Jose Luis Cuevas:

What Is Our Strangeness?

at Aldo Castillo, through May 29

By Bertha Husband

Mexican artist Jose Luis Cuevas has been well-known since the 1950s for his depictions of society’s outcasts; essays on his work describe his figures as “grotesque,” “shocking,” or “horrifying.” But this exhibition at Aldo Castillo Gallery, his first in Chicago, suggests that the disquiet or discomfort his works produce is due not so much to his distortions of the human figure as to the fact that they’re all looking at us: we move through the gallery followed by countless eyes. No longer contemplative observers, viewers find themselves under constant surveillance.

In traditional European painting–whether history painting, representing scenes from the classics, or genre painting, depicting scenes from daily life–the characters look not at the viewer but at other figures in the work. As in theater and film, the story usually forbids eye contact with the audience. This is why the metaphor for figure painting has always been the window: we look through the window, observing the scene as voyeurs–those represented are ignorant of our gaze. There are a few exceptions to this rule, however. The female nude is one, the portrait of the dignitary another; both look out at the viewer-owner in order to flatter him. An exception more relevant to Cuevas’s work is the self-portrait, with its stare out, the inevitable result of the artist’s concentrated gaze at himself in the mirror. And it is the mirror rather than the window that serves as a metaphor for Cuevas’s singular vision. Yet this mirror reflects not a semblance of ourselves but a disturbing otherness.

In the aquatint La carta (“The Letter”) four creatures, probably women, stare back at us. Almost filling the paper, cut off below the waist by the picture edge, and unified by a dark, watery monochrome, they give the impression of a reflection in a mirror. They do not interact with one another but gaze at us in an almost accusatory way; one of them holds up the letter of the title for us to see.

In a classic painting on the same theme, Vermeer’s A Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, the figure turns away from us, oblivious to our existence, concentrating on her letter. So Cuevas seems to make an intentional break with traditional narrative. But even more disturbing about this image, since the four women do not remotely resemble any woman we know, is the thought that they’re trapped in a looking glass.

The idea of a separate race of people who inhabit a mirror world comes up in Jorge Luis Borges’s “bestiary,” the Book of Imaginary Beings. In this tale, the world of the mirror and the world of humans coexist harmoniously until the mirror people invade the earth. They’re driven back and again imprisoned in the mirror but are now deprived of their singular forms–reduced to mere slavish reflections. This is not the end of the story, however. “A day will come,” Borges concludes, “when the magic spell will be shaken off…shapes will begin to stir. Little by little they will differ from us; little by little they will not imitate us. They will break through the barriers of glass or metal and this time they will not be defeated.”

This allegory of defeated otherness, a tale in which all difference has been erased and condemned to resemblance, gives us a clue to the political content of Cuevas’s work. Cuevas’s mirror people represent the possibility of a rebellion by the different. In these pieces politics and the imagination are not mutually exclusive but form a seamless whole, placing his work firmly in the tradition of 20th-century Mexican art.

Cuevas was born in Mexico City in 1934, a decade after “los tres grandes”–Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros–began the Mexican mural movement, which was both national and international. By the time Cuevas was grown up, the Mexican revolution had become institutionalized, and its art was considered academic and didactic. New roads had to be discovered and a narrow nationalism discarded. “What I want in my country’s art,” Cuevas has said, “are broad highways out to the rest of the world, rather than narrow paths connecting one adobe village with another.”

By the age of 20 Cuevas had discovered his subject: the gaze of the excluded. At the same time he discovered his chosen media: ink drawing, watercolor, and printmaking. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine his mirror people rendered in oil or, even more absurd, mural painting. Until I saw this exhibition, I might have said that painting simply didn’t suit his subject. But a small bronze sculpture here of a woman transforming into something else offers a slightly different perspective. This is a maquette for a monumental work that stands before the Jose Luis Cuevas Museum in Mexico City. When Cuevas works on a monumental scale, it’s as a sculptor, not a painter. And although he’s a prolific sculptor, he’s better known for his works on paper.

Cuevas’s drawings don’t display any of a painter’s usual passions: there’s no color and no interest in tonal variations or in the space between objects and figures. His isolated, monochromatic figures, sometimes apparently floating in space, are a sculptor’s figures. The paradox lies in the fact that it’s only as two-dimensional beings that they have the power to haunt us. As sculptures, Cuevas’s figures have been liberated from the mirror; they’ve burst in on our world.

The sculptures emphasize a metamorphosis that’s evident in the works on paper only after a lot of looking. Many writers on Cuevas’s art describe him as a neutral observer, but I don’t see him that way–in his self-portraits it looks as if he’s passed through the mirror to the other side. The fact that he’s one of “them” is apparent in the etching Yo con la giganta (“The Big Woman and I”), in which a large, naked sphinxlike woman fills the space, leaning on folded arms. The artist’s head and shoulders are visible behind her, above her right hip. The more one looks at these two, the more one becomes used to their stare. Returning that look, one is made aware that these people–and most of the people in the room–are in a process of transformation from human to animal form. Their catlike noses and foreheads may be an allusion to such pre-Columbian Olmec figures as the jaguar/man/god. But their faces also recall one of the world’s most famous literary transformations, the one from human to insect in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (Cuevas made a series of visual interpretations of Kafka’s work in 1957, including drawings of himself as the bug).

While most of Cuevas’s figures look self-conscious and aware of our gaze, like subjects posing for a photograph, occasionally they look as if they’ve been interrupted during some activity of their own to stare out at us. In the etching Pantla de noche, two creatures seem to have been checked in some strange erotic ritual; the title, except for the reference to “night,” doesn’t give much of a clue what it might be–“Pantla,” I’m informed, is the name of a beach in Mexico. Two strange beings, naked except for boots, are poised over a square of light surrounded by impenetrable darkness. The female figure, wearing boots to her thighs, reclines on one elbow, her head on her hand. But it’s the odd, dynamic male figure who raises questions about the suspended narrative. Is he lying down, getting to his feet from a blanket, or simply scrambling across the paper, dragging one foot behind him? From his angry look at us and the outlandish deformities of his limbs, he seems caught and held by our glance during the moment of transformation, from something resembling the human to something so incongruous and discordant it’s difficult for us to know or describe it.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, discussing Borges’s story in his essay “The Revenge of the Mirror People,” writes: “Every representation is a servile image, the ghost of a once-sovereign being whose singularity has been obliterated. But a being which will one day rebel, and then our whole system of representation and values is destined to perish in that revolt….So, everywhere, objects, children, the dead, images, women, everything which serves to provide a passive reflection in a world based on identity, is ready to go on the counter-offensive. Already they resemble us less and less.” Cuevas’s absurd mirror world is at once tragic and comic–he treats it with affection and humor but insists on its violence, essential to his prophecy of the resurgence of otherness.