REPORT: Chicago

A confluence of exhibitions and events in Chicago this spring puts a welcome spotlight on the influence of Latino artists in the midwest.

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“Course Work,” 2015 Alberto Aguilar, Latex on wall, variable dimensions
Installation view of “Present Standard” Photo: courtesy Chicago Cultural Center

“Chicago is not necessarily the most expected place of expression for the Latin American diaspora,” art historian Delia Cosentino concedes. “Chicago is so forgotten in terms of its connections with Latin American and Latino artists… Unlike Miami, Los Angeles or New York, it’s not on the edge of an ocean or right by a border.” Cosentino, along with artist and educator Bibiana Suàrez, co-curated “Nexo / Nexus: Latin American Connections in the Midwest” at the DePaul Art Museum on the occasion of Chicago’s hosting of the biennial Latino Art Now! Conference, and the citywide Spring of Latino Art. “This is an opportunity to highlight the fact that this isn’t something that people are just now exploring, but that there’s a history of critical engagement between Latin America and the Midwest,” Cosentino explains.

Organized by the Inter-University Program for Latino Research (IUPLR) headquartered at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Smithsonian Latino Center, the Fifth Biennial Latino Art Now! Re-imagining Global Intersections Conference took place April 7-9, 2016, with auxiliary, off-site programming called the Spring of Latino Art running March through June. The conference itself brings together scholars, artists and other experts in the field of US Latino Art from Chicago, as well as nationally and internationally. “Chicago is an important site in which to highlight what globalization looks like, in terms of artists who are contributing to building a global city,” says IUPLR Executive Director María de los Angeles Torres. “Chicago is a city that has really been built by immigrants… and we’ve always had an easier connection to Latin America. As such, it has allowed for a more fluid conversation between those artists who live here and those artists who live in the home countries.”

Beginning with an Artists Panel of Antonio Martorell, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Tania Bruguera, Scherezade García and María Gaspar, the weekend’s other panels and lectures featured discussions around the issues of social practice, collecting, academia, museums and Chicago’s Latino art communities, among many other topics. Beyond the conference weekend, the Spring of Latino Art consists of almost 70 exhibitions and programs, spread out all across Chicago: Gaspar’s “Brown Brilliance Darkness Matter” at the National Museum of Mexican Art; Rodrigo Lara Zendejas’ “La Paz” at the Hyde Park Art Center; exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Mana Contemporary Chicago and the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture; and open studios with renowned Chicago muralists Marcos Raya and Hector Duarte, to name but a few.

The Spring of Latino Art in Chicago has been more than two years in the making, according to Bibiana Suàrez, who also sits on the LAN conference programming committee, the advisory committee and the planning committee. “The group encouraged everyone to come up with programming that would showcase all the different places in the city that contribute to a discussion of Latino art in Chicago,” she explains. “Delia Cosentino and I began to see that the collection at DePaul Art Museum was pointing at all these connections in the city between Latin Americans who reside somewhere else, but who were invited to come to Chicago and exhibit.”

In their exhibition “Nexo/Nexus,” work from the DPAM permanent collection is supplemented with borrowed pieces to highlight a specific period of time between the 1980s and 1990s. “We’ve had these enclaves in the community that represented generations, that connected the city to some of the most important movements in the Caribbean and in Mexico,” says Suàrez, herself a Puerto Rican-born Chicago artist, who graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago around that time. “They engaged us in a dialogue about what it means to be Latino in Chicago,” she explains of artists in the exhibition like Mexican artist Felipe Ehrenberg, who was a year-long visiting artist at SAIC, and Cuban artist José Bedia, who spent time working with the indigenous peoples of the Midwest region, as illustrated in his piece at DPAM titled Rosebud. And the artists in “Nexo/Nexus” have more than just a Latino identity in common, each piece in the exhibition is also a reflection of place: “The real focus is geography,” says Cosentino. “It’s about geographic locations, engagement, and what that means for different people coming from different locations.”

Installation view of “Present Standard” featuring Ivan Lozano and Edra Soto
Photo: courtesy Chicago Cultural Center

As “Nexo/Nexus” was being realized, Suàrez and Cosentino were acutely aware of another group exhibition that was also in the works: “Present Standard,” an exhibition of post-minimal and post-conceptual works of a younger Latino generation, curated by Chicago artists Edra Soto and Josué Pellot at the Chicago Cultural Center. While “Nexo/Nexus” pinpointed a singular, critical moment in Chicago’s Latino art history, “Present Standard” in some ways picks up where “Nexo/Nexus” left off in the timeline, and also widens the scope.

Amongst these 25 Chicago artists (or artists with strong Chicago ties) in “Present Standard,” formalism and material are the main points of departure, rather than the representation and figuration that are often prevalent within identity-based work. As curator Pellot explains, “It’s been like this for decades. It’s nothing new for Latino art to look this way.” However, “Present Standard” is not meant to be a survey of contemporary Chicago Latino artists-the curators’ specific theme guided the selection and aesthetic: the flag. “We got loose with the term ‘flag’ and what a flag stands for,” says Pellot. “We looked for pieces that had a claim or a statement-something that the flag does.”

As Soto and Pellot are both working artists with deep roots in different Latino communities in Chicago, they drew from the artists around them when the opportunity for the exhibition arose. “These artists are not focused on catering to a commercial career, so the kind of work that they make is more conceptual-based,” says Soto, of artists like Alberto Aguilar, Maria Gaspar and Harold Mendez, or artists with a background in urban art like Victoria Martinez and Chris Silva. Still more are well known as educators, like Paola Cabal and Candida Alvarez. “I knew [the potential for this exhibition] was here; it just took people like us who knew these artists to bring it to the surface,” says Soto. “These are the people with whom I can relate the most.”

All of these exhibitions and events in Chicago this spring, whether historical or contemporary, blatantly identity-based or not, are proof of the influence that Latino artists have had on the art made in Chicago-and in the United States at large. “American art is itself a complex category that includes this very rich contribution of the Latin American diaspora,” says Cosentino. “It is not ancillary to American art, but in fact central to that texture.”