To SUR, with Love
Torrance and Manhattan Beach art venues are taking part in the 3rd “SUR: biennial”
Hispanic or Latin American art? For some people, variations of work by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera may spring to mind, or maybe some graffiti near a freeway interchange. Sorry, it’s a great deal more than that. And just as art from Central and South America, not to mention the Caribbean islands, keeps exploding in a variety of styles and techniques and material, so has the work of younger or emerging artists in the U.S. who have followed in their wake.
These men and women, most but not all of them of Hispanic descent, many living in Southern California, are drawing on the culture and the tradition as well as the latest trends being explored by artists from Brazil to Cuba, Argentina to Peru, and of course Mexico.
It’s often a two-way exchange, and the 3rd “SUR: biennial” invites us for a look at the influences at play, flowing back and forth, without being hindered by borders or frontiers. Well, the only borders or frontiers would be our lack of information about what’s occurring, and that’s something this exhibition, taking place within four galleries, two of them locally, hopes to remedy, at least in part.
Importantly, these exhibitions are being held in areas where exposure to Hispanic art has been minimal. In Manhattan Beach, curated by Esmeralda Montes, the show opens today, Thursday, with a reception on Saturday, Oct. 3. In Torrance, curated by Max Presneill, the work goes on view Oct. 3, with a reception the same evening (and so you’ll need to shuttle between the two venues). A bit farther away, curated by James MacDevitt, work will be shown in the Cerritos College Art Gallery; and in Whittier, curated by Robert Miller, work will be displayed in the Rio Hondo College Art Gallery.
Max Presneill of the Torrance Art Museum has been in the “SUR: biennial” loop almost from the start. His gallery will be showcasing new or recent work by Ismael de Anda III, Anibal Catalan, Juan Bastardo, and Emilio García Plascencia. He spoke about the endeavor a few days ago when installations were in progress.
Go South, young man
And so how did the “SUR: biennial” come about?
“Originally there was a guy called Ron Lopez,” Presneill says, “who used to run a space in Istanbul, and who I met in Berlin at an international conference for alternative spaces.
“We kept in touch, and a couple of years later he moved to Los Angeles and we became friends. We helped each other out in various projects at the time. Anyway, he came to me a few years ago and said he wanted to start a thing called the “SUR: biennial,” and that it would be directed towards high school kids, particularly from ethnic backgrounds, Mexico, Central and South America.
“I liked the idea but we couldn’t do it that year because he hadn’t given us enough lead-in time,” Presneill says. However, the curator agreed to take part two years later, and today the third iteration is underway.
“Now, the problem was, Ronald Lopez, who started this, committed suicide after the first one. Robert Miller, who runs the Rio Hondo College Gallery, decided he wanted to forge on regardless, as a legacy in some ways for Ron. And so we agreed, and so did James MacDevitt over at Cerritos College.
“We did the second one,” Presneill says, “had some meetings, and decided it would be nice to continue this and to grow it. So we asked Esmeralda Montes in Manhattan Beach to join us for this year. We’ve got a number of other spaces that we’ve been talking to, to expand it slowly over time.”
It seems that the primary aim of “SUR: biennial” is to engage accomplished, mostly younger artists with a Chicano, Latino, or Hispanic background, and to exhibit their works so that young people, especially students (of all ages) and aspiring artists, can be exposed to a narrative they may relate to more thoroughly on some levels than one that is, for example, European- or Asian-based. In some ways, it’s about establishing a connecting thread.
The artists who are being exhibited can in theory be from anywhere, although it’s a fair guess that most viewers would rather be introduced to artists from more distant locales — Lima, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, etc., but for the moment that’s not the case, although maybe down the line it will be if the organizers could get the various consulates involved.
“There’s a heavy preponderance [of artists] from Mexico,” Presneill says, “because that’s where there’s more interaction and knowledge and artists that we have access to — and one has to keep in mind that none of this is funded.”
Room to breathe
Essentially, if a young man or woman with Hispanic roots sees that others with Hispanic roots can achieve success with their art, then perhaps this will encourage them whereas before, perhaps, encouragement was lacking. It’s easy to say that if a person wants to make art then he or she will make art, but it’s also true that people can be dissuaded, and all the more so if there are no examples or role models to follow. This may be the most important gift that “SUR: biennial” has to offer. In Argentina, back in 1930, Victoria Ocampo founded a literary magazine, also called “Sur” (or “South,” in Spanish), and this landmark publication inspired and served a generation of writers. Borges, Cortázar, Sábato and others were influenced by or contributed to its pages.
To be moved by and perhaps transformed by the art in “SUR: biennial” one needs to see it, and I’m under the impression that local schools will bring their students to one or more of the venues.
Now, just how well known are these two dozen artists, spread out across four galleries? I plead ignorance, even though I’ve met or viewed the work of numerous Hispanic artists over the years, often in local venues like Gallery Azul in San Pedro and the (now closed) Alex Haleigh Gallery in Gardena. But new faces are always emerging, aren’t they?
In Torrance, at least, it’s best to expect quality over quantity.
“It’s really rare that we show so few artists in one space,” Presneill says. “These artists (again referring to Anda, Bastardo, Catalan and García Plascencia) are doing things that are large-scale, installation-like, sculptural, but there will be a lot of empty room in the main gallery.”
However, he continues, “the show covers the idea of borders and what identity might mean.” The openness “with so few artists means that they (or their work) should talk more directly with each other in some ways. I think it will be a diverse and interesting show, and it will be interesting to see the relationships that one is forced into by the placement and the scale and the fact that there’s three artists in there. (García Plascencia’s work is outdoors, on the patio) It asks of you to actively participate in the generation of meanings.”
If this last bit sounds a little academic, bear in mind that Max Presneill’s intent isn’t simply to hang a variety of pictures on the wall and then leave it at that.
“We’re based in ideas about curatorial methodologies,” he says, “and the way that one can take larger, overriding philosophical themes and then find curatorial methodologies that explore quite complex relationships between things in the exhibition. I think we’re more geared to that kind of approach.”
But don’t worry. All you really need when you enter the Torrance Art Museum is a sense of wonder, and then perhaps everything else will fall into place.
SUR: biennial opens today in the Manhattan Beach Art Center, 1560 Manhattan Beach Blvd., M.B., with art by Carolyn Castaño, Francesco Siqueiros, and work from El Nopal Press. Opening reception Saturday, Oct. 3, from 5 to 9 p.m. (310) 802-5440 or citymb.info. At the Torrance Art Museum (TAM), 3320 Civic Center Drive, Torrance, SUR: biennial opens on Oct. 3 with a reception the same evening from 6 to 9 p.m. Call (310) 618-6388 or TorranceArtMuseum.com.
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