehow disappearing, as if he is becoming, say, an otherworldly cat.
Roche in this company is something of a star. So is the Chicano whose one name is Gronk. The last work one encounters -- its energy is awesome -- is his wall-sized mural. Mixing a macho violence with a tender yearning, it echoes in the memory -- as does this exhibition -- like a shout of pride.
The Atlantic Richfield Co. provided approximately $200,000 for the Hispanic exhibition. AT&T came up with a like amount for its national tour. The Rockefeller Foundation, the main sponsor of the show, provided about $400,000. The money's been well spent. Unlike many more inclusive exhibitions, this one treats Hispanic art with unfailing rigor, seriousness and dignity, and it makes the best of it seem grand.
The show will travel to Miami, Santa Fe, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Brooklyn after closing here on Jan. 10.