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Through August 25, 2007 at the Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach

by Shirle Gottlieb

Long-time Los Angeles residents may have fond memories of the Hippodrome, a popular roller skating rink that was located in downtown Long Beach. An imposing 20,000 square-foot structure with hardwood floors and high arched ceilings, it caught the eye of Dr. Robert Gumbiner, who acquired it around 1990 to house the Family Healthcare Program.

As a passionate collector of Latin American art, Dr. Gumbiner had long dreamed of establishing a museum for contemporary fine art from south of the border. When FHP moved elsewhere, the Museum of Latin American Art was born.

This month MoLAA celebrates both its tenth anniversary, and also the completion of a three-and-a-half year expansion that doubles the museum's  size. Designed by Mexican architect Manuel Rosen, the addition features a grand entrance under two forty-foot arches that are metaphoric bridges between Latin America and the United States. Large reflection pools and desert landscaping set the monumental structure apart from its urban surroundings. Despite the fact that bright color dominates Latin culture, some visitors frown at the high chroma facade (cobalt blue, hot pink) which they consider garish.

Once inside, however, it's clear that MoLAA has become an integral part of our multicultural state through outreach programs that educate the public about contemporary Latin America. Not only does the expansion double the gallery space, it provides a fully equipped film-screening theater, a new research library, a large studio for workshops and community programs, and a 15,000 foot sculpture garden for concerts, lectures, and live entertainment.

Rafael Coronel, "Tiberio," n.d.
acrylic on canvas, 39 3/8 “ x 31”.

Antonio Berni, "El Matador,"
1964. paper woodcut with
embossing, 43” x 23”.

Mario Gomez, "Untitled," 1998,
oil on canvas, 50” x 62”.

Two inaugural exhibits illustrate how MoLAA has turned a corner and is primed for new directions. Upon entering the museum, visitors walk down a long gallery containing an overview of the permanent collection that features one work from each country. In the past, MoLAA's art was installed according to place of origin; from now on, it will be presented in three diverse themes that rotate twice a year.

This new arrangement allows viewers to compare and contrast the diversity of artistic expression from one country to another; through a cross-section approach, the museum's permanent collection acts as that "A Bridge to the Americas," first suggested by those exterior arches.

The collection as presented here is divided according to three broad themes:  "Mythical Landscapes," which depicts the diverse geography, folklore, and physical/spiritual connotations of Mesoamerica; and "Political History," emphasizing visual imagery culled from the harsh reality of the continent's military regimes, class systems, and social instability. But it's "The Mestizaje of Identity," that is most striking. If the uninformed cling to the idea that "Latino/Latina" art is derived from Hispanic or European roots, they overlook the fact that native indigenous cultures and imported African slaves played equally important parts. Latin America also has a significant population of Jewish emigrees, who fled Europe during World Wars I and II. "Mestizaje," therefore, is a subject through which artists explore cultural identity, ethnic heritage, and their interrelationships.

Even jaded cognoscenti will be delighted by "LA Presencia: Latin American Art in the United States," a 72 piece exhibit on loan from forty institutions and collections across the country. While it's true that prior to 1950 the preponderance of Latin American art was figurative, this exhibit demonstrates the contribution Latin artists have made to the international mainstream during the second half of the century.

After introducing the work of Roberto Matta, Gunther Gerzo, and Rufino Tamayo (three Latino maestros who had an impact on contemporary art in the United States), "La Presencia" explores five important movements that are vitally alive: Representational Art, Geometric and Optical Art, Pop Art and New Pop, Conceptual Art, and New Trends in Art Today.

Each movement is represented by some truly outstanding works. As examples of "Representational Art," check out Oswaldo Guayasamin's dark, dramatic "View from Quito," and Jacobo Borges's haunting "With Expressionist Fury."  You'll be speechless at the sight of Vic Muniz' "Neo-pop" portraits of "Liz" (drawn with coffee, cinnamon, chocolate and peanut butter), and Nelson Leirner's "Right You Are if You Think You Are," a map of North and South American covered with Mickey Mouse and skull stickers. Full of whimsy on the surface, Leirner's diptych has a serious and provocative subtext.

There are several stunning "Kinetic and Optical" artworks by Jesus Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz Diex; not to mention the sensual "New Trends" creations of Sara Modiano, and the inventive "Shower Curtain" drawings of Oscar Munoz. To cap it off, you'll laugh out loud at Fernanda Brunet's "Volcano," a voluptuous sculpture molded from bread dough and embedded with flowers.