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Natalia Vega

Natalia Vega is a Colombian art historian and curator currently based in New York, with studies at Harvard and Tufts University, from where she holds a degree in Art History with specialization in Museum Studies.

She has been curator of Museo Nacional de Colombia, and developed educational materials for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Brooklyn Museum and El Museo del Barrio in New York.

Additionally, Ms. Vega has published on various topics of Latin American art in the magazines 'Arte' of the Museum of Modern Art and 'Mundo' in Bogota, Museologia in Spain, and newspaper El Tiempo in Colombia. She wrote the entries on the history of Colombian art for Grove's 'Dictionary of Art' (Oxford University Press), London. Currently she is a lecturer at the department of education of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and works as an independent scholar and curator. nataliavega1@yahoo.com

When Matter Matters:

                The Paintings of Gerardo Caro

By Natalia Vega

The trajectory of Gerardo Caro (Bogotá, Colombia, 1963) has developed distant from criticism and mostly outside the public sphere, but his powerful and wholly personal body of work reveals a constant tenacity and conviction. Outside of the trends set by dominant modes, the artist has tread difficult terrain that reflects an authentic pictorial search.

During the past 15 years, mostly dominated by the tendencies of immateriality of the minimalist and conceptual movements, Caro has stressed, above all, the materiality of painting. In Latin America, where magic realism has at times degenerated into clichés of folklore and tropicalism, Caro's imagery has embraced concepts that allude to realities beyond material ones, in which personal and cultural mythologies sometimes verge on surrealism; he has engaged with concepts of alchemy -- a field often regarded with suspicion, and branded as esoteric, even preposterous; working in an era when social and political circumstances are imperative, the artist -- without being oblivious to this reality--has proposed an optimistic vision and search for strength in the integrity of the interior life.

In spite of the potentially dubious borders within which Caro has positioned his work, the freedom with which he has selected his frames of reference, developed a personal vocabulary, and integrated them with plastic and conceptual congruence, has placed him on the path that most characterizes good artists: that of expressing the authenticity and uniqueness of one's own vision, thereby creating a congruent and solid body of work.

What first captures the viewer's attention is Caro's technical skills, which reflect the artist's belief in painting as a métier, placing special consideration on the value of traditional craftsmanship, as a viable, not outmoded path . It is clear that he invests all his effort and art historical knowledge -- first acquired in his training as an architect--and maintains his conviction in the authority of tradition, which result s in works crafted with meticulous devotion.

The artist covers his canvasses with several layers of white plaster, each layer carefully sanded to seal it and form the ground of the paintings. Next, using a spatula, he applies several fine layers of acrylic paint, again sanding and sealing each one, to which he adds faint veils of oil paint with a roller, thus constructing areas of dense, rich color. This additive process of layers of paint and veils is inverted with a subtractive process of sanding: scraping with a spatula or absorbent paper that removes parts of the layers of paint, he reveals traces of previous layers and creates various textures. To this chromatic and textural richness, Caro occasionally superimposes drawings; then he shades some areas of his constructed surfaces. The sensation of broad areas of color and texture imparts an illusionistic effect of collage, conveying an unmistakable presence of corporeality and materiality. Surprisingly, despite its multiple layers of work, the surface of the paintings exhibit an exquisitely smooth and glossy leather-like finish.

The shading of the elements -- some receding into the depth of the pictorial plane, others projecting toward the viewer's space -- achieves a distinct effect of trompe l'oeil , which further heightens the corporeality of his elements. Caro appropriates this genre not to capitalize on its illusionistic effects which astound the viewer with technical wizardry, but rather to support the far-reaching conception of his work .

The tradition of trompe l'oeil is intimately connected to the pictorial search for the illusion of materiality and space, and is paradigmatic of classical modes and values of painting as a medium. A tale from ancient Greece encapsulates this fundamental quality of trompe l'oeil --the painting's ability to deceive, or to take the place of reality: in a competition, Zeuxis paints grapes that are picked at by birds but ultimately loses when he tries to raise the painted curtain covering the work of Parrhasius, his challenger. During the Renaissance, trompe l'oeil was figured in the prevalent concept of painting as a window on the world; it appears in the bas-relief -like technique of grisaille , and it was closely tied to the development of the spatial solution of perspective. In the Baroque period, trompe l'oeil experienced its apotheosis in the decoration of domes that functioned as projections of the celestial world. Despite being critically disparaged and falling into disuse around 1800, the genre more recently served as a device to point out the illusionistic deceptive nature of painting, and ultimately to deconstruct it, as exemplified by the cane chair of the cubism of Braque and Picasso, and later broadly appropriated in the pursuits of surrealist artists.

In spite of the materiality and the overt reality created by the effects of collage and trompe l'oeil , the majority of Gerardo Caro's work can be loosely considered abstract, in which a reality has been created with illusionism.   Caro's stance makes the viewer question not only the relation between reality and painting, but furthermore, his or her own perception of reality itself. The works' formal qualities are thus intended to expand the field of perception; his realities are not so much represented as they are implied as being substantially present.

Caro's realities reveal many levels. The first visual paradox posed is that of paintings considered abstract but possessing a convincing materiality and corporeality -- the paradox of a hyper-realistic abstraction, or of an abstract reality which is totally material. On another level, if we perceive the depicted elements as alluding to concrete material realities, they may be fragments of spatial realities, parts of a monumental continuous universe whose objects and narratives are located beyond the paintings' physical plane. These fragments are further accented by trompe l'oeil elements -- such as a drop of water, a patch piecing together two planes, ironwork joining parts of architectural imagery, or the metal tacks of medieval doors.

His particular historicist imagery and the recycling of objects' meanings over time, make Caro's fragments of reality not only spatial but also temporal. Caro aims to point out that our perception of time, along with that of the continuity of life and history, is limited; what we experience is only a fragment of the historical continuum in which we exist, and at times we only have glimpses of the relevance of other periods through their repeating cycles, or déjà-vu experiences. The artist presents this by way of a personal mythology articulated through imagery derived from the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance--for example, the heroic horse of the Early Renaissance, and the many architectural elements present throughout his work, such as towers and fettered windows.

Although the paintings exhibit different stylistic qualities, these approaches toward reality --the creation of suggestive and ambiguous worlds -- place them in the realm of surrealism. The worlds of the interior life, memory, imagination, and the unconscious have such substance and solidity that they are as real, or more, as material realities. Caro's paintings evoke parallel or alternate realities, refractions of time, and a host of intangible realities that are as substantial and significant to human experience as what is immediately apparent to us in everyday life .

Caro incorporates his interest in alchemy into several aspects of his work. The alchemic qualities of the media of painting itself are obvious : the materials used in painting are transformed to create new realities. More specifically the primary referents in Caro's painting process -- the atmospheres with which he begins to construct each painting -- allude to the four alchemic elements: earth, water, fire and air. Through these elements, the artist emphasizes the basic substances which conform the entire universe, representing the essential principle that all materials are related.

In another sense, the transformation of substances in the artist's pursuit is like that of the alchemist's: what occurs in this process is an allegory for what occurs in the heart and mind of the alchemist. The duty of the métier is not a completely materialistic mission; its outcome is nobler than the materials themselves -- purer, stronger and more valuable. It may be a quest for harmony, mental perfection or a transcendental state in which every impurity is transformed . The process makes of the ideas tangible realities; for Caro, alchemic transformation as exemplified in painting alludes to the possibility of spiritual evolution of people throughout history, as well .

The work of Gerardo Caro is unique and difficult to categorize. He has been able to develop a personal vocabulary that, though it heavily relies and emphasizes materiality and substance, questions the boundaries of the long term dichotomy between abstraction and reality. His classical approach to technique and sound historicism, far from being anachronistic, has powerful conceptual reasons. Harmony and sensuality, and an optimistic, even utopian quality, are all well grounded -- not superficial; above all, his paintings are far-reaching -- thought provoking, open and willing to engage the viewer in dialogues of various levels, even fruitful philosophical speculation about matter and reality itself .

Natalia Vega
Art critic and historian, Latin American art


I would like to thank English editor Daniel Bloch for his work on this text, and to art-lover and collector Jeremy Moskow for his generosity.

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