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Hand to Hand Combat

The Oakland Museum hosts Mano a Mano: Abstraction and Figuration,
16 Mexican American and Latin American Painters from the Bay Area.

Esther Vecsey
The Daily Californian
March 31, 1989

The term “mano a mano” means “hand to hand” in Spanish. It’s a colloquial expression for a close confrontation, or hand-to-hand battle between opposing forces. Mano a Mano is also the title of a museum exhibition that opened recently at the Oakland Museum. In the context of the exhibition, “mano a mano” assumes a metaphoric meaning for what happens in the creative arena, according to Rolando Castellon, director of the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery at UC Santa Cruz. Castellon is the curator of “Mano a Mano: Abstraction/ Figuration, 16 Mexican American and Latin American Painters from the San Francisco Bay Area.” Castellon is nationally known for his tireless efforts on behalf of Latino artists.

In a talk to the docents of the Oakland Museum, Castellon, who was born in Nicaragua and emigrated to this country over 25 years ago, told of his efforts to bring to public attention the achievements of Latinos. In 1969 Castellon, himself a painter, and a group of Bay Area Chicano and Latin American artists, founded the Galeria de la Raza to provide a regular forum for Latino artists, who are generally excluded from mainstream galleries and the art establishment. In the initial lecture of a series connected with the exhibition, Castellon said he first conceived of this exhibition in 1969.

Castellon said he is primarily interested in the early, pre-Spanish conquest origins of the artists of Mexican and Central and South American origin. It is that aspects of Hispanic culture that he feels plays a principal part in their creative process. Castellon’s declared mission is to reestablish a direct link with the rich artistic heritage that was extinguished by the Spanish conquest of the New World. Castellon is planning an international symposium on the theme of Pre-Colombian and Post-Colombian art to demonstrate how the indigenous past survives and is revived in the culture of peoples of Mexican and Central and South American origin.

Castellon commented on the current surge of exhibitions with a “Hispanic” theme. He said Hispanic Art in the United States, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and several other exhibitions traveling nationally , fail because they show only figurative work by contemporary Latino artists. “Somebody decided that we all do that-the emotional, figurative,” Castellon said in reference to the stereotypical notion that the contemporary Latino creative impulse is fueled by only the naive, primitive folk art tradition. Castellon decided that this was the moment to organize an exhibition to demonstrate the wide range of stylistic and conceptual concerns of Latino artists.

Castellon chose Mano a Mano to emphasize the variety of artistic vocabularies that Latino artists use, which can be distilled to the opposing genres of figurative and abstract. In conceiving Mano a Mano, Castellon envisioned a juxtaposition of abstract and figurative artists in the installation. The idea was not realized at the Oakland Museum, so an important aspect of the exhibition is marred. The original intention of the curator to group and hang the works in opposing pairs, by artists, is now reflected only in the catalog.

The theme of confrontation, the “mano a mano” of the title, is presented in conceptual form only, by arranging illustrations of the paintings to appear on facing pages of the catalog. Eight full-page spreads illustrate Castellon’s premise that the style of the paired artists may be totally disparate, but their color, light, mystical themes and structural qualities resonate with a seminal strain that binds them together, a pre-conquest Indian sensibility shared by the artists because of their ethnic origins.

In the catalog the monumental abstraction “Tlayoltevian,” by Gustavo Ramos Rivera is juxtaposed with Eduardo Carrillo’s “Las Tropicanos.” a mural-size oil on wood; Jerry Concha’s abstract “Yahmenami” is shown opposite Yolanda M. Lopez’s powerful figurative icon of “Nuestra Senora Coatlicue,” and so on through six more pairs.

The oppositions and the affinities that Castellon sees in the works of the artists in this exhibition are subtle and complex. Castellon said he relates the idea of the confrontation of two bullfighters to his original concept for the exhibition: in the corrida, mano a mano is “a traditional ritual where artistry, courage and mysticism come together and the two protagonists fight a duel, not to prove their superiority over one another, but to emphasize the human capacity to transcend the tragedy of life. In art, the artist enacts a similar struggle alone with destiny.” This idea is carried from analogy to metaphor, to “show the confrontation of two opposite directions in contemporary art- abstraction and figuration...”

It is unfortunate that the Oakland Museum didn’t carry out Castellon’s original intention for the exhibition. It is also unfortunate that the reviews never reflected upon the complex issues Castellon raises. Because this exhibition, whose premise is so much more subtly conceived by a Latino painter-curator coincides with the rash of showings of art by Latino artists. Mano a Mano has been lumped with them. Each exhibition may strive to correct the injustice done to Latino artists by the art world establishment in this country, but by presenting the artists in an ethnically determined grouping, the curators run the risk of generalizing and “ghettoizing.” thus defeating their own purpose.

In the very busy and lucrative machine of today’s art world , simple categories and labels are preferred to complex philosophical agendas. Thus the complex issues of Castellon’s exhibition are lost on the critics and reviewers and the issue of ethnicity becomes the main focus for the journalists who have written about it.

The racial, ethnic, political, cultural, religious, economic, social and aesthetic baggage that the artists in Castellon’s exhibition carry is fraught with contradictions. In Mano a Mano and in the intelligently and sensitively written catalog, much of this cultural baggage is explored. In the catalog each artist is treated individually and comprehensively. The paintings on exhibit are powerful works, proving that the artists are not limited by their ethnicity. Their work is valid and strong, in the global context of contemporary art. Their work should be judged on its aesthetic merits, not within the narrow confines of ethnic category, which shows of this kind inevitably perpetuate, no matter how well intentioned.