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Spotlighting the Work of Transgressive Latinas in Art

This is produced in partnership with Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.

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Los Angeles has always attracted artists. Moviemakers, musicians and writers have long generated the lucrative creative energy of the city, while those working in the visual arts have usually gravitated to L.A.'s scenery for the proverbial search for meaning. Then there are the artists who have always been here, or at least, very nearby. Arguably, Latin America has inspired L.A.'s visual arts scene more than the New York–Western Europe exchange. It could be the proximity; it could be a shared lifestyle; it could be the freedom to explore artistic visions. The reasons they're both so much alike could include all of these and more. Whatever the case, go to just about any museum, gallery or event in Southern California right now, and you'll find no shortage of exhibitions paying tribute to Latin American artists. It's all because of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA cultural takeover, which examines and reveals the endemic exchange between the art of Latin America and Los Angeles.

Even more reassuring, the current iteration of PST: LA/LA is a long-overdue tribute to artists who are not just from Latin America, but who also identify as female. Unlike the 2011-12 debut edition of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, PST: LA/LA doesn't seem to hold back in terms of balancing art made by both men and women. It makes one wonder what the Western trajectory of art history would look like, if it had only included the other 50 percent of the world's population.

A number of PST:LA/LA exhibitions spotlight the contributions of women in the development of Latin American art, as well as art in Southern California, a much-needed effort if the words of curators Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta are anything to go by. In the catalogue for “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985,” the two assert that the exhibition of the same name “grew out of our shared conviction that the vast body of work produced by Latin American women and Latina artists has been marginalized and hidden by dominant, canonical, and patriarchal art history.”

We asked Fajardo-Hill whether the marginalization of women in Latin American art is due to the influence of Western European art history, or whether it is inherent in Latin American culture itself. "The twentieth century produced great women artists throughout the world, but art history with its colonial patriarchal perspective has tended to erase these women, not only in Europe or the U.S., but also in Latin America,” she tells Artbound. “Certainly art made by women was in no way more encouraged or accepted in Latin America than it has historically been in Europe, perhaps with the exception of Brazil.”

Sonia Gutiérrez (Colombian, b. 1947), Y con unos lazos me izaron (And they lifted me up with rope), 1977. | Museo de Arte Moderno La Tertulia, Cali, Colombia. Courtesy of the artist. Artwork © the artist. Radical Women PST LALA
Sonia Gutiérrez (Colombian, b. 1947), Y con unos lazos me izaron (And they lifted me up with rope), 1977. | Museo de Arte Moderno La Tertulia, Cali, Colombia. Courtesy of the artist. Artwork © the artist. In her work, Gutiérrez spoke out against acts of torture and persecution by depicting bodies restrained by ropes and bonds of fabric, all while keeping her pop art aesthetic.

The Hammer Museum’s exhibition is an overwhelming display of jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring artwork. But with 120 artists, it's not easy to find one "standout," as the exhibition works precisely because it is an immersive tribute to the notion of radical women as a whole. Still, putting the exhibition together wasn’t easy for curators Fajardo-Hill, Giunta and Marcela Guerrer. “'Radical Women,’ during its first years of inception, encountered a huge amount of opposition starting in Latin America, both by institutions and art professionals, based on stereotypical notions about women artists being invisible because they are not important, and therefore [a] show about women was neither relevant nor necessary," Fajardo-Hill explains. "I think that since the first PST, we have become much more aware that we cannot continue to ignore women artists any longer, and that we need to place them at the center of the conversation about Latin American, Latinx and Chicanx art.”

Likewise, “Down and to the Left: Reflections on Mexico in the NAFTA Era,” the previous exhibition at the Armory Center for the Arts shows just how artists of all backgrounds worked together to document and impart visually harrowing yet ultimately hopeful stories from recent Mexican history. From images of political uprisings to the aftermath of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the photos, installations, sculptures and murals all "show the actions of people who are coming together to respond to situations that could very legitimately be completely overwhelming," explains Irene Tsatsos, Director of Exhibition Programs and Chief Curator at the Armory Center for the Arts. "I think that what they were doing was working by any means necessary to produce artworks that responded to the conditions of the time." In other words, the gender of the artist was not as important as the larger need to chronicle and expose atrocities.Though not officially part of PST:LA/LA, the research the exhibition was based on did draw from the Getty initiative.

Nonetheless, there are still a lot of women in the Armory show, especially working in performance art, most likely because live performances can be transgressive in a thoughtful and disciplined way. Nao Bustamante, for example, is a Native Californian artist and academic who created a series of performances between 1995-1998 called “America, the Beautiful,” which was on view as part of "Down and to the Left: Reflections on Mexico in the NAFTA Era."

"It's a performance where she comes out on stage. She's kind of teetering out in those high heels and that blonde wig," Tsatsos explains, pointing to a glass case near a monitor screening Bustamente's performance. "She starts to bind herself in cellophane and constrains herself. She's out there with nothing on, except clothing that inhibits her movement: those high heels. And then she's binding herself in something that is also clear. It's transparent, you can see right through it, yet it remains — or it serves — as a constraint."

In the video, Bustamante continues to ascend a tall ladder in her clear costume, looking back at the audience in an engaging and playful manner. "There's this kind of flirtation going back and forth between her self-directed action and the response that she's perhaps looking for, or eliciting, from the audience," Tsatsos remarks as we watch the video. As Bustamante reaches the top of the frighteningly unstable ladder, she engages in a burlesque performance that produces shadows, which, as Tsatsos notes, "almost look like those mudflap girls.”

“America, the Beautiful” brings audiences face to face with the lifelong struggles of women in society and the workplace. As the Bustamante wraps herself in cellophane, she is showing how women are quite literally constrained by invisible barriers. The addition of the high heels and ladder makes any additional efforts at advancement even more perilous, not to mention the need to remain pleasant — even flirtatious — all the way up. And when she finally gets to the top, bound by constraints both invisible and visible, she is only further objectified as her identity (represented by the shadows) continues to be defined by her sexuality.

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Nao Bustamante | Eleanor Goldsmith
Nao Bustamante | Eleanor Goldsmith

The issues women address in the PST: LA/LA exhibitions are as numerous, varied, complex, and nuanced as the artists themselves. Nonetheless, one of the most prevailing themes is that of identity, and how the struggle to define oneself for the sake of society can be one of the most maddening issues Latina artists face. Laura Aguilar is an alumnus of East Los Angeles College, which is currently exhibiting “Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell” at its Vincent Price Art Museum. A queer woman of Mexican heritage, Aguilar grew up in Montebello and struggles with obesity, auditory dyslexia, and depression. Years in the making, her eponymous exhibit includes portraits of patrons of the Plush Pony, a lesbian bar from the 1980s, and moves into a series of self-portraits featuring Aguilar's fleshy body nestled in nature. Her work addresses her own identity, or identities, as the case may be. Just what “is” Aguilar? Is she defined as Latina, or does her upbringing make her Chicana? As a lesbian, does this mean she’s a queer first, then Latina (or Chicana), or vice-versa? Does her obesity, dyslexia and depression then make her a disabled queer Chicana artist, or is she a queer Latina disabled artist? As her own work shows, Aguilar is all and none of these. It’s a radical notion because she rails against the need for society to reduce one’s identity down to a definable “thing.” Instead, binaries and boundaries are distinctly blurred in her art. Like Latin America itself, Aguilar's work serves as a manifestation of a unique identity that is not informed by ethnicity, gender, or background, but by art itself.

Laura Aguilar, Plush Pony #2 , 1992, Gelatin silver print |Courtesy of the artist and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. © Laura Aguilar PST LALA
Laura Aguilar, Plush Pony #2 , 1992, Gelatin silver print |Courtesy of the artist and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. © Laura Aguilar
Laura Aguilar, Nature Self-Portrait #2 , 1996, Gelatin silver print. | Courtesy of the artist and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. © Laura Aguilar PST LALA
Laura Aguilar, Nature Self-Portrait #2 , 1996, Gelatin silver print. | Courtesy of the artist and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. © Laura Aguilar 

Top Image: Paz Errázuriz (Chilean, b. 1944), La Palmera (The palm tree), from the series La manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1987. Gelatin silver print. | Courtesy of the artist and Galeria AFA, Santiago. Artwork © the artist. In the series, photographer Errázuriz captures cross-dressing male prostitutes living in brothels in Santiago and Talca. 

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