Inspired by change: Latin American contemporary art

The current renaissance in
Latin American art

Dec 17, 2012 | Our Perspectives Archive

Lisa K. Erf
Director and Chief Curator, JPMorgan Chase Art Collection

Like the financial markets, the art scene thrives on change. And few regions have experienced as much change as Latin America over the last 20 years.

This dynamic environment—often marked by political and social upheaval—has given rise to a rich tradition of experimentation, innovation and social engagement by artists as diverse as Jesús Rafael Soto, an optical and kinetic art pioneer who created interactive works, and Flavia Da Rin, a contemporary photographer exploring portraiture and self-representation in the digital age.

Many of these pioneering and recent works are part of the JPMorgan Chase Art Collection, known for its focus on contemporary art and numbering over 30,000 pieces. Director and Chief Curator of the Collection, Lisa K. Erf, explains, “We began the Collection in New York in the 1950s, but within 10 years, it became international as we reached across the waters and found new art in production in South America, Lebanon, Japan and other countries.”

The past decade has seen the Art Collection build on early examples of Latin American art, adding works by artists from Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Peru. “While some countries share history, themes or processes,” notes Ms. Erf, “art is not the same across Latin America. Each country has its own identity, shaped by the efforts of conceptualism and experimentation that artists have engaged in over the past 20 or 30 years.”

How activist could an artist be?
Latin American art has seen an explosion of expression over the last two decades in particular, fueled in part by the violence and civil war that many countries have experienced. “We see so much experimentation in Latin American art,” explains Ms. Erf, “because, in these military dictatorships, what you could say and what you couldn’t wasn’t clearly defined.”

“So there was a lot of exploration of how activist an artist could be,” continues Ms. Erf, “using symbolic images and objects as metaphors to talk about the conditions of life, the violence that these artists might see right outside their studios. These are things that were very present in their everyday lives and things that they reacted to in the work they presented to the public.”

What guides additions to the Collection
In acquiring new works of Latin American art for the Collection, Ms. Erf explains, “There is a combination of visual and conceptual depth to the work that I’m interested in that it is both poetic and practical. The work of Miguel Ángel Rojas, for example, is very interdisciplinary. He is a maestro of photography, performance, video. His work is powerful on a visual level, but it also touches the viewer on a very strong spiritual, emotional level.”

“The richest works of art, in my opinion, are those that operate on an exciting and dynamic visual level as well as on a rich and meaningful conceptual level.” These works, experienced over time, offer the viewer “a depth of experience or range of different kinds of experiences.”

“We’ve never as a firm looked at what was the trendiest, hottest, highest value. What we’re looking for are things that give expression to human experience both locally and across continents and time periods.”

Seeking out the adventurous
Today, more than 500 Latin American artists are represented in the Collection, including Alejandro Obregón, Carlos Rojas and Edgar Negret among the earliest. Going forward, the Collection is committed to representing the adventurous spirit of new and established artists, both individually and in terms of their fit with works already in the Collection. 

Ms. Erf elaborates, “Regarding Colombian art, Álvaro Barrios is a well-established artist, writer and educator. The Collection purchased one of his watercolors, which is beautiful on its own and also relates directly to the artist Keith Haring, who is well represented in our Collection.”  

“Claudia Hakim is a mid-career sculptor whose assemblage is perfect in our Miami office,” says Ms. Erf. More recent purchases include photographs by Miguel Ángel Rojas and Óscar Muñoz, two established Colombian artists. “Together, they have laid important groundwork, become key influences on younger artists, and created international awareness about the art of this region.”

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