Attractive Proposals

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Nine Costa Rican Artists Illustrate Country's Imagination, Openness

On the map, surrounded by its larger neighbors, Costa Rica may appear small—a nation that rarely figures prominently into the world’s imagination. All the more startling than to see how pronounced, diverse and free-ranging the imaginations are of the artists represented in “Young Costa Rican Artists: Nine Proposals,” a gem of an exhibition now at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Cultural Center.

“We decided to do something a little differently in gauging how to portray the visual arts in a particular country,” said Félix Ángel, head of the IDB Cultural Center and one of the judges for an open call of artists launched by the center and the Foundation of the Central Bank Museums of Costa Rica.

“The response was very rich and very diverse, and reflective of Costa Rica itself,” Ángel said. “There is openness to the society, and openness to new ideas and technology among its artists.”

Nine artists, all of whom live in Costa Rica, were selected from a total of 34 who responded to the open call for proposals. The restrictions were simple: Artists responding could not be older than 40, should have at least one individual show to their credit, and have participated in a minimum of three group exhibitions.

All of the nine artists whose 29 works are featured in the exhibition are displaying their pieces for the first time in the United States.

“What’s remarkable to me is the diversity—there are traditional works here, works in ceramics, many works that deal with contemporary issues that are faced all over Central and Latin America as well as the United States,” Ángel explained, noting, “The oldest artist—just barely—is arguably taking the most technological approach to his work.”

The diversity and that focus on social issues may be indicative of the fact that Costa Rica, which sits in a region where coups, military conflict and revolutionary politics are part of the historic mosaic, has no standing army and hasn’t had one since the late 1940s. In fact, it is the longest continuously running democracy in the region, which speaks to an economic and political stability that is not necessarily common in the area.

What’s remarkable about the works in the exhibition is their respect and affection for tradition but also their passion for in-the-moment subjects and methods.

Jorge Albán, the most veteran of the artists, is also the man who has come up with the most high-tech and evocative pieces in the exhibition. He likes to use interactive technology to create haunting, surprising digital works. According to Albán, this digital technology with its interactive aspects “precipitates a second and subversive reading of reality and its petty daily violence which, in the end, are responsible for greater violence of historic proportions.”

That isn’t so self-evident in his “Central American Gothic,” an endlessly fascinating interactive work—echoing the classic work of American painter Grant Wood—in which an older couple can be seen in their self-created retiree environment that consists of home, garden, cactus and memorabilia—an environment where intimations of death and the accumulation of the past lurk around every corner. Manipulated interactively, it emits the sounds of bells, chimes, clocks and the coughing of the wife.

This is haunting material that speaks to the universal way of living—and dying. José Alberto Hernández Campos also has violence on his mind, and illustrates it indirectly, powerfully and graphically in stark, aggressive photographs of revolvers close up—including the bullets, safety switch, long length of the pistol, as well as targets.

Tamara Ávalos León, on the other hand, in “The First Communion” gives us an installation of 45 ceramic figurines that hum with tribal, ritualistic feeling, harking back to the beginnings of time in a more traditional manner.

Indeed, there is a great deal of variety here: Francisco Munguía Villalta’s thin-lined drawings, Carolina Guillermet Dejuk’s wonderful painting of bodies in upward motion, and Paco Cervilla Cartín’s very modern, very comfy “art-as-useable furniture” pieces.

The exhibition shows a nervy character, an optimistic but not naïve energy, and an awareness that has the tendency to erase borders and geography. Costa Rican art in this representation is not so much a matter of national identity or a specific tone but rather an outlook from a place where diversity is reflected in history and politics, and expressed in art.

Young Costa Rican Artists: Nine Proposals through Aug. 10 Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center 1300 New York Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 623-3774 or visit www.iadb.org/cultural.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999