Painting outside the box
Most of us now tend to have pretty fixed ideas about what contemporary Latin American art is going to look like and do. Modernist art has flourished in the Latin American sphere since the mid-1920s. It was in fact the first major regional school to break away from European modes of being visibly and incontestably ‘modern’, in a sense that everyone could recognize. It did this substantially before the same process took place in North America, and certainly long before all the regional Modernisms we know of now – Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern – succeeded in establishing themselves.
Latin American art in this formative period equipped itself with a number of defining characteristics. It was quite often radically experimental in the technical means it employed. It also tended to be more specifically political than the Modernist art of the earlier decades of the 20th century. Despite the efforts of both Italian Futurists and Russian ones European Modernists of the earlier decades of the 20th century were never as specifically wedded to politics as their Latin American counterparts. European Modernism did not really become politically involved until the time of the Spanish Civil War.
After World War II, art in the United States, then increasingly dominant in the cultural sphere, just as it was in the sphere of world politics, rather pointedly moved away from political content, with the birth of Abstract Expressionism then of Pop Art. We know now that Abstract Expressionism, subtly manipulated by the CIA, became a way of resisting the advances made by Communism, after the conversion of Picasso and other senior European Modernists to the Communist cause, but this was not evident to many people at the time, and the full involvement of the CIA in promoting this new form of American art only emerged and was documented as late as the mid-1990s.
The situation was very different in Latin America, where major artists – such as the so-called tres grandes in Mexico – Diego Rivera, Orozco, Siquieros – were very openly sympathizers and propagandists for the left. This strong political element remains apparent in Latin American art to the present day.
Other expected elements are a continuing fascination with Pre-Colombian art, plus (perhaps tending to contradict this, a lingering interest in elements from the Spanish Colonial baroque).
One final ingredient was Surrealism, which did not originate in Latin America, but which certainly implanted itself there very early. A number of major Latin American artists, among them Wifredo Lam from Cuba and the Chilean Roberto Matta were closely associated with the Internationalist Surrealist Movement, ands became at least as well known in Europe as they were at home.
Guillermo Lorca does not seem to fit very well with this pattern of artistic development, though there are certainly some links to be found in his work with aspect of Surrealism and with aspects of the Spanish Baroque.
Nor does he fit at all comfortably with another strand in the story of Latin American Modernism. He has nothing much is common with Joaquìn Torres-Garcìa, who introduced Constructivist aesthetics to Uruguayan artists, while combining them with some Pre-Colombian elements.
In fact a conclusion that one draws from Lorca’s work is that it represents a kind of paradox. It is a rebellion against established conventions of Latin American rebelliousness. Certainly he is not a political artist in the familiar Latin American mould, though one can perhaps say that his work often seems to have more links with the tradition of Magical Realism in Latin American literature than with anything familiar from Latin American Modernist art. That is to say, he seems much closer to the world conjured up in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez than he does to the one that exists in the paintings of Diego Rivera.
What one sees in his current work is a strange mixture – a combination of refined poetry and violence.
He seems to have arrived at this situation by a circuitous route. A primary influence in his early development was his apprenticeship he undertook in the studio of the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum. In geographical terms, Oslo is about as far away from Santiago as you can get. And Nerdrum’s artistic methods and attitudes, as a leading exponent of Northern European Post Modernism, are also about as far from the established traditions of Latin American art as you can get. He has famously to be a ‘kitsch painter’, identifying himself with what the pundits of the contemporary art world dismiss as kitsch, but at the same time sticking rigorously to traditional artisanal methods: grinding his own pigments, working on canvases hat he has either stretched himself or had stretched by assistants working in his studio. Leading artists of the Baroque, chief among them Rembrandt and Caravaggio, have been primary influences his work. This fascination with the Baroque resurfaces in Lorca’s work, but more vigorously in recent productions than in earlier ones.
Lorca’s early paintings, best represented by the large canvasses in the Santiago Metro, belong to a different, less polemical aesthetic situation from the one occupied by Nerdrum’s work, but nevertheless show some relationship to it. In their location, they are impressive, but also surprising, given what they are. They are huge head-and-shoulders portraits - the scale reminds one of the giant posters for blockbuster movies that one sees on outdoor billboards - but with none of the glamour that one associates with images of that type. Not provided with any identification, these are simply generic likenesses of people who may indeed be ordinary users of the city’s transportation system. As such, they have a lot in common with the Socialist Realist images that once flourished in the Soviet Union and in the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe, but without any immediately detectable social or political content.
What impresses most about them, especially given the fact that the artist was then only in his mid-20s, is the skill with which they are done. I mean not only the skill of the actual execution, but also the quietly penetrating nature of their examination of human character, and the confident control of scale.
More recent works are very different: notably complex in composition, with strong overtones of violence. Sometimes the atmosphere is playful. Often it is much less so. There are few, if any directly political overtones. One gets the feeling that the artist has deliberately removed himself from the political atmosphere that has so long pervaded Latin American art. In the big early portraits just described the political tone is studiously neutral. In more recent works, Lorca occupies a world of personal fantasy. He seems to deliberately challenge political preoccupations of any kind to find a way in. Yet there is also a suggested, but half hidden paradox, which is that the apolitical stance asserted is paradoxically its opposite. A statement is being made here about the primacy of the private, the need to allow the untrammeled imagination to express itself, without consulting political masters.
The same spirit expressed itself both in the wilder kinds of early Romantic art – notoriously in the late work of J.M.W Turner, for example - but also, as the post-war apparatchiks of the C.I.A shrewdly realized, in the radical gestures of Jackson Pollock and other leading Abstract Expressionists post World War II. The message of Pollock’s work was: “If a famous artist can do this in post-war America, revealing the whole of his troubled psyche, then the society he lives and moves in must be free – freer than the situation offered to any leading artist living and working in the Soviet Union.”
If one studies recent paintings by Lorca, one perceives, perhaps only at a second or third glance, how innately contradictory they actually are. One thing about them is nevertheless instantly noticeable – indeed, how can one possibly miss it? Lorca has carried over from his earlier paintings a very important basic characteristic: he likes to work big. Though these newer compositions are fantasies, they are not things created to be hidden away in small rooms. Because of their size, they inevitably rank as public statements. And they thus acquire a political resonance, maybe not deliberately intended but unavoidably present because of their large scale.
Like the Old Master paintings of the past – perhaps much more so than typical Modernist compositions – these works have a complex variety of sources. One gets a glimpse of this complexity when one visits Guillermo Lorca’s studio, and sees that its walls are cluttered with images of all sorts, taken from a huge variety of sources – ancient, modern, photographs of art works, photographs from journalistic sources, images without established artistic conventions that have been borrowed from popular life.
The finished compositions evidently come together slowly, and are pieced together bit by bit. Lorca’s use of these sources is further confirmed by the contents of a computer folder that he has been kind enough to allow me to see. Though his work strays very far from usual perceptions about today’s technological art, it does in fact have at least some of its roots in techniques of creating, fusing and transforming images that were not in fact available to artists, or indeed to anyone else, only two or three decades ago. In this sense he is indeed a thoroughly contemporary artist, much more so in fact than his one-time mentor Odd Nerdrum.
A number of Lorca’s recent paintings have their beginnings in the grandiosely tumultuous style of the Flemish baroque art of the first half of the 17th century – specifically in hunt scenes by Rubens and in opulent banquet pieces by Frans Snyders.
There are, however, some additional, surprising contributors to the mix. Two of the most prominent are the British illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) and the Austrian maker of erotic prints Franz von Bayros (1866-1924). Exact contemporaries, Rackham and Bayros belonged to the last phase of the Decadent Movement, rooted in the 1890s and early 1900s, though their work, Rackham’s in particular, continued on, well into the first part of the 20th century.
Rackham is remembered for his illustrations to Shakespeare and to the Brothers Grimm, but most of all for books featuring and celebrating the magical world of childhood: a new edition of Alice in Wonderland, challenging the original illustrations by John Tenniel; a set of illustrations for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, which delighted the author, and a series for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (though here, again, Rackham wasn’t the original illustrator).
Bayros is a different case. By far his best-known works are his erotic prints, which offer a continuation to compositions of the same kind by Aubrey Beardsley. Some of Bayros’ compositions are erotic illustrations to well known fairy tales, for instance the story of Snow White, which perhaps suggests a link to Rackham, but his best known portfolio is called simply Tales at the Dressing Table, and is erotic throughout, with a strong element of fantasy, and an emphasis on lesbian encounters, all drawn in an elegant Mannerist style that owes at least as much to Toulouse-Lautrec and Egon Schiele as it does to Beardsley. The corruption of urban European society n the years just before World War I is fully present.
What is disturbing about Lorca’s ambitious new works is not so much their eroticism – the paintings are not erotic in any very direct way, and in this sense any comparison with, for example, Balthus, who also portrayed very young girls, would be mistaken - but their conjunction of innocence and violence. Even more so, because the innocents portrayed – invariably female – seem to be untouched psychologically by the threatening tumult that surrounds them.
To the spectator, gazing from the outside – that is from outside the turbulent compositions that the artist conjures up – it may seem as if this violence is about to overwhelm these juvenile participants, but they never seem to be really scared, or in any way profoundly troubled by what is taking place around them. Often enough indeed they look gleeful – little queens of misrule, glorying in the chaos that surrounds them.
One of the quietest in mood of these paintings is entitled Gemellas carne. It shows two little girls – pre-adolescents – confronting one another, seated on either side of a big bed. They wear white nightdresses and are hugging themselves, legs drawn up, their figures symmetrically placed one on each side of the composition. Behind them is a fabric screen of almost translucent material, basically white with bluish tints, but streaked with red, which may or may not be blood. In the foreground there is a heaped up brown coverlet, perhaps concealing an animal, maybe a dog.
Other paintings are even more directly disturbing. In Candy House I and Candy House II, the setting, in each case, seems to be the storage area of a slaughterhouse, with carcasses of animals hanging from the ceiling – a subject portrayed by Rembrandt on several occasions, the best-known version being the one in the Louvre. But here the carcasses are not the main subjects of the compositions. In one there is a girl in a white blouse and pink tracksuit bottoms, stretching clasped hands towards the spectator in a way that seems playfully aggressive. Perhaps she is pretending that she holds a gun.
The second painting shows what seems to be the same model, with the same reddish hair, but now she wears a long white bridal dress, so long that half its length, miraculously unspotted, trails along the ground across nearly half the width of the painting. Her expression is wistful, perhaps a little sad, but once again she does not seem to feel threatened by her sinister surroundings.
One or two paintings, rather than looking towards Rubens and Snyders, and the 17th century Flemish art in general. show an awareness of 18th century Venetian art, specifically that of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his son Giandomenico. Costume Party is a grotesque, disordered banqueting scene – figures in wigs and masks (one wears a huge bird’s head), silver trays tumbled to the floor, a little dog barking in the midst of the mess, a woman in voluminous silks, her breasts almost exposed (one can see a nipple), her white wig fallen forward and completely concealing her features. There are no Venetian punchinelli present, but one feels they are either waiting to make their entrance or, more likely, have just run off, leaving this chaos behind them.
Birds and animals play prominent parts in many of these compositions – this is one of the things that most obviously links them to Flemish art at its most ambitiously decorative. It is significant that they so frequently star as agents of disorder, as for example in the painting called simply Geese, where the birds invade a disordered bed, where two very young children are ensconced. Though awake the children do not seem at all disturbed by this, nor by the fact that one of the birds is astride a large mostly hidden animal, of indeterminate species, whose muzzle sticks out between its spread legs. In the centre of the composition, heaped up bedclothes suggest that an even larger creature may be hidden from view.
The Event II is another large painting that features a child, but now alone, in bed. Here huge animal forms heave up out of the darkness, snarling at her (or perhaps him – the sex of the infant is in this case indeterminate). A section of the bedcovers, tinted brown, also seems to take on the shape of a huge animal mask, ears, eyes and nostrils gradually becoming apparent. The child, however, does not seem scared by these threatening manifestations, but greets them with a gesture that seems, on the contrary, to be welcoming.
In fact, if one looks for central themes in Lorca’s work, two inter-related strands seem to be narratives abut the way in which the world of childhood, allied to the unruly powers of nature, challenges our expectations about what society is and does – or should do. His art, perhaps without a fully formed conscious intention, is as socially challenging in its own way as the more obviously political themes that the history of modern Latin American art has taught us to anticipate.
His paintings use references to the Old Masters, and (on the surface at least) what one may describe as Old Master-ly ways of making pictures, to challenge presuppositions abut human nature that have become embedded in the structure of Latin American culture, and indeed, to a considerable extent, in modern society taken as a whole. He and his creations – children, animal, birds - all presented within a Baroque framework that seems at first sight reassuringly familiar – are in fact gleefully disturbing Lords of Misrule.