4 X 4: Four Views, Four Roads

at Aldo Castillo Gallery, through August 26

Every artist must find his or her own voice, a unique way of expressing private concerns. But there are so many dogmas, theories, fashions, and art-market trends that finding a genuine path becomes a struggle. The show “4 x 4: Four Views, Four Roads,” currently at the Aldo Castillo Gallery, selects four accomplished artists taking very different routes in terms of ideas, materials, and techniques, and sees what happens when those four lines cross.

No doubt exile, whether forced or chosen, must involve a change of direction, leading an artist to new forms, new media, and new subjects. For Adriana Carvalho, the move to Chicago four years ago from her native Brazil has led her away from painting to welding, which she’s studied at the Evanston Art Center. Here she exhibits seven welded steel sculptures that combine fragility and aggression. The forms are simple, abstracted from nature, and bring to mind that oft-quoted directive of Cezanne: “Treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything in proper perspective.” These basic forms are delicately rendered and humanized by their titles: Male, Female, Couple, She. But this sense of humanity turns violent as other objects display teeth like steel combs. Without the titles, most of these pieces would seem to read as plant forms–plants, however, that are dangerous, even carnivorous. One piece, Creature V, is less lifelike and more threatening, resembling a model for a war machine. A pyramid on three small wheels, the work suggests danger not only with its outer armor but also in the possibility that, like the Trojan horse, something might be hidden inside.

It can’t be easy for an artist who’s achieved critical and commercial success to suddenly change direction. The pressure to repeat past successes must be difficult to resist. Rodolfo Abularach, originally from Guatemala but now living in New York, made his reputation years ago with works treating the human eye as an object of obsessive observation, filled with many meanings. For Abularach, “The eye is the most expressive part of the body…the window of being. It has an internal and external space and contains all possible meanings. It is a world in itself…an object of concentration.”

In 1975, Abularach took a risk, abandoning the eye and turning to landscapes, which, I understand, are not naturalistic but imaginative and personal. There are 15 “eye” pieces in this exhibit, all prints: lithographs, etchings, mezzotints, and engravings. It’s clear the artist is a master of drawing and printmaking. He excels particularly in the miniatures, which are only two or three inches square and take their titles from Greek mythology–Achiles, Penelope, and Edipo. Each print shows a single meticulously rendered eye staring out at the viewer.

Sometimes an artist discovers his medium by chance. Luis Gonzalez Palma started out as an architect in Guatemala and took up photography when he borrowed a camera to document ten dance troupes touring his country. In the last four years his photos of the indigenous people of Guatemala have received international acclaim (a solo exhibition was at the Art Institute in 1992). All nine works shown here are large portraits of Mayas. They’re not documentary photographs but theatrically constructed portraits using props–feathers, wings, garlands of roses, and crowns. In Cancion de cuna (“Lullaby”), we’re confronted by a young boy with a distant, solemn gaze. He’s not so much looking at but through or past the viewer, as if lost in thought. The boy has wings and cradles a curved crescent moon in his lap, a moon with a smiling face. The photo is painted with a sepia varnish, leaving white areas–the whites of the boy’s eyes and the moon that looks like it’s made of white plaster. The boy appears to be living in a brown-varnished 17th-century ba-roque painting.

All these photographs are unquestionably beautiful in their immediate seductive power. No doubt this is why Gonzalez Palma’s work sells so well. But there’s something about this seduction that bothers me. Maybe it’s the romantic nostalgia the photos seem to express, sometimes coming close to sentimentality. It’s possible the viewer unwittingly becomes complicit in a market strategy transforming people into exotics.

Native American sculptor, performance artist, poet, and activist Jimmy Durham has pointed out, “If a Latin American artist can make a disciplined and non-romantic attempt to deny Europe and affirm the Americas, she or he will have begun a serious, if lonely political undertaking. Once begun, however, there is the constant threat of sliding into the success possible in the part of the market that deals with ‘sophisticated exotics.'” Durham may be offering a prescription for what Latin American art should be, but he’s also warning artists about the dangers of the market. New York magazine reviewer Kate O’Hara feels compelled to write of success positively affecting Gonzalez Palma’s work. “He has chosen as his subjects the indigenous people of Guatemala, a group he considers ‘marginal,’ disenfranchised, in need of representation. Because he is of Spanish descent in a country largely populated by native people and thus in an elite minority, Gonzalez Palma feels a responsibility to speak for the Mayas: ‘Because I have power, I must speak for those who do not.'”

Whatever Gonzalez Palma’s initial intentions, all collaborations involve compromise, and market success is a form of collaboration that necessarily involves dangerous compromises. Success may seem to offer the freedom of financial independence, but paradoxically it can mean the loss of artistic freedom and ultimately the destruction of personal vision. In an interview with critic Cindy Nemser in 1975, French artist Sonia Delaunay, who was then 89 years old, kept trying to avoid discussing why she hadn’t been granted the recognition she deserved. Delaunay repeatedly said she preferred free thinking and making art very much for herself instead of having a dealer. Finally, on the subject of success, she stated emphatically: “I don’t want it. It’s a false idea you have–an American idea–that artists must be famous. That’s an idea of today….Between me and painting there is nothing.” I sense that the fourth artist in this exhibition, Mirtes Zwierzynski, would agree with this statement. For her, freedom as an artist–both in experimenting with forms and in the choice of subjects–lies outside the marketplace.

Looking at her two major works shown here–Interruption/Innocence and the series “El diario de la guerra” (“The War Diary”)–I feel that Zwierzynski’s both impassioned by forms and the language of painting while still being stirred by her subjects. Zwierzynski’s large installation Interruption/Innocence deals with incest, and the subject of her series of monoprints, “El diario de la guerra,” is the gulf war. At first juxtapositions of scale strike the viewer. The subject of incest, the private transgression hidden within the family, is enlarged to room size, whereas the most public, media-hyped war in history inspires a series of miniature images stacked on two small stands so that the viewer must handle the pictures in order to view them. The private world is made public, and the public world of politics becomes as intimate as a whispered secret. This apparent reversal of reality reveals some truths about our TV-dominated, confessional society. No personal secret, not even incest, is exempt from public display. The gulf war, on the other hand, has disappeared from the national consciousness as if it had never happened. Endless confession of personal pain makes everyone a victim and therefore absolves us all of responsibility, even for a war that was fought in our name.

Interruption/Innocence is made up of six hanging panels painted in a thick black and white impasto with children’s drawings scratched into the paint. On the floor are 12 black boxes with photographs of children whose faces are blotted out with splashes of brown. In a gap between the panels hang four strips filled with an incomprehensible script, a language of the unconscious that resembles the wandering broken lines made by crawling insects. Constructed from domestic materials, this work, installed in a corner room, combines orderliness with the meandering of a child’s imagination. The panels are doors, the photograph boxes are covered with felt insulation, and the stains on the photos are made by a combination of paint and coffee grounds.

At no point does the work explain itself. Its form isn’t descriptive, and therefore doesn’t convey its content explicitly. But it provides many clues. Any viewer who spends time with this piece will experience not the cliches of contemporary media discourse but the contradictions and complexities of violating an ancient prohibition separating human societies from the animal kingdom. This “story” is suggested, like a game of hide-and-seek, from the child’s perspective of sweetness and fear.

It’s the natural progression of the soul to descend from the innocence and faith of childhood to the corruption and melancholy of adulthood, and to come to participate in the evil it’s powerless to change. It could be said the gulf war exemplified the way in which individuals can’t escape participating in the ways of a fallen culture. Every day for a few months at the beginning of 1991, we were offered a surreal spectacle on TV, seeming less a real war than a simulation, a war game. In May 1991, Greenpeace estimated total casualties of the gulf war at more than 150,000, among whom were 266 Americans. The Bush administration realized its dream–a short war with few casualties. British journalist Judith Williamson captured the mood in the U.S. during the first weeks of the war: “It is the unreality of anywhere outside the U.S., in the eyes of its citizens, which must frighten any foreigner. Like an infant who has yet to learn there are other centres of self, this culture sees others merely as fodder for its dreams and nightmares….For most Americans, other lands and people cannot be imagined as real.” For Zwierzynski the experience of the gulf war and its accompanying xenophobia must have been particularly painful to live through–she came to the U.S. after being forced into exile by the military dictatorship in Brazil, her native country, and spending the 1970s in Paris.

The monoprints of “El diario de la guerra” take the form of dated diary entries covering the period of the 1991 gulf war from the first entry on January 22, Nocturne Lament as Landscape, and ending on March 5 with The Last Ones, Everybody’s Requiem. Taken together they form a personal lament for those thousands who died in the presence of those millions whose hearts had turned to stone. In our time, the heart no longer knows how to respond to the mass graves of the unknown dead. Only when the imagination singles out the death of an individual from the hundreds of thousands of casualties is there a possibility of a return to the language of the heart.

In the February 18 print No Dreams, Just a Body, one body lies on its back, facing upward in a landscape of fire. The sky’s torn in half. For me, the corpse seems to speak some lines of the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, who took his own life while at the front in World War I: “Cold metal stands upon my brow / Spiders seek my heart. / It is a light, which goes out in my mouth.” But it’s the spirit of Franz Kafka that most haunts this work. It’s a world where people are victims of erratic forces, helpless in front of a power that seems to operate within its own arbitrary and incomprehensible rules. The February 12 print Because of Kafka is a diptych. In one half the image looks like a beetle, and in the other there are scratched marks that resemble bombs or the larvae of insects. Strange insectlike creatures crawl through the bleak night landscapes in all these prints. The dominant recurring creature is a snail, which first appears in the center of a triptych for February 7, Fragments in Agony, and again in a black and red landscape for January 27, The Archaeology of Power, Fossilized Snails.

Perhaps only the snail survives saturation bombing. In a conversation with the writer Max Brod, Kafka reportedly said there’s “an infinite amount of hope, but not for us.” We have no way of knowing for whom this hope is reserved. Is it for the victims or the victimizers? In the last print of the series, March 5’s The Last Ones, Everybody’s Requiem, there are two figures, one pressing his head down on the other’s head–the dance of the conqueror and the conquered, in which there’s no hope for either. So is it the creatures, the snails, for which there’s hope? Considering Kafka’s words, German critic Walter Benjamin claimed that this hope was not reserved for Kafka’s creatures, not even for the hybrids or imaginary animals since they lived under the spell of the family. For Benjamin, there may be hope only for those who have escaped from the family.

These images aren’t meant to explain, but rather to allow us to perceive war in a special way. They lead us to a vision. Artists are no longer valued as the producers of their work but for the quality of their vision and imagination as expressed in that work. In this role, there’s no place for competition. There’s only the endeavor to become what one is, though the road to art may be crooked.