‘Estamos Bien: La Trienial 20/21’ Review: A Vibrant Portrait of American Latino Life
A vivacious survey of contemporary art at El Museo del Barrio brims with inventive works that make a sociopolitical point.
By Peter Plagens
March 27, 2021 7:00 am ET
By 2050, demographers say, the U.S. population will be almost one-third Latino. El Museo del Barrio—founded in 1969 and located at 104th Street on the north end of Fifth Avenue’s “Museum Mile”—bills itself as “the nation’s leading Latino and Latin American cultural institution.” The museum’s current exhibition, “Estamos Bien: La Trienal 20/21” (through Sept. 26), is proof—albeit imperfect—of why it is needed in our multicultural society.
Taking the temperature, so to speak, of contemporary American Latino art is a daunting task. Any show of more than 40 artists (including a few collectives) from Brooklyn to Puerto Rico to Houston and Los Angeles, working in everything from handmade watercolors to assemblage and high-definition video animation, is going to have inevitable bumps and low spots. But this exhibition—whose title translates as “We’re OK” and includes over 200 works—more than compensates for an inevitable inconsistency by being lively, passionate, inventive and, in a few cases, revelatory.
“Estamos Bien” actually opened last summer with some commissioned online works, and the show’s physical iteration was also scheduled for 2020. It had planned to make its points—and it is a show packed with attempts to make sociopolitical points—during the presidential election campaign and while the U.S. census was under way. Covid-19 changed all that, but now the results of two years of research and visits with 00 artists have made their way into the museum’s galleries.
Curators Rodrigo Moura and Susanna Temkin, from El Museo, and guest Elia Alba (an artist) have put together an exhibition that’s the opposite of the more uncluttered, antiseptic, lots-of-breathing-room surveys we’ve come to expect from our modern art museums. For example, a single gallery contains Lucia Hierro’s oversize, Claes- Oldenburg-esque mock bags of bodega snacks, including “Rack: Plantanitos” (2019); Dionis Ortiz’s ornate vinyl-tile oor piece, “Let There Be Light” (2020-21); Joey Terrill’s still-lifes-cum-nudes that are AIDS-memoir paintings (2008); and Yvette Mayorga’s 2020 mixed-media paintings mimicking cake decoration. The overall effect is a bit like a panel discussion where everybody’s talking at once.
“Estamos Bien” is—as you might suspect from the show’s title—more about what its works say than about how they look. Just inside the entrance, Collective Magpie has posted, as a primer for the rest of the exhibition, “Who Designs Your Race?” (2020-21), a vinyl wallpaper printout of the results of a “participatory web platform” questionnaire. Colonialism and immigration are the subjects of, among others, works by Lizania Cruz (a handout publication, “Obituaries of the American Dream,” 2020-21) and Carolina Caycedo (the mural “Geneaology of Struggle,” 201-21 and ongoing). Anti-gay views are challenged by Mr. Terrill’s paintings and by Luis Flores’s life-size crocheted sculptures of himself wearing real clothing.
As with almost any show that’s a mini-encyclopedia, a viewer will have personal favorites. Eddie Aparicio’s “City Bus Memorial (Fig. and Ave. 60, Los Angeles, California” (2016) is one of mine because I’m familiar with that part of L.A. and because, in its big, irregular wall-hanging form, it’s similar to the kind of art I’m used to these days. In homemade watercolor on traditional Mexican amate paper made from bark, Sandy Rodriguez’s “Healer No. 3: Comforting the enfermos (Lycianthes moziniana for paint of the heart)” (2019)—yes, the exhibition is festooned with long titles—seems genuinely heartfelt. And Dominique Duroseau’s “Mammy Was Here” (2019), seven large black-and-white photographs of the artist’s dark, ample body, has more simple emotive power than anything else in “Estamos Bien.”
Possible cavils (critics always have them) might include there being too many artists in the exhibition. Answer: If the show is about anything, it’s inclusion. To a complaint that the work is, overall, too didactic, a reply would be that the show’s intended and actual audience is not the Museum of Modern Art’s; that the exhibition is like Hispanic culture— it’s not supposed to be cool and removed. Essentially, how could such a triennial not be political?
Still, “Estamos Bien” manages to be bouncy and profound at the same time. It should be required viewing for anybody interested in the changing landscape of not only the contemporary art world but of American culture in general. It’s too bad, in fact, that we’ll have to wait three whole years for the next edition of “La Trienal.”
Estamos Bien: La Trienal 20/21
El Museo del Barrio, through Sept. 26
—Mr. Plagens is an artist and writer in New York.
Appeared in the March 29, 2021, print edition as ‘A Vibrant Portrait of American Latino Life.’