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Frank Romero's painting "Death of Ruben Salazar," which memorializes in a rich, hot Mexican palette the police killing of a Chicano journalist, exemplifies why you should go to "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art" at the Arkansas Arts Center. Not every piece in the exhibition is political — there is abstract work, portraiture, photography, posters — but much of it is, and the history the work addresses is as rich as the artwork.
The exhibition, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection of Latino art, includes works by 72 artists since the mid-20th century, "when the concept of a collective Latino identity began to emerge," according to the museum. Like the "30 Americans" show at the Arts Center, which focused on work by African-American artists, the exhibition does not sacrifice ability for theme.
A grand piece is Maria Magdalena Campos Pons' "Constellation," a grid of photographs of the top of her head featuring her dreadlocks. They invade the 16 individual segments, suggesting roots and rivers and making wonderful abstract compositions. The work by Campos Pons, a Cuban of mixed cultural heritage, can also be read to express the diaspora of Latino/Afro people. The division of one image into many can be trite and gimmicky, but in this artwork, about separation and culture, it makes sense.
In his "West Side Story Upside Down, Backwards, Sideways and Out of Focus (La Maleta de Futriaco Martínez)," ADAL, a Puerto Rican artist in New York, has made a video collage of scenes from the musical — which presented a stereotypical view of Puerto Rican culture — and documentary film and placed the tiny screen inside a suitcase.
Attention is paid to graphic art, both political posters — such as "Boycott Grapes," a royal Latino-Indian image squeezing grapes dry — and wonderful calendarios. A painting by Carlos Almarez, "Night Magic, Blue Jester," has the fluidity of a Cezanne in a Fauvist palette.
In conjunction with this show and its own by Mexico City native Marianela de la Hoz ("Speculum Speculari), the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has joined with the Arts Center for a Sunday film series featuring the six-part documentary "Americans: 500 Years of History." Coming up are Episode 4, "The New Latinos: 1946-1965," on Nov. 8; Episode 5, "Prejudice and Pride, 1965-1980," on Nov. 15; and Episode 6, "Peril and Promise, 1980-2000," on Nov. 22 All are being screened from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Arts Center.
Also in conjunction with the show, Einar and Jamex de la Torre of California, brothers who collaborate in glassworks, will give a talk about their work at the Arts Center at 6 p.m. Dec. 10.