Art & Dialogue: Houston Public Program by Cecilia Fajardo-Hill

Cecilia Farjardo-Hill, independent curator, presented a free public program at Lawndale Art Center on Wednesday, September 25 from 6-8pm. From September 25-27, Cecilia met with a selection of Houston-based Artadia Awardees, below is a summary of her experience:

“Studio visits are one of the greatest opportunities for exchange between artists and curators. I was particularly excited by Artadia’s invitation to visit Houston, as it’s one of the most diverse and interesting art centers in the United States. My trip started by giving a lecture at the multidisciplinary contemporary art Center, Lawndale, to discuss curatorial practice in the context of past and future projects. Preparing this lecture was an opportunity to reflect on my practice as an art historian and curator, and my commitment to exploring artists and those aspects of art that tend to be disregarded, stereotyped, and suppressed by the art system. Given that Houston has over 40% of Latinx, it was particularly relevant to briefly discuss my forthcoming exhibition on Chican a.o.x art. The exhibition is rooted in the need to acknowledge and promote the wonderful and complex work of Chicanx artists since the 1970s, in a historical moment when Latinas and Latinos are being systematically vilified and marginalized by the political system, and the art world continues to lack in their representation. With that in mind, it was particularly rewarding to see the exhibitions by Michael Menchaca and Saúl Hernández-Vargas at Lawndale. I also had the opportunity for a studio visit with one of Lawndale’s artist Studio Program awardees, Venezuelan artist Gerardo Rosales, who is working at the intersection of modernism in Latin America and North America.

Each artist I visited represents the broadness of language within contemporary art, ranging from abstraction, to performance art, from gender to social issues. They embody the global nature of contemporary art, one that contains multiple references that are both dialogical in nature, and international in reach. Each studio visit could have lasted hours, with our discussions encompassing art and personal experience, the art world and art history, and the broader context of art production, reception, and exhibition. It was a luxury to have the opportunity to visit artists in their working spaces, beyond the customary formality of art spaces.

It was very interesting to discuss with Dana Frankfort her investigation into painting, moving in and out of language as a legible sign. She explores perception and intuition at the center of her aesthetic experimentation, and I appreciated seeing Frankfort taking a risk by working with illegibility. She explores the medium of painting without seeking answers and works within the concentrated possibilities of small formats.

Kaneem Smith’s work is powerful. During my visit, she was working on her large burlap painting/installation/sculpture for the Houston airport. As the work is so large, it was propped on a ladder demonstrating its sculptoric qualities and its potentiality as a freestanding piece. Smith is also an artist working in abstraction, where materiality is embedded with cultural and social history, making her work a vessel that embodies gender, race, colonial and labor issues. This embodiment is aesthetic, conceptual and material, ranging from small crocheted elements to burlap coffee sacs from different parts of the global south.

Keeping within the realm of abstraction, it was illuminating to do a studio visit with Jillian Conrad. Conrad is expanding her investigation into abstraction – drawings, led compositions, and other spatial interventions – by incorporating branches from her backyard. I found her new work particularly touching and complex as she highlighted branches with areas of color. She brought together separate branches with delicate vertical metal rods, creating dialogues between irregular vertical and horizontal forms. These branches function as drawings in space, as paintings, sculptures and installations, proposing a subtle dialogue between natural forms and human intervention.

It was an honor to do a studio visit with Delilah Montoya, an artist I have admired for a very long time as an important Chicana photographer. Her new work in the dining room signaled her continued engagement with the social issues of Latinx people. ‘a part’ is a photograph taken from the newspaper of the reunification of a mother with her 4 years old son, in a haunting image that reminds us of the migration crisis in this country. Speaking with Delilah, it was interesting and enlightening to hear about her life experience, and her engagement with the people she photographs. Of special relevance was her Contemporary Casta Portraits, ‘Nuestra “Calidad,” demonstrating the profound racial mixed ancestry in families from different social backgrounds, to reflect on the colonial past and how it still today illustrates social structures.

Francis Almandarez is a young Latinx artist exploring through video, sculpture and painting, issues of labor of working-class people of Central America, the Caribbean both in migration and local contexts. We discussed specifically his video ‘Rhythm and (p)leisure,’ 2014-2019 and his exhibition at ArtPace in San Antonio. Almandarez’s investigation negotiates his personal experience as a Latinx in the US and his Central American roots, while also exploring larger issues of migration, globalization, and humanity in different contexts. His work is existential, investigative, and conceptual, and invites one to engage with a sense of inclusion and reflection that is memorable.

JooYoung Choi is a multidisciplinary artist of Korean descent who has created a fictional land called the ‘Cosmic Womb’ for which she creates highly elaborate characters, both on her own and in collaboration with a community of people. The universe that Choi has created is the source of an infinite number of stories and characters that are both positive and imaginative. Her bed titled Pom Pom Thunder, and the character Resilient Starwere in her studio during the visit. Choi delved into their complex roles, explaining the mixture of science fiction and mythology, as it intertwines with her touching personal history. What is key to Choi’s art is not only the role that imagination and play have in the creation of the work, but the fact that this universe becomes the embodiment of family, community and diversity.

The encounter with Lynne McCabe, a Scottish artist based in Houston, was expansive and personal. Her work, characterized by the notion of ‘social sculpture,’ comes to life in both daily situations such as sharing food, and complex collaborative sculpture projects that blur the lines of authorship. One thing that makes McCabe unique is the way in which notions of social practice are expanded to involve forms of intersubjectivity and exchange with the spectator that are intimate, gender specific, rebellious and unconventional. Of particular relevance are her works that discuss the vulnerability of the body and certain burdens of life in collectivity.

Visiting Nestor Topchy’s creative environment was an unexpected experience. There is a pragmatic and simultaneously visionary aspect to the multiple facets of his work. Architecture made with recycled containers and metal scraps, to landscaping with bamboo, to his objects with abstract motifs, to his painted Pysanky and Byzantine like portraits, and dialogical works with Yves Klein. The architecture is both a dialogue with an imaginary and real but intimate collectivity, the landscaping a context for place and also an environmental gesture, the paintings a dialogue with history and present and multiple cultures and traditions simultaneously. Pulled apart these elements seem contradictory, but they coexist in strange harmony.

Conversing with these eight artists, particularly within the context of a city like Houston, has been an enlightening experience, one of observing commitment, engagement, and imagination with complexity and relevance.”

Cecilia Fajardo-Hill is a British/Venezuelan art historian and curator in modern and contemporary art, currently based in Southern California. Fajardo-Hill has a PhD in Art History from the University of Essex, England, and an MA in 20th Century Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, England.

Fajardo-Hill is Research Scholar at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, Los Angeles, and is the co-curator of the upcoming touring exhibition XicanXperimental, Phoenix Museum, 2021. Fajardo-Hill is the editor of Remains – Tomorrow: Themes in Contemporary Latin American Abstraction, on post 90s abstraction in Latin America, 2019, and the co-editor of two tomes on 20th and 21th – century Guatemalan art, an Arte GT 20/21 initiative, upcoming 2020. In 2020, Fajardo-Hill will be Fellowship Visiting Research Scholar in the Program in Latin American Studies (PLAS) and Visiting Lecturer, Princeton University, Princeton.

Fajardo-Hill was the Chief Curator and Vice-President of Curatorial Affairs at the Museum of Latin American Art, MOLAA in Long Beach, California Between 2009 and 2012. She was the Director and Chief curator of the Cisneros Fontanals Arts Foundation (CIFO) and the Ella Fontanals Cisneros Collection, Miami, USA between 2005 and 2008, and she was general director of Sala Mendoza, Caracas, Venezuela, between 1997 and 2001. She has curated and organized numerous group and solo exhibitions of international artists such as Susan Hiller and Mona Hatoum and emerging and mid-career contemporary artists from Latin America such as Johanna Calle, Mariana Castillo Deball, Leandro Erlich and Javier Téllez. In 2017, Fajardo-Hill co-curated The Political Body: Radical Women in Latin American Art 1960-1985, a survey of radical artistic practices by women artists in Latin America for the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles as part of the Getty initiative PST LA/LA. Fajardo-Hill has published broadly on contemporary art and artists from Latin America.