Reflection is the change in direction of a wave front at an interface between two different media so that the wave front returns into the medium from which it originated.
Refraction is the change in direction of a wave due to a change in its speed. This is most commonly seen when a wave passes from one medium to another.
The group show “Reflect-Retract” brings together the works of young Brazilian, Chilean and Venezuelan artists who live and work in different parts of the world. In the photographs, drawing and objects selected these artists often employ - either symbolically or formally - the ideas of reflection and refraction as a poetic tool in order to probe the subject’s relationship with enclosed spaces and urban environments. This is certainly a broad theme, generating multifarious responses and many distinct lines of investigation. However, in spite of the artists’ multiple approaches and methods, one question inevitably springs to mind when considering an exhibition of Latin American artists in a London gallery: are there any singular features that define Latin American cultural production today?
This topic is not only problematic because usually the very notion of national identity is applied exclusively to non-Western art but also because the territory defined as Latin America is so vast and heterogeneous that it would be impossible to consider its cultural production from a single viewpoint. Still, it is interesting to note how the works in “Reflect-Retract” seem to draw on and update some of the many legacies of the continent’s artistic avant-gardes. In his essay “Neither Here Nor There”, Ariel Jiménez speaks of how the peoples of Latin America are deeply marked by colonial life, constantly torn between the European “there” and the Latin American “here”. This somewhat schizophrenic sense of national identity is perhaps one of the few features shared by most of these countries’ populations.
In his 2007 edition of the Panorama da Arte Brasileira, curator Moacir dos Anjos suggested that contemporary Brazilian art has a particular ‘accent’. The group show, titled ‘Contradictory’, presented works from artists that have emerged in the 1990s and 2000s, and which, according to him, reveal both a sense of belonging to an internal visual art lineage with a distinctive character and an affinity and association with contemporary outside influences from various different places. The combination of these two factors would therefore give rise to a production marked by a specifically Brazilian ‘accent’ that condenses the country’s socio-political contradictions. Dos Anjos maintains that ‘this character is not a metaphor for a provisional state of affairs, but a symbolic locution integral to the very conditions of life in contemporary Brazil, in which there appears to be no change in sight in the near future’. His point is particularly interesting, as it suggests a non-essentialist type of identity. On the contrary, it implies a constant relationship with the ‘other’ which somehow echoes Jiménez’s notions of the ‘here’ and ‘there’, although in his case the ‘there’ includes not only Europe but any other place in the world.
Looking at the works included in ‘Reflect-Refract’ from a formal viewpoint what stands out is a pervading sense of geometry. My suggestion is that this particular character may offer us a clue to expand Dos Anjos’ considerations on contemporary Brazilian art to the Latin American context, as it shows one of the ways in which these artists articulate a Latin American ‘here’ with outside affinities. Geometric abstraction is, of course, a prominent feature of several modernist movements across Latin America. Mari Carmen Ramírez remarks that ‘no artistic tendency illustrates more conclusively the theoretical scope and artistic originality of the Latin American avant-garde than that encompassed by the modes of geometric and concrete abstraction grounded in the international legacy of early twentieth century Constructivism’. She maintains that the almost mathematical, rigorous character of Constructivism was appealing to these artists because it had a kind of ‘corrective’ effect in contexts marked by chaos and instability. Jiménez, on his turn, points to the utopian nature of geometric abstraction in Latin America, and the belief that artists would be able to insert themselves in an universal (European) history of art, completely effacing the cultural legacy of native peoples. He also notes that this tendency thrived particularly in ‘countries such as Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil, where pre-Columbian cultures did not have the weight that marks all of Mexico’s and Peru’s life’.
If we adopt Dos Anjos’ idea of the ‘accent’, it may be possible to say that the geometric ‘sensibility’ expressed by the young – and heterogeneous - generation of artists included in this exhibition is a way of reworking or appropriating the Latin American geometric abstraction legacy and articulating it with outside affinities. However, it is important not to lose sight of the contemporary context to which these artists belong, emphasizing that their motivations, methods, concerns and procedures are completely distinct from that of their predecessors.
The themes of identity and belonging that Jiménez speaks of are still present in Dafna Talmor’s Obstructed Views, a series of photographs depicting subjects who seem at the same time alienated from and connected to the outside world. In one of the works, a woman in a room looks outside a large window at a lush tropical landscape obscured by the sunlight coming through the half-open blind, suggesting a sense of isolation from the external world. Although her works are highly figurative, their affinity with a Latin American lineage is expressed through a sense of unease in relation to belonging. In Cuerpomueble and Huecas, Lucía Pizzani also explores the relationship of the body with enclosed spaces. In previous works, Pizzani has often used her own body to perform specific actions, which were then photographed. Whilst in those the body was still very recognisable as a figure, here parts of her body are strategically positioned in relation to a mirror or to the sunlight projected on the apartment floor in order to construct images that are almost abstract. The body as an index of individuality and impermanence haunts her seemingly rigorous, rational and universal images.
In Eduardo Padilha’s Pineaxe 1, a completely abstract pattern placed on the gallery window punctuates the boundary between inside and outside spaces. Reminiscent of his stencil patterns, which are closely related to street graffiti, the work explores the limit that separates the public and private spheres, as it can be seen by passers-by whilst remaining confined within the gallery. The city as a theme becomes more evident in the works of Pilita Garcia and Daniel Medina. The bricolaged buildings that populate her collages are a direct reference to informal economies and unplanned urbanisation common to most Latin American cities. In Medina’s pieces, the reflection of urban views on building facades or widows is photographed and printed on two-dimensional structures in the shape of foldable boxes. These self-contained cityscapes seem to point at the growing process of privatisation of public spaces over the past decades, which increasingly creates new borders within the urban fabric. Esperanza Mayobre’s Wall Study of Colirio is a singular work in her artistic production, which often deals with images of sickness, poverty, debt and immigration. Nevertheless, if considered in relation to her other pieces, this minimalist architectural drawing suggests a sense of the compartmentalisation of contemporary life, where specialised knowledge is associated with ideas of progress and efficiency.
In the show title, the ideas of reflection and refraction do not merely refer to the formal devices employed by the artists, but to strategies or methodologies that articulate a particular legacy and a diversity of external influences. The works presented here reflect in different ways the Latin American tradition of geometric abstraction at the same time as they divert it to the contemporary context, raising new questions about the meaning of the concepts of ‘here’ and ‘there’ in a globalised society.
 The Brazilian curator Ivo Mesquita, for instance, has expressed his concern about how all contemporary Brazilian artists under 50 are labelled as the ‘descendents’ of Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark in international art circuits. See ‘On Some of Amílcar Packer’s Recent Works’ in Amílcar Packer: Sustainable Unbalance. São Paulo: Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, 2006. p. 23.
 Ariel Jiménez, “Neither Here Nor There”, IN Inverted Utopias, Ed. Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea. Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, 2004. p.247
 See http://www.mam.org.br/exposicoes/passadas/palavraCuradoria.php?codigo=97
 “Vital Structures: The Constructive Nexus in South America” IN Inverted Utopias, Ed. Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea. Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, 2004. p. 192.
 Idem. p. 247