Last month’s opening of the Art of the Americas Wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts signifies a sea change in how art of the Americas is perceived. The wing both demonstrates institutional approval of such a category and shows that, in the Americas, all art is created—or at least displayed—equal. The museum provides the same physical space to Mesoamerican art as Euro-American, to American Indian as Oceanic. The same goes for the Spanish colonial art at Peyton Wright Gallery’s 18th Annual Art of Devotion.
There, the devotional art of Spain’s New World outposts—in this case mostly, but not limited to, Peru, Bolivia, New Mexico and old Mexico—hangs together. Additionally, art inspired by old masters hangs beside that inspired by provincial customs.
Peyton Wright’s entrance hall is crowded with oil-on-canvas works from floor to ceiling, slightly over-devoted to devotion. The gallery’s labyrinthine rooms span the 1500s-1800s with hundreds of pieces. Devotion finds its way into paintings, silverwork, furniture and carvings, which feature Jesus, Mary, angels and saints in any number of mythological scenarios and degrees of ecstasy and agony.
The works are most interesting when they diverge from the Spanish devotional canon, with incongruous people, places and things peppered anachronously. Much of the artwork features telltale signs of the New World that pop up like little post-colonial gifts: a location here, flora and fauna there, dress and materials here. Traditional Spanish devotional criteria are evident—though gallery owner John Wright Schaefer tells SFR that access to Old World imagery was limited—but there are also stylistic differences in everything from how to with what the works are rendered.
Though devotional colonial art can seem a bit of a slog—especially for the lesser devout among us or those who don’t hold favorable opinions of colonialism—it’s important to see the artists in colonial times beyond the yoke of Spain. In much of the work, the colonized demonstrate their own honest religious zeal with sincere expressions of devotion—regardless of the means by which they came to be devout. Their art is more than an appropriation of hegemonic religious iconography; it’s generative in its own right.
To paraphrase theorist Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, there are myriad “tactics” by which the colonized exercise agency within the confines of colonialism. And whether or not these colonial artists were actively trying to subvert it, they left their mark on the art, their brushstrokes and woodcuts themselves rallying cries. Art of Devotion is riddled with unlikely renditions and “subversive imagery,” imagery that does not steadfastly follow the status quo for the genre.
But how could the artists of the Americas do otherwise?
In New Mexico—sparsely settled and provincial—the art reflects the area. Bultos, santos and cristos are made with native woods such as pine and cotton. Several of the retablos are framed with tinwork, beaten down and ornamented from the Spaniards’ fruit cans. Additionally, all the art in the New World relies on pigments native to it. “Jesus of Nazareth with Angels,” a large oil-on-canvas piece from Peru, is indicative of New World—in this case Incan—contributions. The predominance of Incan feathers in the work shows indigenous adaptation, not just adoption, of Old World iconography.
One can consider Art of Devotion, and Spanish colonial art in general, as derivative, forced or not, of Spain. The art is much more fruitful and empowering when it’s considered as the art of the Americas, the art of the colonized.