Elevate Difference

Latin American Women Artists of the United States: The Works of 33 Twentieth-Century Women

The art world is full of niches large and small that showcase a variety of visual languages and regional cultures. A seeming labyrinth to the outsider, this complexity makes it a bit of a hunt to find American artists that speak to you—especially artists who have not been accepted by mainstream America.

In this delicious treat of an art book, the late Robert Henkes, painter and teacher, examines the art of thirty-three Latin American women artists who worked or lived in the United States. Entries are alphabetically arranged, from San Francisco muralist Juana Alica to Santa Fe painter Bernadette Vigil who studied under Diego Rivera. Other artists include Carmen Herrera, a Cuban artist of great stature who lived in New York City in the mid-1950's; self-taught painter Nora Chapa Mendoza; and installation artist Patricia Rodriguez. In each entry, Henkes writes about the style, influences and works of the artist followed by a summation called “Career Highlights,” in which he provides a brief resume of the artist. The entries are also beautifully illustrated.

I remember reading the diary of a writer who wrote that she liked to have a “book debauchery” evening. She would pour a glass of wine, make a pile of art and photography books around her on the floor, and luxuriate in the sheer heaven of playing with all her books—reading whichever parts struck her fancy, leafing through the pages with childish delight, and stroking the pages as if the magic that created them would flow from her fingertips into her soul.

Latin American Women Artists of the United States is a book you can dip into here and there and be transported. It’s an absolute treasure. Most of the photographs are black and white, and a middle section features exceptional color plates. My favorite images are Dora de Larios’ stoneware sculpture called Innervision (a depiction of an artist’s inward contemplation that unites the spirituality of antiquity with modernity), and Catalina Gonzalez’s Boom Box, punk-inspired geometric shapes pushing aggressively against conventional frames.

Henkes’ prose has been called “choppy” by some, but I disagree; I like his style for its old world, straight-to-the-point authenticity. He discusses how the fight for women’s rights and the feminist movement continues to shape talent and genius and how Latin American women artists seek to unite their two cultures as they weave the sacred, political and personal throughout. Henkes also provides a lot of art history in digestible bites that is intellectually succinct and fascinating. In the book’s introduction, he writes:

“The language of visual art is universal. It is ironic that in order to enter the realm of international art, one must first be recognized in a regional sense. Yet, as a regional artist one is isolated from the world market…it seems essential to first isolate (in order to identify) Latin American art before expecting it to enter the mainstream of American art. The question as to what is ‘American’ in American art continues to go unanswered.”

This is an inspired book and one that offers much joy and magic.

Written by: Cheryl Reeves, March 16th 2009