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Feeling the heat and light

Exhibit details the rich history of merengue

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 12, 2008
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Watch a sultry merengue number on "Dancing With the Stars," and get caught up in the rhythm and the heat. But did you know that in 1849, the governor of Puerto Rico prohibited dancing merengue on that island? Or that five years later, a newspaper in the Dominican Republic called for the abolition of the dance there? And in 1936, President Rafael Trujillo decreed the merengue the national dance of the Dominican Republic?

These facts appear on a timeline in "¡Merengue! Visual Rhythms/Ritmos Visuales," an absorbing history of the dance, and especially the music behind it, at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. The show, organized by the Dominican Republic's Centro Cultural Eduardo León Jimenes, is a fascinating examination of the globalization of a folk music indigenous to that island through the lens of visual art.

The art itself - nearly 50 works, mostly paintings - is spotty, made largely by regional artists, some superbly skilled and others stiff with the brush or uncertain how to depict space. There's enough engaging work to carry the narrative of the music's evolution along. It proceeds chronologically. The earliest pieces, from the 1930s, reflect that era's taste for emblematic narrative painting. Jaime Colson's lively "Merengue" (1938), an intimate, spritely scene, shows a trio of players surrounded by dancers. The accordion, tambora (a two-sided drum), and güira, a rasp, show up in most of the paintings here.

The Spanish-born muralist José Vela Zanetti settled in the Dominican Republic. You can feel the heat in his untitled painting from 1960; light flashes on the musicians, who nearly burst off the panel into the viewer's space, while listeners, seduced by the music and seductive themselves, linger in the dark.

Much like jazz and the blues, merengue went from being played in streets and barrooms to being recorded, published, and appropriated by the larger culture. Big bands played it. Rock musicians borrowed its rhythms. Some felt it had been sullied or stolen away; Raúl Recio painted "The Death of Merengue: Homage to Tatico Henriquez" in tribute to the late, old-style merengue accordionist in 1988. He divided his brilliant yellow canvas in half: On the right, the traditional performers have broken hearts and ears sliced off; the singer's tongue has been cut out. On the left, LPs fly and trumpets blare around a boombox.

Jésus Desangles' transgressive 1993 painting "Music and the Woman" challenges instrumental merengue as a traditional domain of men. In it, a woman sets her genitals atop a drum and plays a phallic-looking pipe. It's brazen, yet the woman seems as much a stand-in for the music itself as for the men who play it.

"¡Merengue!" paints a vivid social history of a music that has fueled passion; it also charts a bit of art history, from the storytelling strains of the 1930s through modernism and the more subversive elements of contemporary art.

Wood works

Chuck Holtzman, once better known as a sculptor, has for several years made lush and layered drawings. Victoria Munroe Fine Art has a show of his sculptures from the 1980s, and it's delightful to see how they presage the drawings. Much of the language is the same; in both mediums, he works with several layers, building up and then subtracting.

In most of these works, Holtzman built blocks out of wood dowels, creating a kind of three-dimensional checkerboard pattern. Then he carved out or tacked on more; the carved-out areas sometimes have an intriguing honeycomb texture. "Approaching Isometrics" is mounted high on the wall, so we see its underbelly, layers of bitten-off edges reaching up and out to a platform, a sandwich of wood and plaster.

Other pieces from later in the decade, such as "Moroccan Plumb Bob," feel more like contraptions, both scruffy and ornate. These, too, anticipate Holtzman's drawings, with their hovering cut-out shapes and whiz-bang complexity. What they lack is the sense of mystery the artist these days evokes with the smoke of charcoal dust.

Child's world

Robert Knight's psychologically dense photographs of children's rooms and their possessions at Gallery Kayafas throw the values of his subjects and their parents (sometimes they're indistinguishable) into sharp relief. There are no people in them, but they work as portraits.

"Free & Hazel (Ages 12 & 8), Roslindale, MA 2006" disorients with its giant map of the world on the ceiling, photographed at such an angle so that it appears in front of us, with a wall below. Do Free and Hazel have a passion for geography? Or are their parents eager to teach it? A tutu, a child's drawings, and a magazine ad of a woman in a bikini, shot from the rear, hang on the side of a bookcase in "Piper (Age 5), Somerville, MA 2008." Knight offers a brew of children's dreams and parents' hopes. Sometimes popular culture barrels in. His photographs are both enchanting and disturbing.

MERENGUE! VISUAL RHYTHMS/RITMOS VISUALES

At: Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, 300 Walnut Ave., Roxbury, through Nov. 23. 617-442-8614, www.ncaaa.org/ exhibitions.html or www.merengueboston.com

CHUCK HOLTZMAN: WOOD SCULPTURE 1980S At: Victoria Munroe Fine Art, 179 Newbury St., through Nov. 29. 617-523-0661, www. victoriamunroefineart.com

ROBERT KNIGHT: MY BOAT IS SO SMALL At: Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave., through Nov. 22. 617-482-0411, www.gallerykayafas.com

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