Alfonso Lopez Monreal

at Prospectus Gallery, through June 11

Mexico and Ireland might at first seem completely dissimilar cultures. Yet there are some connections. Both have swelled the population of this city through massive immigration. And both countries, despite centuries of colonialism and neocolonialism, have retained many of their rich pre-Christian social and religious forms, however brutal the efforts of the English invaders in Ireland and the Spanish invaders in Mexico to see that these were destroyed. And this common resistance to the invaders’ “modernization” may have a universal significance today: ancient collective forms of social organization can point the way to a collective future, and art is often the bearer of this good news.

For Alfonso Lopez Monreal, who was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, but has lived in Belfast since 1982, the historical, religious, and mythological connections between the two countries have become the basis for an art both personal and (that quality much announced but rarely achieved) multicultural. The exhibit consists of nine oil paintings and 26 copperplate mezzotints, all produced during the last seven years in Belfast. Monreal studied printmaking from 1976 to 1982 in Paris and Barcelona, where he not only developed his technique but was exposed to the works of the old and modernist masters of European painting. His works now showing in Chicago are rich in references to Mexican and Irish culture and the history of European art, but these influences are so well assimilated into his own vision that viewers will feel themselves in the presence of a unique and mature artist, one free from the potential prison of borrowed sources.

Of all the mezzotints in this show, Bar Irlandes offers the most explicit meeting of two cultures. In this Irish pub, it would seem that poets read to one another, laugh, criticize, drink, and debate. The “narrative” is a surrealistic blend of the sort that abounds in both Mexico and Ireland, in which the truth of the quotidian and the fantasy elements of a subterranean reality intermingle to expose another truth. On the far left of the print, a figure very like Monreal himself sits wielding a paintbrush like a sword, next to four figures–his poet friends–seated at a table. Behind him another figure stands in the doorway: another friend, Monreal told me, Francis Stuart, author and participant in the Irish war of independence in the 1920s, pictured here in his youth. These five Irish writers are rendered in photoengravings, in contrast to the other figures in the bar–the artist, the three men in coats and hats holding up open umbrellas and leaning against the bar, mythological animals, a naked female figure, and what could be Monreal himself again, painting a self-portrait at an easel.

This contrast between the photographic look of the poets and the ironic, imaginative treatment of the artist and his images is the only example of this technique in all the works on view and would seem to point to this print being an homage to his poet friends. We feel we should recognize these photographic likenesses. But what strikes the viewer is Monreal’s awareness of his difference–the absurdity of his situation, not only as a Mexican in an Irish pub but as a painter in a land of bards and poets.

Something in the strangeness of the composition seems to point to an unknown future. All the figures appear frozen, poised on the edge of a large, empty expanse of “floor” that has a rhythmic texture created by the movement of a multitoothed engraving tool on the plate; this looks more like a lake than a solid surface. All the figures, crowded together as if some force were preventing them from stepping out onto the floor, looks out at the viewer. It seems an intercultural dialogue has begun, and only time will reveal its true significance. In the lower left corner, at the very edge of the floor, is a tiny Sheela-na-gig, an ancient Celtic sculpture of a naked woman standing legs apart and holding her vagina open with her hands. Despite her pre-Christian origins–some authorities claim she’s related to Morrigan, Celtic goddess of war–this somewhat humorous figure can be seen in churches all over Ireland. In Monreal’s print, she seems ready to lead the viewer into a complex, personal, and joyful narrative of cultural exchange.

Bar Irlandes is just one of Monreal’s many artistic interchanges. One of the poets in the print is Ciaran Carson, who wrote a poem in response to Monreal’s 1986 mezzotint What Is Time to a Pig. This print was inspired by a humorous story from the west of Ireland, but it has the self-directed peasant sense of humor that might just as easily be Mexican. Rather than pick apples to feed his pig, a farmer decided to put the pig on his shoulders and walk along under the tree while the pig fed itself. The obligatory “man walking along the road” saw him and asked what he was doing. “I’m feeding my pig,” said the farmer. “But that’s a ridiculous waste of time,” said the man. The farmer replied: “What’s time to a pig?”

In Monreal’s print, the farmer stands large to the right of center, the pig on his shoulders, in a setting that brings to mind Chinese landscape painting, with its brushlike treatment of foreground, middle distance, and distant mountains. Four women recline at the farmer’s feet, surrounded by mythical animals treated in the flat, decorative style associated with the ancient Irish Book of Kells. Despite the tension created by the differences in treatment of the landscape, the animals, and the figures, this beautiful print creates an incredible feeling of unity. In all his mezzotints Monreal approaches the human figure in a unique way, building up numerous sensual lines, stripping the figure not only of clothes but also of flesh and blood while creating a thrilling sense of movement. Often this sense of movement is enhanced by the more static treatment of the space surrounding the human figure: in Toro y Torso the thoughtful seated nude seems to rise in contrast to the flat silhouette of the bull.

If there is something painterly about Monreal’s handling of landscapes in the mezzotints, there is also much of the printmaker’s craft in his small oil paintings. Textures are literally scratched or etched into the wet paint, probably with the handle of a paintbrush. Like another Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, Monreal is inspired in his paintings by retablos, small religious paintings, usually giving thanks to a saint for misfortunes avoided. Monreal’s 1993 series of paintings refer to votive paintings to Saint Veronica. Saint Veronica is said to have wiped Christ’s face on his way to Calvary, and the impression of his divine features was imprinted on the cloth she used. In each painting in Monreal’s “Saint Veronica” series, a figure sits facing the viewer holding out a cloth covered with images. In Pablo’s Veronica, the images come from the pictures on popular Mexican lottery cards. Monreal also often uses imagery from bullfighting (the word “veronica” can refer to a bullfighter’s action when he swings his open cape to divert a charging bull, so named because the movement recalls the way the saint displays her cloth).

These paintings are so packed with personal and cultural references–the retablos use a traditional form, for instance, but the small miracles depicted are personal–that they mimic the ornateness of baroque architecture. The colors are subtle, reminiscent of hues in the work of the French painter Edouard Vuillard. And like Kahlo, Monreal decorates his frames, using pigment mixed with white sand and often applying it with his finger. It would no doubt take hours of study to decode all the complex references in Monreal’s work. I stood in front of two of the mezzotints–La Beinvenida and Afternoon in the Square–so absorbed in the figures that it was a long time before I realized how closely based on by Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation they are.

Under the suspicious banner of a “multicultural approach,” contemporary art discourse often attempts to reduce the work of third-world artists to the particulars of nationalism and the folkloric. Monreal is well aware of this danger. He has written, “Nationalism has nothing to do with my work. Nonetheless, I have to respond to the realities of the place where I come from.” This is why his references to Mexican and Irish culture are so subtle as to be almost hidden. In one mezzotint, Dos Juanas, which depicts a figure from the Mexican revolution, there’s only one small skeleton figure wearing a Mexican hat and playing the guitar. Whereas another artist might use lots of calaveras, traditionally associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead, to establish his ethnicity, Monreal almost buries this one. (The Day of the Dead festival occurs each year at the same time as the ancient Irish festival, Samhain, when the world of the living was also thought to interact with the world of the dead. Christianity incorporated both these festivals into All Saints’ Day.)

If Monreal has to respond to the realities of the place he comes from, he also responds to the realities of the place where he lives, a section of northeast Ireland partitioned by the English, where the nationalist working class continue to fight for the reunification of the country. Monreal feels that the political tension is responsible for the high degree of critical acumen among artists in Belfast. “There I’m confronting a serious scrutiny of my own work on a daily basis and it’s a very stimulating thing. It makes me realize that I must continuously go beyond the point that I’ve already reached.” As John Berger wrote in his essay on the Irish painter Jack Yeats: “Ireland has not yet reached that critical point where she can defend her way of life: she is still striving, staggering, suffering and dreaming towards one.” We could say the same not only of Mexico but of all of Latin America, which is still struggling to be liberated from the political, economic, and cultural domination of the United States.

The Enlightenment concept of progress has in recent decades come into disrepute: today we must genuinely entertain the “romantic” idea that ancient ways of life may point us toward the future. While Monreal’s background cannot fully explain his sense of color or the brilliance of his draftsmanship, it can throw some light on the feeling of expectancy his work produces, or, put another way, a sense of the future that was born in an ancient collective past and has been suppressed in the recent past, a sense of the future that is only sleeping lightly in Monreal’s stripped and constantly moving figures. As W.B. Yeats put it:

Sing on: somewhere at some new moon,

We’ll learn that sleeping is not death,

Hearing the whole earth change its tune.