Visual Arts

Phoenix Art Museum's Latest Show Is Not What You Might Expect -- in a Good Way

If your idea of Latin American art is limited to quaint portraits of indigenous women clutching calla lilies or balancing water jugs on their heads, you might have a hard time wrapping your head around "Order, Chaos, and the Space Between: Contemporary Latin American Art from the Diane and Bruce Halle Collection" at Phoenix Art Museum.

Carefully culled work from the formidable Halle collection, permanently housed right here in the Valley, takes up the entirety of PAM's main Steele Gallery, which has been transformed into a starkly minimalist, church-like space with vaulted center ceiling and mazes of what would be considered side chapels sheltering various artworks.

But unlike the typical, centuries-old churches of Latin America, adorned with gilded santos and all-too-lifelike crucified Christs, this holy of holies contains select, often purely conceptual, contemporary work from the 1930s to the present from any and all places touched by 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese New World colonization. That includes Mexico, Central and South America, and islands in the Caribbean, like Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Bruce and Diane Halle have been collecting Latin American art since 1995, when Diane was introduced to it by Clayton Kirking, Phoenix Art Museum's librarian at the time. Since then, the collection has snowballed into one of the finest of its type anywhere in the world. Why a comprehensive exhibition of this major body of acquisitions hasn't occurred in Phoenix until now remains a mystery. Why, back in 1997, was the Fine Arts Museum in Houston chosen over PAM to be the first institution to mount a curated show of Halle-collected work (the exhibit was titled "Constructing a Poetic Universe: the Diane and Bruce Halle Collection of Latin American Art")?

Only The Shadow seems to know, and he's not talking.

In any event, we finally get to see a major exhibition based on the collection right here in its hometown. Because the Halle collection is so all-encompassing, trying to give an overall art historical context to the show would be akin to herding cats. General hemisphere of origin is about the only thing that pieces in this ever-morphing group of acquisitions have in common — that and the extreme aesthetic sophistication of the artists who have produced the work. Many of these artists just happen to have lived and made art away from the hallowed bastions of contemporary art in Europe, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Co-curators Vanessa K. Davidson, the museum's current curator of Latin American Art, and Beverly Adams, formerly the curator of Latin American Art at PAM and now the Halles' private collection curator, have done an admirable job in ordering the chaos inherent in a private art collection, especially one as ridiculously extensive as the Halles'. Davidson and Adams were smart to have made three-dimensional works the focus of the show, utilizing every bit of gallery space — including air space — while somehow managing to maintain a sense of openness. And, for once, a PAM exhibit doesn't funnel you into a theme-related gift shop at its end.

All in all, "Order/Chaos" is a butt-kicking show that includes not just sculpture but installation and video work, as well. A considerable portion of the work celebrates pure form and material. If you break out in hives at the mere thought of unfathomable 1960s and '70s conceptual and minimalist art (not to mention perceptual geometric abstraction), don't worry; there's enough variety in this far-reaching show to send you away without nasty welts. Even the most obtuse work included happens to be heart-stoppingly beautiful or cerebrally engaging.

For example, it's impossible to resist Mexican artist Carlos Amorales' Black Cloud (2007), which creates an ominous gauntlet of 25,000 individually placed black paper moths attached to walls and ceilings leading to Steele Gallery from the museum entrance. The piece conjures Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, as well as plagues straight out of the Old Testament. The installation is a knockout, simultaneously sublime and sinister. I'm told that the Amorales installation is a promised gift to Phoenix Art Museum from the Halles, so I'm hoping it never comes down.

Even before you hit the main gallery, your senses of scale, proportion, and perception will be seriously thrown off balance when you approach Shanghai 2009 by Jota Castro of Peru. It's a disheveled pile of gigantic wooden "mikado" sticks, each measuring over 151/2 feet in length. Mikado sticks, basically a form of pickup sticks, were imported to the United States from Hungary in the 1930s, though in China, these sticks (called kau cim sticks) have been used since ancient times to foretell the future — a far cry from the our Western recreational pastime. One can only imagine the Brobdingnagian beings who, in Castro's world, toss these massive missiles around to predict future events or what those future events might be.

Not to be outdone in the supersized department, Chevelure (2002-03) by Tunga of Brazil is nothing short of stunning. Made from brass wire, a pile of luminous gold curls with a bronze haircomb takes up a large chunk of floor space in the gallery's main aisle. To me, it's definitely Rapunzel's locks after she makes a quick escape from the tower — or maybe hair extensions carelessly left behind by Alice in Wonderland.

Make sure to divert your eyes heavenward as you wander into the exhibition gallery, or you'll miss a number of impressive pieces, including an untitled grouping of ethereal plastic chandelier-like forms by made in 2008 by Jorge Pardo of Cuba. Floating in space, they resemble enormous dandelions or maybe nascent novas exploding silently in a faraway galaxy. Pardo always walks the tightrope between design and art, and he does so quite effectively in this installation.

Farther down the main aisle, a shiny silver cloud formation made of fiberglass covered with titanium alloy foil, Cloud Prototype No. 4 (2006) by Spain's Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, hovers over museum-goers. Depending on where you stand, the floating form glows a nuclear red-orange, a result of its metallic surface reflecting the raw colors in Rafter: Hell Act II (1993), a nearby painting by Cuba's Luis Cruz Azaceta. Azaceta's focal point is a small raft with a large black sail, manned by a large-headed man, drifting away from a lineup of gun muzzles and knive points through a sea of black discs. A grid suggestive of the pattern one sees through a gun's telescopic sight is superimposed on the raft. There is complete ambiguity as to whether the lone rafter is drifting toward or away from the armaments that stand guard on the right side of the painting.

Azaceta clearly is referencing the flight of Cubans on small boats and rafts to U.S. shores during the Mariel boatlift of 1980. According to Hunter S. Thompson, it was "the great Cuba-to-Key West Freedom Flotilla . . . a bizarre and massively illegal 'sea lift' which involved literally thousands of small private boats that brought more than 100,000 very volatile Cuban refugees [including mental patients and prison inmates] to this country in less than three months and drastically altered the social, political, and economic realities of South Florida for the rest of this century."

In another provocative sculptural installation, Felix Gonzales Torres, born in Cuba and master of latter-day minimalist "process art" of the 1980s and '90s, invites viewers to take a piece of his simple rectangular floor installation, which consists of 75 pounds of hard green candy. Seventy-five pounds is what Torres' life partner, Ross Laycock, weighed at the time of his death from AIDS. It's a potent metaphor for not only the sweetness of life, but also how the devastating disease literally consumes its victim until basically nothing is left of him physically.

Space doesn't permit me to describe other equally compelling pieces included in "Order/Chaos." This is an exhibition you have to revisit repeatedly in order to fully appreciate its breadth and quality. Inevitably, private art collections are driven by the vision of their collectors, which at times can be embarrassingly hit or miss. We're lucky to play host to Diane and Bruce Halle's Latin American collection, one formed by a genuine passion and keen eye for important art produced in countries the international art world ignored for far too long.

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Kathleen Vanesian