Renato Esquivel

at Arte de Mexico, through August 22

Charles Kurre:

It Happens Every Tuesday

at Perimeter, through August 31

By Fred Camper

Many postmodern artists have responded to our culture’s image glut with uncritical acceptance, creating pastiches that suggest these artists can’t tell the difference between an elegant ceramic pitcher and a soup can. Yet recent art has admirably taught us to see beauty in the commonplace–in a soup can, or a pile of refuse. And there are artists who can tell the difference. A playful spirit doesn’t prevent them from producing works with intensity and focus, as illustrated by two current shows at River North galleries by Renato Esquivel and Charles Kurre.

A native of Mexico and a frequent visitor to Chicago, Esquivel has 29 paintings at Arte de Mexico. The brother of local painters Alejandro and Oscar Romero, he paints distinctively in an eclectic mix of styles. In a short statement, Alejandro Romero writes that Esquivel’s work includes “elements of Neo-Romanticism, Neo-Baroque, Colonial Mexican Baroque and North American Pop Art.” Esquivel told me he’s also been influenced by Italian Futurist painting, the work of the conceptualist Joseph Kossuth, and the writings of Jacques Derrida. Yet his paintings have an immediate, preverbal appeal; their gentle and soft surfaces and sensual light recall late-16th-century Venetian painting. And just as his style reflects a variety of sources, he combines several images in one painting, often pairing incongruous objects.

Esquivel’s pairings set up cultural contradictions that his painterly style tends to lessen or render ambiguous. The largest of the three rectangular images in one Still Life (Esquivel often uses the same title for multiple paintings) has a can of Campbell’s soup sitting next to a traditional vase. In shape and color the soup can immediately clashes with the vase. Later we realize the vase has contradictions within itself–decorative painted bands around the body are derived from pre-Columbian art, but it has a Spanish colonial-style top. This hybrid form suggests the mixed identity of Latin America; it’s not a case of pure tradition versus corrupted modernity because the “traditional” is itself a hybrid–one with a long bloody history.

Typically computers look out of place in traditional interiors, and that’s the case in Library, a diptych in which the right panel shows an elegant, book-lined room with a computer on an ornate table. The computer has been rendered so delicately that it seems to blend in with its surroundings, as if the painter were trying to close the gap between past and present. Esquivel achieves a balance that is a key to his work: he sees differences and similarities across cultures, posing the contradictions as open questions.

His gentle humor turns broader in other paintings. Sea of Fruits offers banana bunches floating in front of a repeating ornamental design. The bananas are bright yellow, an electric contrast to the muted background colors. They’re aggressive; they appear to be jutting forward, out of the canvas and at the viewer. The painting made me think of those obnoxiously intrusive dancing-banana Chiquita commercials that were criticized as racist decades ago. There’s also an allusion to the colonialism of such American companies as United Fruit and the banana republics they helped to maintain.

In a few pictures, Esquivel refers directly to political murders and state-sanctioned torture in Central America. Monsignor has four rectangular pictures in a two-by-two grid; two are portraits of the murdered Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, a third has a blur of green that looks like out-of-focus leaves, and the fourth shows perhaps a hundred nails, lying flat in bunches. Outside of this grid are three smaller portraits, each resembling a photographic negative, of people who were among the “disappeared.” Esquivel says the nails refer to the Crucifixion. But by showing many nails, he universalizes the idea of martyrdom, suggesting it can apply to many individuals across time and cultures.

I was especially captivated by a group of works that were less specific in their references. Pic-Nic has four images: a line of trees, another can of Campbell’s soup, a painting of greenery that again is out of focus, and a pattern of crossing red lines on a pink field that looks like the design on a tablecloth. Canned soup is not a traditional picnic item, and together with the out-of-focus trees it suggests that media representations, and manufactured goods, have affected our conception of what is true and natural. Our lives have been altered; we’re unable to separate the simplest story from commercial influences. Still, Esquivel finds beauty in the tactile fleshiness of his painted forms.

Other works combine parts of a male torso with decorative wall paintings and Spanish colonial architectural motifs, or they combine similar motifs with paintings of nature. There is a common theme: sheer delight in color and form and paint can partially heal the divisions of our world.

A related sense of play is found in Charles Kurre’s 52 collages at Perimeter. Like Esquivel, Kurre combines disparate elements in an almost-celebratory manner. But both artists balance their playful use of materials with an acknowledgement that objects have specific meanings.

Wishing to take a break from his usual time-consuming methods of painting, Kurre gave himself a yearlong project of finishing one foot-square collage by each Tuesday. Though most of these collages have actual objects attached to their canvases, instead of or in addition to paint, there’s still a painterly sensibility at work, a sense of designing for the surface, a reveling in the tactile quality of the materials. The playfulness becomes a key to keeping the series lively.

The collages are mounted in two rows, so close together that it’s almost impossible to see them as separate objects; look at one’s austere shape and your eyes are pulled away by the bright colors of the collage just above it. And there’s a wonderful mix of both materials and representational systems, veering back and forth between such symbolic images as a painted face and solid objects like pieces of wooden chairs bundled together. There’s a collage of cut-up fragments from a newspaper article, and a collage that includes actual leaves. About the only thing missing is a kitchen sink.

Two large books are also part of the show, complementing each collage with autobiographical musings and an explanation of the circumstances involved in its making. While these texts are a bit self-indulgent, the collages are nicely disciplined in spite of their variety. Week 11–September 14, 1999: Sewn Spoon and Small Fetish has a ball of rubber bands hanging from a string in front of a spoon. With the rubber bands wrapped tightly around its surface, the ball appears to be imprisoned, its energy trapped within. A single black line on a white canvas is all we see in Week 10–September 7, 1999: Path of Least Resistance, Been There I Know, but its irregular bends seem intriguingly varied; Kurre’s text says it was based on a map of a route he often traveled, once again showing that images and objects can have different functions. This theme is particularly strong in Week 30–January 25, 2000: Twenty-five Landscapes. A grid of 25 tiny square paintings were cut out by Kurre from a larger paint-by-numbers picture; the squares resemble abstracted landscapes, while the grid denies any one composition priority over another.

For Kurre, play has a point beyond seeking pleasure: it denies absolutes and undermines judgment in a way that’s consistent with Esquivel’s work. Week 18–November 2, 1999: Wash, Dry and Upside-down Flying Charles combines black-and-white and color photos. Two black-and-white pictures were taken in Chicago, where Kurre used to live; the color one was shot in Arizona, where he now resides. The color photo shows the artist in a polka-dot shirt. The explanatory text suggests the juxtaposition of these photos reflects the brighter light of the southwest. But he’s punched holes in the pictures. The holes echo the polka dots and reveal yellow paint underneath. Kurre writes that these yellow dots “are just plain fun.”