THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by K.A. Letts
If the 2020 presidential election showed us one thing, it’s that people of Hispanic heritage are as varied in their views as the many Spanish speaking countries from which they hail. That thought was driven home for me even more when looking at the work of three Latina artists who were showing their work in Detroit last week.
First and most spectacularly, El Paso native Marianna Olague is having her first solo show at David Klein through mid-December. Olague is a recent graduate of Cranbrook Academy of Art, and her exhibit “Gatekeepers” serves thrilling notice of her arrival on the scene in Detroit. The show consists mostly of large, technically accomplished oil paintings, and the artist has chosen friends and family as subjects. They inhabit and animate the gritty urban landscape of her native town, El Paso, Texas. The figures, life-size or larger, are often portrayed as they look down and away from the viewer. Along with the cityscape and the figures, Olague gives equal visual weight to the harsh, brilliant play of Southwestern sun and shadow, almost a presence in its own right. The paintings are uniformly excellent in quality, but I found a couple particularly engaging. Todo Se Vuelve Alma captures a young man, the artist’s cousin, absorbing the late afternoon glow in a non-descript industrial lot. The tattoo on his arm reads Todo Se Vuelve Alma, a line from a favorite poem of the artist. In spite of the unlovely setting, the painting’s brilliant blues and oranges render the image transcendent. Olague’s painting of her mother, Mom Delivers Grubhub, is a psychologically resonant image that captures both the dignity of the woman and her somber quotidian reality. Walls and barriers occur throughout the paintings, subtle references to the border wall that lurks just outside the city of El Paso.
Marianna Olague, Todo Se Vuelve Alma, 2019, oil on canvas, 66” x 52” Marianna Olague, Mom Delivers Grubhub, 2020, oil on canvas, 66 x 50”
Across town at Galerie Camille, and in a decidedly lower key, we find “Corazon y Dignidad.” Two Latina artists, one a Chilean and the other an American of Mexican heritage, describe the Hispanic experience and its aspirations through photography and installation. Rosa María Zamarrón’s photographs document the town in Central Mexico from which her family comes and the people who live there. She turns her unsentimental but empathetic gaze on workers at their jobs, emphasizing both the essential value and the inescapable drudgery of labor. A particularly poignant image is her inkjet print Señora Felisa, which captures an elderly woman in her storefront shop, still hard at work in old age. Like the other subjects in this series, she is stately, self-possessed, and gazing directly at the camera.
Rosa María Zamarrón, Señora Felisa, 2017, inkjet print, 36” x 53”
Amelia E. Duran, who shares both the gallery space and Zamarrón’s social awareness, presents herself as an activist/artist. She uses humble materials and the visual vocabulary of her Chilean background to advocate for change against what she describes as “hierarchies and oppressive social structures that keep communities disenfranchised.” The forms she employs, such as the ofrenda she has installed in the gallery during “Corazon y Dignidad,” have their roots in traditional Hispanic folk arts. Her three-dimensional piece Death to Class Struggle is made of plastic, tinfoil, and papier-mâché, referencing the political puppets that populated the streets of Chile during recent civil unrest.
These three artists could hardly be more different in their art practice, from the painted poetry of Marianna Olague, to the cool documentary eye of Rosa María Zamarrón, to Amelia E. Duran’s agitprop. Yet it turns out they do have a common awareness: of family’s importance, of the intrinsic value of labor, and of the perils and politics of immigration, recurring threads and themes that run through the diverse tapestry of the Hispanic experience in America.
K.A. Letts is the Detroit editor of the New Art Examiner, a working artist (kalettsart.com) and art blogger (rustbeltarts.com). She has shown her paintings and drawing in galleries and museums in Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and New York. She writes frequently about art in the Detroit area.
Amelia E. Duran, Corazon Y Dignidad, installation, 2020, mixed media
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