A Paradise Lost resurfaces at the Lowe

While landscapes are sometimes relegated to a debased status in “academic” art, they can be keen representations of regional identity and of the artists’ sensibility to their aesthetic surrounding at the time.

Composed of paintings, photographs and mixed media works, Paradise Lost? Aspects of Landscape in Latin American Art at the Lowe Art Museum, gives a solid, though diverging impression of the perceived environment by 76 artists from 20 countries.

Partitioned into 5 historical groups-travelers, academics, modernity, contemporary classical tradition and contemporary idioms-the exhibit embarks on the beginning of the spectrum, as early as 1830. Notably, it was only in between the 18th and 19th centuries that landscapes befitted the categories of “academic art” and were taught alongside portraits, nudes and historical themes. The first Latin American landscapes were made by Europeans-“travelers,” so to speak, intrigued by the voyage journals of Alexander Von Humboldt in the 19th century.

“La Ceiba,” by Belgian artist Henry Cleenewerck, has a mellow orange sky in the backdrop as a peasant sits on his cattle peacefully, all conveying the pristine nature of the setting. Moreover, Domingo Roamos’ “Landscape with Mountains,” with its airy, cool light blue and pink brushes, has the impressionistic quality of a Monet.

These are in radical antagonism to Roberto Matta’s violent and disorderly “Industrial Landscape,” which has fervid and cubistic lines, dark blues and greens overcome by pasty, smoggy whites resembling toxic factory fumes. At the dawn of industrialization, Latin American artists, studying in Europe and appropriating the modern techniques of Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, applied these methods to their works. Matta’s piece captures the disarray of industrial technology in surrealistic tones with a finish similar to a more colorful and riotous Georges Braque.

Some artists here have chosen to realistically depict what they’ve seen, while others relied on an imaginative, intuitive sense to study different degrees of abstraction. Antonio Barrera’s “Pacifico” uses sweltering blotches of red and makes the ocean a gurgling lava stream, while Teresa Icaza’s “Trees and Shadows” is a collage of glossy paper to illustrate the scene.

The advent of industry and political control over the land has lead to its deformation and several of the contemporary pieces expand upon issues like imperialism and the ousting of primitive peoples, poverty and environmental destruction. Laura Anderson Barbeta’s “In the Order of Chaos” is a disquieting shot of semi-naked South American natives in panic as a helicopter prepares to land in their territory and Ruben Gutierrez’ “Objects over Havana” shows a UFO hovering across various locations in the Cuban capital.

Ironic it seems that Tomas Sanchez’ “Tanbos”-an ominous painting of filthy garbage cans looming large in the foreground with trash and debris in the back-is placed in the center of the exhibit, its hefty size (80 by 100 in.) and situation portending the theme of the show. Has our civilization, with our inventions, technologies and imperial motives, pushed us to imperil some of the paradisiacal landscape of the past?

Paradise Lost? Aspects of Landscape in Latin American Art is on view at the Lowe, 1301 Stanford Dr., Coral Gables, through April 6. Call 305-284-3535 for more info.

Omar Sommereyns can be reached at SOASIS@aol.com