Opening an art gallery during a pandemic is a bold move, but it is doubly so when said gallery’s ambitions include dismantling entrenched art world inequalities. Recognizing the relative absence of Latin American and diasporic artists from the canon, Nicole Calderón and Mike Ruiz opened their eponymous space in Manhattan’s Seaport district this September with a pledge to support the careers of Latinx creators and “secure their position in art history.”
Calderón Ruiz’s inaugural exhibition, Eagle and Serpent, features works by Esteban Ramón Pérez and Jaime Muñoz in an elegantly sparse installation at the 1,800-square-foot gallery. Both artists are Mexican American and based in California, and their works plumb the depths of the West Coast Chicanx experience and Rasquachismo aesthetics. But that is where the similarities end. Pérez’s massive leather sculptures, mounted on the wall or suspended from the ceiling using lowrider bike parts, are inscribed with imagery from pre-Hispanic codices and Mexican boxing history using a tattoo needle. Muñoz’s paintings on wood panel, which incorporate glitter and acrylics to achieve an uncanny graphic language, reference labor and working-class culture through elements as diverse as an hourglass and a workload truck.
The show underscores the vastly different approaches of two artists, acknowledging their inspirations and influences without flattening their practices under the weight of identity. An emphasis on difference and individuation seems to be at the heart of Calderón Ruiz’s project.
“The Latin American demographic is large and diverse but has been massively underrepresented on the cultural front,” said Calderón, who is Puerto Rican, and Ruiz, who is Mexican American, in an interview with Hyperallergic.
On its website, the gallery refers to “Latinx/e” artists — two forms of a word that has proved controversial. Some critics say it is not sufficiently widely used by Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking populations, particularly older adults, while others argue that gendered nouns are an intrinsic feature of Romance languages.
To Calderón and Ruiz, the word “acknowledges that the people included within it are not all the same but rather carry diverse cultures and personal stories.”
“Latinx is a gender neutral and nationality inclusive term that we use to refer to all artists of Latin American heritage and the diaspora,” they told Hyperallergic. “Also, because Latinx is such a new term, it serves as a catalyst for conversation as people debate its incipient meaning.”
These conversations, they add, bring attention to “the granularity of Latin American culture” — they can help redress perceptions of a monolithic community that prevail in the US and elsewhere. A textbook example can be found in American politics: while research shows that voting trends among Latinx constituencies can vary by a multiplicity of factors, including region, gender, and ethnicity, media outlets and government officials continue to utilize the blanket term “Latino vote.”
“This population, particularly in the US, is often thought of and referred to as a single cultural amalgamation, put into one box, but in reality the cultural differences between, for example, Mexicans and Dominicans, and Cubans and Puerto Ricans are vast,” Calderón and Ruiz said. “One of our underlying goals is to create a space that can help draw out and present the beautiful complexity of these unique cultural identities and the amazing artists within them.”
For the co-founders, this also means engaging artists from many different generations and geographies.
“We’re interested in collaborating with artists of all career stages,” Calderón and Ruiz told Hyperallergic. “Currently we are in conversation with an artist who’s been making work since the 1960s. We are talking to estates while also keeping an eye on our contemporaries.” Eagle and Serpent, which closes October 22, will be followed by Siempre en la Calle, a show of two New York-born artists, Shellyne Rodriguez and Danielle De Jesus, opening October 28; a group exhibition including works by US and Dominican artists will come after that.
Although a growing percentage of the US population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, Latinx contemporary artists, especially those who are Black or Indigenous, have not been proportionately shown or collected by institutions. In recent years, members of the art community have addressed these lapses head-on. As an artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Miguel Luciano designed an “El Met” t-shirt sold at the museum gift shop to support new acquisitions of Latinx art. In a performance this summer outside MoMA PS1, the contemporary art outpost of the Museum of Modern Art, Yali Romagoza asked how many Latinx women artists have had one-person exhibitions at the institution — “zero,” a sign read.
Calderón and Ruiz cite CALA Alliance in Phoenix, Arizona, the Latinx Project at New York University, and El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem among the organizations that are “elevating visibility of Latinx artists.” On the commercial front, Proxyco Gallery in New York has championed emerging and mid-career artists of Latin American descent since its founding in 2018, and MECA, founded by Danny Baez in 2017, helped develop the art fair model in the Caribbean.
A heightened awareness of the marginalization experienced by diasporic Latin American artists has ushered in a wave of overdue retrospectives and recognition, but market forces and enduring prejudices are ongoing hurdles. In her book Latinx Art, Arlene Dávila recounts how Rita Gonzalez, the first Chicana curator at LACMA, explained the challenges of fundraising for acquisitions of Chicanx art; many donors, she said, prefer to fund works by artists already in their own collections, perpetuating the cycle of underrepresentation.
“You need to be aware of something to be curious about it — and you must have some understanding of a thing in order to celebrate it,” Calderón and Ruiz told Hyperallergic. “We want to help bring people from awareness to understanding to celebration and usher in a new class of collector, patron, institution interested in the intricacies and nuances of these beautiful cultures.”