When curator Taína Caragol began to organize the latest exhibition of contemporary portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., she says she wanted to “bust apart” the notion of what defines a portrait. So for “Portraiture Now: Staging the Self,” she included collages, photographs, and paintings—all marked by elements of theatricality. “A lot of people who visit us have a certain expectation of what they want to see on the walls,” she says. “So I think it’s a healthy thing to question what portraiture can be. We have portraits in the show that don’t have faces.”
Caragol hopes the show will bust apart other notions too. Each of the half-dozen artists featured is of Latin American origin—from Mexican American to Ecuadorean—and lives in the United States. “Staging the Self” avoids the colorful folkloric work so often associated with Latino art in favor of the more conceptual. Carlee Fernandez, for example, uses her body as a sculptural object in photographic pieces that explore the influential figures in her life (from sculptor Franz West to writer Charles Bukowski), while María Martínez Cañas plays with issues of gender and selfhood in photomontages that blend her own face with her father’s.
“If anything, the single statement here is that you cannot make a single statement about what it means to be Latino,” Caragol says. The exhibition, which opens August 22, is part of an ongoing effort by the Smithsonian Institution to engage Latino audiences—and to consider how the Smithsonian’s collections and programming might better reflect the long-running Latino presence in the U.S. With “Staging the Self,” Caragol says she intentionally places the work of Latino artists within the broader framework of the American experience, so that Latinos “aren’t constantly portrayed as some exotic other.”
One such artist is Michael Vasquez, a Miami-based painter whose expressive, outsize canvases frequently depict the gang members he hung out with as a kid. His work channels urban youth culture, but it also reveals the influence of painters such as Jenny Saville. While Vasquez is attuned to his Latino roots (his father is Puerto Rican), his concerns are universal. “The fact is, I’m much more American than I am Latin American,” he says. And what could be more Latino than that?
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 26 under the title “What Does Latino Look Like?”