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América

Gerardo Mosquera

Curatorial essay for the catalog

Perhaps at no other time in history has there been quite as much painting as today; and yet, painting has never had a lesser weight within the circles that legitimate art. The fall of painting is related to the rise of video, installation, performance, photography and other artistic mediums, together with the consolidation of a kind of international language that derives largely from the poetries of conceptualism and minimalism. During the Thirties, a form of modernist language had already arisen, the result of a paradoxical assemblage of different ruptures created by the historical vanguards, which were frequently contradictory. A stock of resources was thus established, one that the artists could use, combine or transform at will. The irruption of pop, the new performance, minimalism, conceptualism, and other tendencies that have been termed postmodern, has led to a new rupture. However, an »international language« of art, instituted during the Nineties, now prevails upon the so-called international scene, although its minting as a dominant code is a de facto denial of postmodernism's pluralist perspective.

It is a language of the »post«, a prefix that refers to a free, eclectic and never orthodox practice of minimalism and conceptualism. It is based on the idea of installing diverse significant components - which can range from monitors, objects and appropriated images to sounds and living beings - that are interrelated within a space. The minimal and conceptual poetics have become diffused from their original fundamentalism, and penetrated a diverse series of artistic practices. They have now acquired a greater relevance as elements able to provide a structure for a varied range of works, than as artistic »tendencies« in themselves. Today, in good measure they are able to determine the language of numerous works, their discourse, the manner in which they are displayed and exhibited, and even the design of the space and the ambiance of the exhibition, in the shape of a minimalist white box. This can occur even where the »classical« minimal or conceptual appearance is not in evidence. What prevails is the weight of the idea, the analytical sense, the repetition, the presentational »coldness«, the activation of space, the concentration, and so on. These resources and modes, used in a wide spectrum of dosages and combinations, have gradually become fixed as a language.

As an extreme instance, we find the figure of the international installation artist, a post-modern nomad in constant movement from one international exhibition to another, whose baggage is packed with elements for future works, or the tools to realize them in situ. This figure - an allegory for the processes of globalization - denotes a key rupture with the figure of the artist-artisan. The latter, associated with the traditional sculptor or painter, is linked to a workshop - where he produces the works that will be later exported -, and, furthermore, with a locus and its specific contextual demons and genii. The artist now exports himself, becoming a cosmopolitan transient who condenses global processes. The manner in which he works recalls the executive or the engineer, who travel constantly to attend specific projects, rather than the artist. The workshop - that vulcanic location that has ancestrally been linked to the artist - has now become more of a design and project laboratory, than a place for production. A physical link, which previously associated the demiurge-workshop-work within a delimited space, has now been shattered. These forms of work and methodology are genetically related to the international minimal-conceptual language, and not to the lineal history of painting. To a remarkable extent, they facilitate and cheapen a form of circulation that is based on biennials, thematic shows, and other forms of »global« collective exhibition.

The reappearance of painting-painting within mainstream art circuits during the early Eighties did not, in general, produce a more pluralized scene in relation to the morphologies of art. On the contrary, the strong market pulsations that ensued from this period of economic plenty generated suspicions about painting itself. The notion of painting as a fatally luxurious object reinstated John Berger's old ideas, regarding the emergency of the canvas as an object uniquely adapted to the capitalist market. It was precisely after this brief pictorial boom that the processes that I describe were consolidated, over the following decade.

In reality, the visual arts developed a capacity to produce auratic, collectible and hyper-valued objects, which could easily serve as symbols of investment, prestige and money-laundering, and were destined for collections and museums. And the result of this quality has been that any production can be commercialized, even Joseph Beuys' pieces of felt. A historical process which differed significantly from those that characterized music, literature or theater led the visual arts to minimize themselves as a form of social communication in a world of mass-media and publicity, allowing them to acquire the highest of fetishist values, easily translated into economic worth. In a contradiction of the times, the artifact is emphasized, even if it has de-materialized - although always leaving behind some form of support or physical evidence - which rather undermines its message. Now, the value of this artifact is not an intrinsic aspect of its material nature, or of its technical sophistication; it is constructed within a field of relationships. For art, it seems as though the only means to avoid being dissolved into mass culture has been to encircle this small terrain, cultivating the ancestral and increasingly rare hand-made. It has astutely hyperbolized this aura »in the age of technical reproduction«, although this has entailed a self-limitation on its possibilities for communication. It has exchanged social incommunication for auratic exclusivity, and the cheap mass market for the expensive market of the elite.

Now, it turns out that painting can lay claim to a broader commercial spectrum than, say, a group of flies in a crystal box. A large amount of today's pictorial production is intended for a mid-brow market, emphasizing decorative aptitudes, exhibitionist technical displays, or the construction and reproduction of local imaginaries, based on painting's iconographic, symbolic and narrative functionality. This has conditioned a sector of the art production, which is more interested in redundancy than in the construction of sense, frequently epigonally modernistic. This inclination is nourished by the difficulty of »saying something new« in a manifestation with such an extensive trajectory, especially after a period of modern experimentation. On the other hand, there is a highbrow public, perhaps somewhat traditionalist as regards international mainstream inclinations, which continues to value the artistic capacities of this manifestation very highly.

To proclaim the death of painting has been an obsession for modern art, one that has extended into the present day. This is, perhaps, a suicidal hysteria that grips painting itself, which longs to die and »dies because it does not die«, as the poet might say. In reality, many of today’s most important artists are painters. Some, such as Gerhard Richter, are even amongst the most radical in artistic terms. The three painters chosen here to represent the American Continent are characterized by an orthodox painterly formation, a true sense of métier, and because they have practiced painting as the center of their work, rather than as an ancillary component. They have also pushed painting into non-canonical developments, infusing it with a tension that renews its significant potential. Their discourse refers to painting as representation, whilst deconstructing its social, cultural and political significance. These works, however, are not valuable because they are autocritical; this would simply reinforce the generalized condemnation of painting. Their value also arises from painting's representational powers, which allow new senses, beyond those of self-deconstruction, to be elaborated.

Arturo Duclos is paradigmatic in this regard. His work hyperbolizes painting's capacities to symbolize and represent, to such an extreme that they are short-circuited. His paintings are a form of inventory for icons, symbols, textual motto, and representations from a broad range of different sources and eras. His approach seems to respond to an analytical, even taxonomical will. But this is a different order, one that subverts the systems within which, and for which, these signs were created. Duclos de-contextualizes them, combines them, organizing them into a new and enigmatic symbolic construct. As did Borges' »Chinese Encyclopedia«, these classificational systems answer to a different logic, one which questions, not only our knowledge, but also the very stability of meaning. The Chilean artist integrates the orientation towards the form of appropriation and re-signification of images that dominated the Eighties. Unlike Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, or most of the other artists in this tendency, however, he has used painting, rather than pre-prepared photographs, the mass media, or the history of art. Painting has allowed him to appropriate and re-elaborate the images he finds - almost in an artisan-like fashion - and to reinforce a constructive dimension, which goes beyond basic deconstruction. His work strikes us as a systematic structuration of new discourses, discourses that are disquieting. His de-stabilizing mystery arises from the fact that he transgresses our expectations for reception, and even our convictions. Due to the visual power of painting, these images can unravel the arbitrary nature of representation. These visual works are closely linked to the critical dimension established by post-structuralism.

Although the value of her work has yet to be fully acknowledged, Beatriz González is unquestionably one of Latin America's most important artists. Since the mid-Sixties, her work - an exercise in mutations - has powered painting's search for a critical view of the social, cultural and historical complexities that characterize Colombia, and Latin America as a whole. This is an example of how the Continent's own fragmentations, contrasts, hybridizations, and polysemias have led art towards problematic responses, of an intricate multiplicity. González's paintings resemble a border zone, where a diversity of references and diverse elements are in constant dialogue: vernacular culture, history of art, politics, social violence, mass culture ... The artist has unabashedly explored painting's possibilities for displacement, but always from within painting. She has painted on furniture, and on implements of day-to-day usage, creating ironic items, objects transformed by painted images, within a new and significant dimension. These works have somehow carnavalized the icons of Western art and Latin American historical figures. I say carnavalization in the bajtinian sense, as an anti-aristocratic critique that emanates from popular culture, and which has provided many of González's elements. Pervaded by the spirit of Pop, she removes the mythical aura of masterpieces by »primitivizing« them, or by painting them onto banal implements that have a bearing on her subjects. This kind of piece carries the »anthropophagy« of production originating in the centers as a characteristic of Latin American art into the absurd. Rather than employ appropriation as a methodology, she has placed it on the scene, hyperbolizing the provincialization of the canon. The artist has carried painting into performance, laboriously re-creating masterpieces of art in enormous formats. In one instance, she kept a diary of her experience; in another, she sold her painting by retail, cutting it into square centimeters in the gallery. The principal piece presented in this salon is paradigmatic of these travails. It is based on a photograph of a Colombian president of unfortunate remembrance, surrounded by figures from the government of that time. González has executed a grotesque painting based on this photograph, and then had it industrially printed onto curtain-cloth, allowing people to use it as such. This is a gesture of political response, through a form of trans-territorialization of painting into the field of interior design. To use an image of burning social commentary as decoration, to paint in order to reproduce a banal product in series, to deconstruct official imagery through pop language and expressionism; these are some of the elements that characterize the intercrossings unleashed by González, as well as the multidimensionality of her social and cultural critique.

If this Colombian painter has displaced painting towards the appropriated object, then Adriana Varejao is pushing it towards installation. Given the present-day peak in this methodology, many painters have sought to transform their works into installations through the addition of physical objects and other elements. The result is usually pathetic. With this Brazilian artist, an inverse process holds true: her installations arise directly from painting, because this is what its discourse calls for. This discourse elevates an existentialist poetry that frequently guides the Brazilian visual arts, especially in Rio de Janeiro. In this context, however, Varejao is to some extent going against the grain, by retaking Brazil's baroque tradition - which even modeled modern architecture, in a strange crossing between Le Corbusier and Aleijadinho - in an environment dominated by minimalism (even if this is an unusually baroque variety). She is also one of the few present-day Brazilian artists to employ clear historical referents and cultural traditions. However, her aim is not primordiarily narrative. Rather than use painting's mimetic properties in order to represent, Varejao has transformed them into a subject for painting. Her works, were they paintings or installations, and even when they refer to exterior subjects, or are pervaded by strong subjective vibrations, are also about painting itself. But if Duclos has systematized the destabilization and resignification of signs, then Varejao is playing with painting on emotional and sensual terms. This produces, simultaneously, both a dissection and an apotheosis of painting. Her works, like those produced by González, are a crossing of references, processes and senses, maximally deployed into great scenographical installations. The most stunning aspect here is, perhaps, the protagonism of painting, which represents itself in order to render the contemporary »international language« that I mentioned earlier more complex.

Gerardo Mosquera - biographical notes

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©  Text: Gerardo Mosquera

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