Latin American Art and
Contemporary Colombian Painters
Many factors have contributed to the limited acquaintance and familiarity with Latin American art in the United States. Chief among them is the fact that when American audiences have turned their sight beyond their own borders they have customarily looked eastward, toward Europe. Additionally, as most of the Latin American artistic production has traditionally not conformed to prevailing European and North American movements, styles, or critical modes, it has taken time for an on-going process of historical revisionism to recognize and validate artists who have worked outside those dominant trends.
Compounding the prevailing lack of familiarity with Latin American art has been the fact that what is known is generally based on stereotypical representations of Latin America in the news, literature, and cultural imagination, and as such have influenced the expectations of what a-priori should be acceptable for Latin American art. Very often, pre-established tropes correlated with concepts of the primitive, the savage, or the exotic have taken priority over a wider range of more realistic and contextually grounded interpretations.
Despite these isolating factors, the development of artistic criticism, both in Latin American and other countries, has profoundly contributed to a growing international recognition of the importance of Latin American art. In his 1928 manifesto Antropofagia, -- a title that mocked the stereotype of savages -- Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade attempted to articulate the difference identified in his country’s work without devaluing it. He characterized Latin America’s relation to modernism, as that of a culture devouring, digesting and transforming external influences, in order to express their own meanings.
More recently, in response to ongoing debates about the exhaustion of painting in Western culture in a post-modernist context, contemporary critics such as American Thomas McEvilley -- one of the most articulate voices in advancing a genuine multiculturalism -- proposed that the revitalization and future of painting would most likely come from cultures like those of Latin America, which have so much to contribute from their displaced perspective, and at the same time engage in a dialogue relevant to local and international discourse.
Today, globalization, mobility, and communication advances allow for unprecedented and unfettered access to those places once considered peripheral. Such generous access provides a more complete and complex view of the world’s artistic production. This has deeply affected both museums’ and art galleries’ practices as well as the scope of their collections. Indeed, museums have begun integrating Latin American art within their mainstream collections, or creating separate areas to place them in their own context. So promising is this new sphere that some of the most prestigious art galleries have opened Latin American sections, and are actively working with collectors especially interested in high-quality art from the region.
Gallery 415 in San Francisco focuses on modern and contemporary art from Latin America. Redressing the historical oversight of artistic production from this region, its mandate is to function both as a commercial gallery and as an educational venue. The gallery seeks to contribute to the growing body of knowledge regarding Latin American art and its milieu, as well as to facilitate an on-going dialogue with other cultures.
Contemporary Colombian Painters
Prior to turning its more educated gaze toward Latin America, the United States had, due primarily to its proximity and shared history, focused its artistic attentions mainly on neighboring Mexico. Beyond Mexico, however, Latin America is a vast territory, comprising more than 20 countries each with its own distinct geography and history; it can’t be defined by a single identity, nor have its separate national identities easily obliterated by ill-fitting common denominators.
The contemporary Colombian painters featured in the opening exhibition at Gallery 415 offer a significant opportunity to become acquainted with the work of Latin American artists already recognized in their own countries, but who have had little exposure in the United States. Several of them have an impressive history in their homeland, as well as in other Latin American countries; some of their work have been exhibited in Europe and Asia, often in museums and non-profit settings rather than in commercial galleries; collectively, these artists represent a wealth of talent that has been recognized with a variety of awards and exhibitions in important venues. This exhibition also affords an exciting occasion to become acquainted with a number of emerging young artists whose production already demonstrates the vitality and potential of a very solid body of work.
Art in Colombia is far from provincial. The country has nearly 40 million inhabitants mostly centered in large cities, such as Bogotá, which itself has nearly 8 million inhabitants. Colombia’s geographic location, with coasts along two oceans, and regions as varied as the Andes Mountains, western plains and Amazonian basin, makes it one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world. Furthermore, its hybrid heritage encompasses the legacy of many native, European (mostly, but not exclusively, Spanish), and African cultures. The internal richness and variety of the country is abundantly reflected in its cultural and artistic endeavors.
Colombia holds a strong tradition in painting. Emblematic figures such as Fernando Botero, Alejandro Obregón, Luis Caballero, and women artists, like Débora Arango and Beatriz González, exemplify the variety of postures and local standards of measurement. In recent years, painting has begun to enjoy a revival of unexpected momentum. Painters have approached constructivist, figurative, or conceptual traditions; attempted daring crossovers of media, and undertaken a variety of thematic issues. As such, it would be impossible to convey the broad panorama of contemporary Colombian painting and postures in one exhibition. Therefore, this selection merely illustrates a cross-section of the current vitality of Latin American art today and functions as a sample micro-cosmos -- a close-up look, if you will -- of only one region of Latin America.
Beyond its diversity and versatility, the underlying element of this exhibition is the various artists’ unyielding commitments to painterly sensibility and métier, which is not only focused on formal concerns but on the medium’s capacity to elicit a wide range of responses. While their work may attain a global reach, it doesn’t seek to eradicate or negate the specificity of the local; although the featured group of artists shares many affinities, the selection done by Gallery 415, preserves and highlights each artist’s individuality.
The medium of painting has continued to attract rising young artists from all over the world who continually adapt it to tackle contemporary issues as well as local and personal concerns. After tendencies of dematerialization in painting -- which characterized minimalist and conceptual art -- artists have been reconsidering traditional models while disregarding orthodox modes of representation; for instance, they have erased long-standing dichotomies such as that of the abstract versus the figurative.
The range of traditions and referents artists call on extends far beyond time and place with an absolute freedom; what at first seems familiar may have different sources and a far wider compass than imagined. The work of Carlos Jacanamijoy, Luis Luna, Gerardo Caro, Venuz White, Leonardo Pineda and Juan Camilo Arango demonstrates that the medium of painting, far from being conservative and outmoded, is dynamic and flourishing, and exemplifies the stylistic and conceptual pluralism that characterizes and nourishes it today.
Carlos Jacanamijoy’s (Sibundoy, 1964) paintings are characterized by their extraordinary strength, and immediate and powerful appeal to the senses, seducing viewers across cultures. Jacanamijoy has been able to masterfully translate the rich visuality -- an exuberant landscape, and the oneiric quality of myths and cosmology -- of his native Sibundoy-Inga culture (located on the outskirts of the Amazonian basin), to the expansiveness of the canvas surface.
Utilizing a vocabulary of biomorphic and natural allusions, rooted in the tradition of abstract expressionism which he uses as lingua franca, he arrives at a thorough correspondence between content and form. His paintings convey the native cosmology characterized by mutations and metamorphoses, and articulate a vision of Latin American landscape seen from within, rife with multiple layers of meaning. (photo gallery)
Luis Luna (Bogotá, 1958).
The planimetric use of layers of pigment of various sources, and the inclusion of low relief in Luna’s works at first sight may recall the modernist tradition of color-field painting. Nevertheless, his works are the product of journeys undertaken in such diverse pursuits as navigating the Amazon River, following the Silk Road in Asia, or traversing the deserts of Arizona. They reflect the artist’s response to the sensorial experiences of being imbued in nature in those landscapes. Likewise, his paintings reflect journeys in history, albeit personal and internal ones, through the use of ancient literary texts or from the Spanish chroniclers of discovery, from which he extracts and incorporates sentences and images that act as catalysts of creation.
The densely layered, scraped and reworked surfaces of his paintings present themselves with both spiritual and art historical authority; juxtaposed elements from various sources merge simultaneously with the realities of different places and times. The materials and textures that Luna uses allude to alchemical transformations; through the integration of imagery and process, his works become meditations on the hybrid nature of cultural heritage, where sensory experiences, marks of history and memories of place overlap. (photo gallery)
Gerardo Caro (Bogotá, 1963).
Caro’s works are constructed of meticulously superimposed thin layers of paint that are repeatedly sanded to glossiness. Despite this polish, Caro’s works convey a sense of convincing materiality and three dimensional depth which resemble collages or assemblages. As a master of illusion, the artist achieves an effect of trompe l’oeil, which contrasts with the sheer, lustrous surface of painted canvases of exquisitely leather-like finish.
Caro knowingly engages the heritage of surrealism. The illusion of material reality elicits a sense of wonder; the tension between bold materiality and abstract subject matter is intriguing, and on occasions uneasy. What seem to be abstract paintings lacking an identifiable subject matter carry, by their extreme illusionism, a sense of corporeal hyper-reality. The artist skillfully plays with the ambivalence between the concepts of reality and abstraction. Viewers may question their own perception of reality, or reality itself; they may perceive close-up depictions of fragments of reality suggesting narratives that exist outside the picture plane. Reinforced by this shift in scale, the works acquire a controlled monumentality. (photo gallery)
Venuz White’s (Bogotá, 1978) work is often based on observations of Bogotá’s urban environment, which she depicts meticulously and painstakingly as an organic system. Her view of the city is detached, focused more from a bird’s-eye point of view than from street level. Her imagery denotes a sense of reproduction, growth and expansion akin to that found in cellular biology. Such an aerial view results in a cluster of organic imagery where micro-cosmos and macro-cosmos conflate, and the two worlds merge.
The vibrant dabs and drops of color, and concentric circles -- created by squeezing bottles of diluted paint or with the application of a syringe -- are reminiscent of Pointillism, and depict a world that is particularly luminous and expansive; the delicate palette and subtle harmonies that predominate in some of her paintings may be expressive of a feminine outlook. Like many abstract painters who use a patterning vocabulary as an element to unite their work, White creates a signature style through simple gesture and accumulation; in her cartographic abstractions, patterning also functions as metaphor, suggesting global dispersal and interconnectivity. (photo gallery)
Leonardo Pineda’s (Bogotá, 1972) childlike depictions of urban life are at once naïve, humorous and unsettling. The arbitrary juxtaposition of areas of bold color -- reminiscent of fauvist aesthetics -- as well as the invasive texts -- which often inverted, further stress their pictorial role -- convey an ambiguous pictorial space. The sense of shifting space, where recession is impossible, suggests an overwhelming sensation of suffocation, oppression, and tension of heightened density.
Pineda’s paintings present a narrative ambiguity. His invaded spaces may be celebratory of the dynamism of the city, of amusement where playful satire and puns are present, or they may be pessimistic and disturbing, imbued with the tension and chaos of urban life in which the potential for ecological disaster, drama, and loss of innocence are possible. (photo gallery)
Juan Camilo Arango (Bogotá, 1977).
Arango’s work is the result of experimenting with the nature of paint. The gestual, the intuitive, and the accidental nature of his approach is mediated by the quick drying of the industrial paints he chooses to work with. This experimentation results in a wealth of magnified textural creations reflecting the properties of the paint -- literally and metaphorically capturing the fluidity of matter, and of the process, in a self-referential way rooted in abstract expressionism. The artist uses standard-size canvases often displayed in serial installations, allowing him to present each painting as one in a variety of close-up views of spontaneous happenings.
The paintings are characterized by a primal rawness and sensual appeal, and convey a sense of perpetual motion exemplifying uncertainty and fluidity; they also reflect the outcome of accidental happenings, able to generate new realities, some of them suggesting geological events. The results trigger in the artist, as the first spectator, metaphoric titles allusive to natural forces and events that occur in the realm of both the personal and the cosmic. (photo gallery)
Art critic and historian, Latin American art