A Humanistic Revival
by John Sevigny
(originally published in 2016)
In Latin American art, something more intelligent, more human, is emerging, from colossal Olmec heads and gold Inca figurines, through the paintings of Dr. Atl, the Mexican muralists and the grande dame of Salvadoran painting Rosa Mena Valenzuela, Latin American art has always been humanistic, representational and figurative. To some, that is changing as artists across Ibero-America ape the styles of artists who have done well on the ever growing art mega-market. Moreover, the lasting artists of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – including Leon Golub, Ed Pashke and Anselm Kiefer never abandoned representation or reflecting the human condition. An art history professor I know in the Mexican State of Coahuila recently lamented the fact that so many Mexican artists were imitating Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Damien Hirst, artists more concerned with spectacle than substance. “They’re copying bad artists,” he said as we chatted in his office in Torreon, not far from the town where Julio Galán, one of Mexico’s most famous late 20th century painters was born. “What’s worse is they don’t even understand what they’re imitating. What they’re doing, like the artists they copy, it’s a kind of conceptualism with no concepts behind it.”
As goes Coahuila, so goes the world
But that may be changing. For decades now, since the big-money boom of the ’80s turned third-rate painters such as Julian Schnabel into celebrities, art journalism has focused on big sales of generally big art with bloated price tags produced by people with bloated egos. Last month’s auction at Christie’s was dominated not by Tracey Emin’s shallow phrases rendered in neon or Hirst’s dissected animals, but by the $58.2 million sale of a 17th century painting by Peter Paul Rubens, “Lot and His Daughters.”
The sale of a biblical painting about an ancient king seduced by his daughters after their mother was turned into a pillar of salt marks a return of interest in intelligent, historical and technically masterful painting.
But economics are also part of the equation and collectors are shying away from “the next big thing.” The art market is shrinking and, as it does, buyers who once flipped Hirsts and Schnabels the way people flip condos are looking for more secure investments. “The market has definitely shrunk,” Wendy Cromwell, an art advisor told The New York Times in July. “But that isn’t a result of sellers not wanting to sell in an uncertain market, but of a lack of spectacular guarantees.”
Art Market Trends
In the contemporary art market, it may signal a return to substance and style over glamour, glitz and celebrity.
One dealer betting on a return to representation in art is Miami’s Stacy Conde of Conde Contemporary. Her stable of artists includes the young Darian Rodriguez Mederos, whose large facial portraits clearly reflect his Baroque influences; Enrique Toledo, whose work features bold colors, complex scenarios, and a marriage of Mannerism and the surreal; Aurora Molina, who makes textile and thread drawings, which, despite their spareness, call to mind rich, domestic narratives; and Luis Enrique Toledo del Rio, whose surrealist approach to classicism brings to mind the late works of Max Ernst as well as the aforementioned Julio Galán.
All are Cuban and all of them deal, in their own manner, with the human figure. The same is true of Anthony Ardavin, painter, sculptor, curator, and art professor born in Cuba in 1959. “These are stories from my native country, or experiences that I have had through my journey,” he says of his paintings. “In my work, cultures overlap, coexist and intermingle. I paint the past and the present, the contemporary and
the primitive.” Which is to say that Ardavin, like many artists Conde represents, is a Modernist in the truest sense of the word. He seeks to blaze a path into the future while keeping an eye on artistic traditions.
Luis Rodriguez NOA takes a different approach to representing reality. His vast cityscapes, rendered in spare lines, echo the work of the early 20th century. But his work also reflects Spanish and Latin American painting traditions. There’s a touch of early Joan Miro in these playful paintings, and a dose of the Uruguayan painter Joaquin Torres Garcia.
“I feel as though a curtain has been drawn back and at last the viewer can see The Great Oz’s machinations. Art should move you, and not require a ten page statement, which often obfuscates. I’ve invested my time and resources into this group of artists because I respect them, and their work. I know what they create is important and will stand the test of time,” said Stacy Conde.
“Conde Contemporary specializes in technically driven, representational art by, primarily, Cuban artists with a focus on contemporary Cuban art,” she said. Most of her artists were born and trained in Cuba, a fact which may have something to do with their disinclination to the Saatchi-sponsored brand of minimalist, pre-constructed, opaquely and allegedly Conceptualist work.
Mrs. Conde, and her husband Andres, a painter who is also represented by the gallery, are doing well enough to have moved their main space to Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, while maintaining a project space, CCPS, in Little Havana.
Andres Conde is a painter capable of working in diverse styles. Much of his recent work recalls mid-20th century pin-up posters painted in a crisp, almost-Edward Hopper style. In a recent piece, The Moon, he continues that approach even as a more ethereal touch of Gustav Klimt rises to the pastel-toned surface.
Cuban artists are given rigorous training in drawing and painting techniques. After leaving the island nation, they are plunged into a frenzied art market where they must establish their own styles. The difference between many Cuban-trained painters and their New York art school contemporaries is that Cubans make the plunge armed with a better knowledge of art history, often no exposure to what art magazines decide is the flavor of the month, and technical preparation that is decreasingly emphasized in U.S. art schools, where students are expected to learn their craft and “find their artistic voice” in just four years.
There is space in the American and global art markets for a vast diversity of styles. Works by Hirst, Koons and others purchased by major museums are now a permanent part of art history. At the moment, however, it appears that their age of dominance is over and something more intelligent and, most importantly, more human, is emerging, at least in Latin-American art.