Abitter January is the ideal time to visit “Modern and Contemporary Art in the Dominican Republic: Works From the Customs Office Collection” at the Art Museum of the Americas. Not because the exhibition is full of views of carefree tropical life — there are only a few of those, and none in the naive style associated with the republic’s neighbor, Haiti, whose art is better known, or better marketed, in the United States.
What gives these 30 paintings and mixed-media pictures a pleasing warmth are their exuberant gestures, luxuriant detail and bold if not necessarily sunny colors. Some of the art’s appeal reflects that dynamic Caribbean mix of Iberian, African and West Indian heritages. A handful of the later works — the most recent are from 2007 — echo North American styles. But a surprisingly large number reveal the influence of early 20th-century Spain.
The connection between the two countries is venerable, of course. Christopher Columbus planted the Spanish flag on the island in 1492, an event commemorated in this exhibition with the sails, sword and skull of Fernando Peña Defilló’s haunted “Chronicle of the Indies.” The republic’s capital, Santo Domingo, soon became the first administrative center of Spain’s New World empire.
The artistic story told by this show, however, begins with the Spanish Civil War. That conflict, and its outcome, sent such Spanish artists as Josep Gausachs and Eugenio Fernández Granell into exile in the Dominican Republic, which was not entirely ignorant of Cubism. (Jaime Colson’s 1927 “Bodegón” demonstrates that.) The newcomers became known as “transterrados,” or translanders.
The Gausachs painting in this show, “Tropical Marine,” is a fairly conventional Caribbean beach scene, given some compositional drama by the green palm leaves in the foreground. But Granell’s dancing “Figures,” although painted in 1990, has a strong kinship to Picasso’s and Miró’s styles of a half-century earlier. Granell’s style also is linked to that of Ivan Tovar, who updates surrealism with a glossy, hard-edged approach that makes his 1978 “La Clef de L’Amour” appear even more recent.
After arriving in Santo Domingo in the 1940s, Gausachs became a teacher at the National School of Fine Arts, which had recently opened. Among his students were Clara Ledesma, Gilberto Hernández Ortega and Paul Giudecelli, all of whom are represented here. Ledesma’s two paintings include “Fisherman,” whose colorful, segmented image suggests a cross between pre-Columbian art and a European stained-glass window.
Originally a violinist, Granell didn’t start painting until he settled in the Dominican Republic in 1940. Six years later, after declining to declare his support for Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, the artist moved to Guatemala.
There’s only one explicit comment on Dominican politics here, but it’s a powerful one: José Ramírez Conde’s expressionist “June 15 and 16, 1965” (painted the following year) depicts the revolution that ended with the arrival of U.S. Marines. The painting’s anguish recalls another great Spanish painter, Goya, even if its style doesn’t.
The post-1966 work is less troubled, although no less dense. Pop art, minimalism and other reductionist genres seem not to have captured the Dominican imagination. The largest painting is Ramón Oviedo’s “Untitled,” which also is undated, a semi-abstract epic that has both sweep and a patchwork quality. (The artist even paints stitches to symbolically hold the composition together.) Equally complex is Scherezade Garcia’s “My Floating World,” which shows a figure at the center of a black-and-brown tempest, lightened by splashes of vivid aqua and red.
Several pictures from the past 10 years have an illustrative quality, but with the rich hues of painting. Jorge Pineda’s “Storm” places an elaborately decorated blue bubble, incised as if rendered in woodcut or scratchboard, over the head of a black figure. Inés Tolentino’s “Vanity II” superimposes a boy, in red, over many toys and other objects, all in shades of green. Raquel Paiewonsky’s earth-toned “We Are Here to Protect You,” with what appears to be a winged pufferfish, is a new breed of surrealism.
These works all come from the General Directorate of Customs, whose collection was begun by Dominican professor and customs agency director Miguel Cocco. “Our selection is not strictly representative of Dominican art,” notes the catalogue introduction by Pedro Vergés Ciman of the Organization of American States and the DGA Cultural Heritage Foundation.
So perhaps “Modern and Contemporary Art in the Dominican Republic” is not definitive. Maybe there are other, radically different ways to survey the subject. But on a winter’s day far from the Caribbean, this vibrant assortment seems a fine place to begin.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Through Feb. 1 at the Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St. NW. 202-370-0147. www.museum.oas.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.