James Oles, professor of Latin American Art History at Wellesley and curator of Latin American Art at the Davis Museum, has for the past 20 years been building up a Latin American collection befitting an important regional museum. The three-dozen works in the collection in 1996 now exceed 500. A third of Oles’ new finds are showcased in “Art_Latin_America: Against the Survey” through June 9. One-third of the featured artists are women. The exhibition’s depth and value are confirmed in an impressive 260-page catalog containing commentaries from a wide field of experts on each work and artist.
This show couldn’t be timelier. From a 21st-century standpoint, it prods us to ask: Who is doing the looking, then and now? What are we looking for? And what does our act of “looking” entail? Our exposure to and appreciation of these works serves a vital need to understand and respect our neighboring cultures in the Western Hemisphere.
Oles’ expertise is grounded in 20th-century Mexican art and architecture, but his reach goes much further. As he explained, “It was already the case when I came here that there were Mexican things in the collection, but I live part of the year in Mexico, I only teach one semester a year at Wellesley, so I’m there on the ground, I’m at the shows in Mexico, and I work on Mexican art, then, Mexican-American art.”
The show sparkles with the joy of the chase. Many works of Mexican-American, Chicano, Cuban and Puerto Rican art, as well as an immense triptych by Argentine-American Liliana Porter, were secured in anticipation of the exhibition. Oles recently acquired a cache of prints from Raúl Anguiano’s widow, tracked down 1980s works of protest in California by Chicana muralist and printmaker Ester Hernandez and her peers, and snapped up a rare World War II poster in a Mexico City flea market. He’s flown to Buenos Aires to meet the families of two influential Argentine printmakers, Víctor Rebuffo and Abraham Regino Vigo, and enlisted a colleague’s help in Montevideo to obtain a painting by Joaquín Torres-García’s outstanding woman acolyte, Rosa Acle.
Oles’ permissive title gathers on our radar 20th-century works by residents, travelers, visitors and exiles. “Latin American” justifies allowing Puerto Rican Abstract Expressionist “Olga Albizu as well as Chicano and Mexican-American printmakers while excluding their counterparts from outside of Latin America, placing Olga Albizu next to the Argentine gestural expressionist Sarah Grilo rather than with a painting by her mentor Hans Hofmann; or comparing Chicano prints to [earlier] Mexican posters, rather than those by African-American contemporaries.”