"Ceremony of Memory: New Expressions in Spirituality Among Contemporary Hispanic Artists," the touring exhibition now visiting the Washington Project for the Arts, is a peculiarly divided show. It's half free and half caged.
The exhibit, at its freest, suggests a kind of journey through a shared Latino fantasy: Taxicabs the colors of pistachios and tangerines are circling the plaza; skeletons are dancing while votive candles twinkle in colonial cathedrals. This show, if you could hear it, would sound like gunshots and guitars and cha-cha-cha and mambo; it would taste of hot red chilies and icy Coca-Cola. Its 42 objects, singing to each other, evoke a bright Hispanic dream.
This show is filled with stories; it's often glittery and handsome, and yet it's oddly rigid too. Too much of it suggests a dreary lock-step sameness, an acceptance of the Rule. The dozen artists showing come from Uruguay and Puerto Rico, Texas, California, Mexico and Cuba, and yet, despite their different backgrounds, they've all turned out to be pretty much alike. Not one is a pure painter, or sculptor, or ceramicist, or draftsman, or photographer. All compose assemblages, constructions deep in debt to the niches, shrines and altars of Latino homes and churches. Every artist here announces right up front: I make Hispanic art.
And yet most of these objects send divided messages. With half their souls these artists show us how deeply they appreciate the folk art of their people, the dreams they dreamed when young, ethnic solidarity and fierce Latino pride. But they tell us something else as well, something much less lovely. Too many of these artists keep showing us how carefully they've listened to their teachers, how well they've done in school.
The show that they've come up with might well be subtitled "Contemporary Hispanic Academic Art."
This exhibition, at the core, is much more schoolroomy than spiritual. Most of these artists have filled their works with holy images -- angels, saints, Madonnas, sword-pierced Sacred Hearts, amulets and halos, satanic snakes and apples. Yet something in their piety far too often feels dubious, routine.
The haloed figure at the center of Peter Rodriguez's boxlike shrine is not, as it might well have been, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Instead, it's a bright red chili pepper. Cristina Emmanuel tells us that the Madre Dolorosa who appears in her constructions is not the weeping Virgin she appears to be, but "part of my own empowerment." Witty Enrique Chagoya -- an artist who, like most here, seems to be at heart suspicious of religion -- makes his point by matching a grid of ancient Aztec gods with a case of Coke.
Too many of these reliquaries, shrines and altars evoke a sort of winking. They're cool, ironic, coy. This isn't really spiritual art. It's university art instead. Amalia Mesa-Bains, PhD, who curated the show, is described in its catalogue as "a nationally known artist working in the altar-installation form." The artists she's chosen have studied at Berkeley, San Francisco State, the Art Students League, the University of Texas and other seats of learning. Two-thirds of them have master's degrees.
Despite the glitter that they scatter, the found objects that they scavenge, the crudeness of their drawing and the folk-thought that they celebrate, these are not naive folk artists fresh out of the barrio. Far from it. Most of them are highly trained academic pros. University art departments these days tend to stress ethnicity, race, gender, multiculturalism and similar concerns -- concerns that one can see at once are crucial to this art.
Some of these artists are highly skilled. Rimer Cardillo, whose handsome installations are among the few here that drift toward pure abstraction, and Celia Alvarez Munaoz, whose recollections are not just ethnic, but highly personal, are among the most impressive. Despite its tone of sameness, this is an often entertaining and good-looking show.
Its catalogue, however, often makes one groan. Consider, for example, the leaden essay written by Victor Zamudio-Taylor, a man described in the catalogue as a PhD candidate at Princeton University. This is what he writes: "The transfigured language of transculturation in the ceremony of memory indicts the constructs of instrumental reason and the dominant culture evokes and creates images of an emancipatory reason, freedom and subjectivity that is other and grounded in otherness." Whatever that might mean.
"Ceremony of Memory" was organized by the Center for Contemporary Art of Santa Fe, in New Mexico, and funded by the Lannan Foundation, the Metropolitan Life Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the State of New Mexico and the National Endowment for the Arts. It will remain at the WPA, 400 Seventh St. NW, through Jan. 20.