Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel are fictional characters, but you can find them on Facebook. Created by Argentinian multimedia artist Antonio Berni in the 1960s to address some of the socioeconomic stresses plaguing his home country, Juantio and Ramona have since gained cult status as popular folk heros whose stories are still relevant in modern Argentina.
The Phoenix Art Museum is currently playing host to the first Berni exhibition in the U.S. in nearly 50 years. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Malba - Fundación Constantini in Buenos Aires, "Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona" contains over 100 objects that bring to life the story of these two working-class personas.
The stories of Juanito, an impoverished dreamer, and Ramona, a seamstress turned courtesan, are touching, but it's the way that Berni brings these stories to life that is particularly stunning.
Most of the Juanito pieces are assemblage, incorporating discarded objects and industrial scraps into stylistically-diverse paintings. Berni thought that the best way to truly convey Juanito's surroundings was to incorporate materials gathered from the real-life shantytowns of Buenos Aires. As a result, some parts of these large-scale works literally protrude from the walls.
The Ramona pieces, on the other hand, mostly consist of print work. For me, this is the most interesting part of the exhibition from an art-making standpoint because both the prints and the wood blocks used to create the prints are on display. Berni called his style of print-making xylo-collage-relief: Here too, he incorporated found objects into his art process.
A third section of the exhibition features three-dimensional works that come from two groupings in the artist's repertoire: Cosmic Monsters and Monsters From Hell Challenge Ramona Montiel. This section is a clever portrayal of the monstrosity of societal expectations. With names like Hypocrisy and Sordidness, Berni's commentary is pretty clear.
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While I feel awed at Berni's technical prowess, storytelling mastery, and multifaceted expressiveness, the show also makes me feel angry. In all of my art history experiences, I've never heard Berni mentioned once, despite his recognition in Latin America as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Spending time with his work made me think about the untold histories, in art and in life, that never become mainstream narratives. When I tell people about the exhibit, there is, sadly, usually no spark of recognition at the mention of Antonio Berni's name.
Still, the artwork lends itself to a feeling of hopefulness too; if Juanito and Ramona can overcome, so can we. There's still time to bring attention to perviously marginalized art, like Berni's. Lucky for us, this exhibition suggests that the Phoenix Art Museum is on the right track to do just that.
"Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona" is on view at Phoenix Art Museum through September 21. There will be a free public lecture on the exhibition by curator Dr. Mari Carmen Ramírez on September 17 at 7 p.m. For more information about this show and about the Phoenix Art Museum, visit www.phxart.org.