Art and Reality

Review of the exhibition, Entre Fusiones, by Celes Orozco, Cuarto Cresciente Galeria (https://www.facebook.com/CuartoCrecienteGaleria/). Guanajuato, Mexico: May 3-June 13, 2019.

Reviewed by Gary Gautier

The relationship between art and reality has percolated through the history of ideas since Plato (well, probably since the cave paintings of Lascaux, but I can’t vouch for anything before Plato). Some bright-eyed theorists identify four angles: (1) mimetic (art imitates reality), (2) affective (art may or may not mimic reality, but the value lies in how it affects its viewers), (3) expressive (art projects the subjective experience of the artist into objective form), and (4) objective (art builds value through its internal design and composition, irrespective of how it may or may not correspond to the minds of artist or audience or to physical reality).

Each of these angles is to some extent at play in Celes Orozco’s exhibition, Entre Fusiones, at Cuarto Cresciente Galeria. The collection strikes immediately, visually, at the question of art’s relationship to reality, but it does so through different styles. The first style I might call “the cosmic flux.” It is abstract, but not in the manner of Joan Miró’s abstract geometrical lines or Mark Rothko’s solid color zones. Miró and Rothko are working with the abstract building blocks of line and color, but Orozco’s works seem more concrete.

   

                 Untitled 1                                                                 Untitled 2

These paintings, although they do not depict anything in particular, project, more than Miró or Rothko, some concrete, almost totalizing view of reality as a swirling potentiality of form and color. This is the primal flux that undergirds the reality of discrete objects as we know it. The strokes, too, as Orozco variously applies paint to the canvas with finger or hand as well as brush, suggest something concrete and organic, but still in potential form. The only narrowing of potential that I see comes in some of the color choices, as in Untitled 2 the sunburnt coloring conjures up (for me at least) the Mexican roots of the artist, which we see in patches or hints as we move through the exhibition.

The Mexican roots appear more strongly in the second style. If the first style emphasized a primal cosmic flux, the second shades into representations of “primal culture.”

Chaos

This painting, Chaos, overflows with the fundamentals of nature, with a close-in view of quasi-archetypal figures rather than on the Gestalt or expansiveness of the landscape (as we might see, e.g., in a Romantic-era European landscape). This, the masterpiece of the exhibit in my view, is not about the space of nature and culture from which we came, but about the things that populate that space. And rather than the gradient of space and color, light and shade, that you might get in Renaissance verisimilitude, here the arrangement is relatively flat, with bold colors, each figure presented in its full integrity. The presentation seems fundamentally native American, although my vocabulary is insufficient to expand upon why.

Finally, Orozco throws a few pop culture images onto the canvas – the bottle, the car, the McDonald’s balloon, the casino. It is difficult to say whether this encroachment by the artifacts of modern culture is a corruption of or an extension of the primitive layout. The bottle in the foreground and car at the center seem harmless enough. The casino atop the primitive pyramid seems a little sinister, but Orozco does not highlight the sinister. This is not the hellish 3rd panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Even the McDonald’s balloon is not accompanied by anything overtly negative. Perhaps Orozco just needed the pop culture items to show that the primitive space is not to be too idealized, not removed from time, is already flowing into the vicissitudes that come after.

Whether the second style, the “primal culture” style, encompasses the paintings below or spawns them as separate styles may be the viewer’s choice.

Protecting the infant is the clearest merging of the “cosmic flux” style with representational forms.

.                                                      Protecting the infant

Whereas Chaos had only a hint of the cosmic flux style in the brush strokes of the river, more than half the canvas here is covered in cosmic flux style. The represented images are fragmented, iconographic, not holistic scenarios as in Chaos. If there is a hybrid style in Orozco’s repertoire, this is its clearest expression.

El desierto, on the other hand, is holistic, but doesn’t strike the emotional register the same way as Chaos.

                                                             El desierto

Chaos gave a sense of temporal projection across eons of time, reaching back to some primeval culture in the archetypes of nature. El desierto has more the sense of a contemporary psychedelic experience of space, not unlike the sense of space experienced by your correspondent on some of his hippie-era LSD trips, with the sky thick and close, not thin and distant, with the cacti that seem to sparkle, the long smooth flowing strokes of the land, the stones themselves flowing to show hidden figures that had always been there waiting to be made manifest by the ready viewer. Here, one could almost say it is the subjective effusion into the space and its objects that defines the experience. This to me is a style all its own – I’ll call it the “spatial flux” (or “psychedelic spaces”).

Finally, El niño y la serpiente expands the pop culture idea from the periphery of Chaos, gives it center stage, and takes it in a new direction.

                                                    El niño y la serpiente

This is the closest Orozco comes to the traditional surrealism of Salvador Dalí or to pop art collage style, depending on how you look at it. The scene is holistic and quite modern, and we suspect full of political and social symbols, unlike Chaos, in which any symbols with overt political weight were kept to the margins. In fact, there are only the vaguest traces of the cosmic flux or the primal culture here, although the relative flatness of the brush strokes and representation aligns it more with the primal culture style, and also gives it a mural-like effect that keeps Orozco’s eclectic work at least tenuously grounded in the cultural coordinates of Mexican art.

Detail from El niño y la serpiente

It is not for me but for you to determine how much of this response is my own  idiosyncrasy and how much intrinsic to the compositional markings on the canvas. Either way, if it provides food for thought about this fine artist and this fine show, that will be enough done.

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Bonus picture (Soñando): a holistic scenario in the true “primal culture” style of Chaos, complete with archetypal Mesoamerican fauna and flora, the close view, the pressed bold color zones, and the sense (enhanced by the title idea, “Dreaming”) that we are moving through the field of what Carl Jung calls “the primitive roots of consciousness.”

Soñando

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Doublewoke: The Next Countercultural Explosion

Recently searching neighborhood live theater in Chicago as I was passing through, I stumbled across 5 or 6 venues online without much searching at all. All but one featured tales of the suffering engendered by white privilege. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed at the narrowness of theme (no knock on Chicago per se, whose beautiful people and cultural vitality continue to amaze). Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with the underlying politics of “woke” culture. My “doublewoke” (or woke against woke) conceit is not a full renunciation of wokeness, but an encouragement to take the next turn, to take the potential for good that lies slumbering in the woke movement and wake it up to a brand new day.

I start with the assumption that the “woke” set and I share a long-term progressive ideal of a society that is equal and open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact. But I fear the machinery of “woke” is going about it in the least efficient way, relying on two shaky strategies. First, it relies too heavily on negative reinforcement; i.e., search the people you encounter not for the good that is in their hearts but for any faux pas, past or present, that can be used to scarlet letter them as racist, sexist, etc. Sure, no one is perfect, but this approach suggests that we can right the ship with sufficient shaming and scolding. Unfortunately, shaming as a means of betterment just doesn’t work. Self-loathing among black men becomes a subject of academic scrutiny from time to time, and the consensus is always that self-loathing does not help their lot. Self-loathing, which Freud might call the introjected form of shaming, does not build character for blacks and does not build character for whites. Shaming may not be the intent, but if this is the reception you get from all who fall outside the “already woke” category, which includes many ordinary people who might otherwise be allies, you might reconsider your rhetorical strategy. Save the accusatory tone for the select few malicious racists who deserve it, and discard your broad brush with the other solid waste. Using the broad brush always places the “us versus them” line at a spot that gives far too much to the other side.

The other shaky strategy is dividing people by race, gender, etc., instead of by ideology. We should be bringing black, white, gay, straight, etc., together in a rainbow coalition to fight for that progressive vision mentioned above. The enemy is not white, black, male, or any other such demographic grouping. The enemy (at least the short-term enemy, as there are no long-term enemies, for, like it or not, we all travel the spaceship earth together) should be defined ideologically, as those whose ideas continue to lock in the disequilibriums of late capitalism. The woke folks, however, too often represent the struggle as if it were women against men, black against white. They too often suggest we should vote for, value, or pronounce someone guilty or innocent based on skin color or sex organs or gender. Drawing the battle lines along race or gender is counterproductive if your goal, again, is that “society that is equal and open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact.” By drawing battle lines between and building walls around specific genders and races, you are impeding, not advancing, the long-term progressive vision.

Despite the problems that woke culture has in engaging all but the choir, it is rapidly becoming hegemonic in the arts. I suspect that my experience searching venues in Chicago is not unique. Wokeness can no longer claim any countercultural banner. It is, for all practical purposes, the Establishment in arts and humanities. But once any establishment becomes fixed in place, conditions are ripe for the next countercultural movement – in this case the “woke against woke” movement. It will begin in satire, and we may indeed see such a beginning in works such as those of the fictitious Titania McGrath, who turned out the be spiked columnist, Andrew Doyle. First subject wokeness to satire – but without giving any succor to conservatives. Indeed, conservatives must also be subject to the barb, else the movement is not countercultural at all but merely reactionary. When the satire starts to hit – who knows – it may trigger a Cambrian explosion in the arts, where after a (woke) period of narrower and narrower definitions of “acceptable,” the dam bursts open. Rather than circling the wagons around race and gender, restricting who can write what, suddenly everyone is encouraged to artistically explore everyone else’s point of view, everyone participating in every culture in a frenzy of mutual celebration not unlike the middle panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

It will be a new Age of Aquarius. Thus spoke its prophet.

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Peñalta: Pulling faces from stone

Museo Casa de Diego Rivera

“Asomo” (2018), Peñalta
.                                                                         “Mira” (2015), Peñalta

 

 

Peñalta’s website

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Images of Quijote

Walking the streets of Guanajuato, Mexico, I happened to pass the Museo Iconográfica de Don Quijote on free entry day. Why not? Maybe I was just in the right mood, but what I found inside was astonishing. So many beautiful representations of the Knight of the Sad Countenance! The first room was a nice introduction, and the next two rooms had me near tears. Powerful variations. Romantic (a la Goya), realist, existentialist, things in the German expressionist vein. And the color palettes of the paintings. Pastel patches reminiscent of Paris, burnt orange-red Mexican backdrops, everything. Sculptures in subdued classical and overwrought baroque. Then more paintings – cartoonish ones, sci fi ones, ones that seem to emerge from graphic novels or from a pulp fiction romance of the American West. Weird cubist ones, soft rounded figures in a naïve folk style. And the spaces. Beside the classical museum-format rooms, a Spanish-style courtyard braced by rock solid columns formed a center, with a room to the side like a topsy-turvy chapel. Then a postmodern painting, opaque in meaning, and a modernist sculpture, stretched, fragmented, monumental in size but struggling with itself for coherence. So many shades of Cervantes’s character that all of human nature and human history and human paradox seemed expressed through this one man, imaginary but so multifaceted and universal that one suspects he is more real than the shadowy, ephemeral beings who pop into being and evaporate into nothing after 60 or 80 years. And the art itself. It was as if Don Quijote were a perfect lens through which all of the styles and periods and possibilities of art came into focus. I didn’t notice if any famous artists were curated here (although I later heard that they were indeed) because I was too absorbed in the images to bother to look for the temporal names of the creators.

The only weakness, from my point of view, was the lighting. Given the magnificent range and beauty of the pieces, the lighting did not maximize the power and nuance of the objets d’art, nor of the architectural space itself, to best effect. Also, I would have liked to see a bit more of Sancho, maybe more reflections on Sancho detached from his master.

Despite the niches for improvement, this small museum was one of a handful of my favorites from around the world. I could spend all day there going deeper and deeper into the thought and emotion, the pain and the beauty of lived experience, as conjured up by the madman of La Mancha. At the very least, anyone interested in all the possibilities of portraiture should make a pilgrimage to this beautiful city and this museum.

(Forgive the low-end cell phone photography.)

             

     

 

    

    

     

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