ROBERTO MÁRQUEZ: DAMNATION AND REDEMPTION IN HIS LATEST WORK

Edward J. Sullivan

The paintings of Roberto Márquez have always evoked passages of imaginary, unwritten literary texts. While not being in any sense illustrative, each one of them compels the viewer to think in terms of poetry. As with poetry, his most powerful images - even those from the earliest years of his artistic production - seem to encapsulate quintessential emotions in a succinct, compelling manner. The best of his work plays a symbiotic role with poetry, suggesting the enigmas and the reminiscences of timeless truths. It is little wonder that the artist's closest friends and associates are poets, and it is not a coincidence that his reading of classical and modern literature, especially poetic works in at least three languages, is both deep and highly sophisticated.

The artist's capacity for conjuring up the quintessence of our collective consciousness as well as his extraordinary gift for summoning the things that lie beyond our dreams have become intensified in recent years. Perhaps a facile explanation for the growing forcefulness in Márquez’s art may be found in the inevitable sadness and disappointments of maturity. Perhaps the answer could be suggested by the more concrete and traumatic events that have taken place in New York, where he has lived since relocating his life from Arizona (and, before that, from Guadalajara) in the late 1980s. However, explaining the shifts and re-orientations in the work of any artist through particular occurrences or vicissitudes of life will never adequately account for the deeper reasons for aesthetic change and evolution. In the case of Roberto Márquez, his fertile and highly inventive imagination has become more complex and intensified with time. In his work, truth and fiction, the real and the super-real have constantly battled for supremacy. Instead of finding a banal middle ground for a detente of these opposing forces, it is precisely these tensions and contradictions that drive the development of his art relentlessly forward.

The present exhibition displays the artist's most recent work, painted from 2003 and early 2004. These paintings show two clear and opposite paths taken both in terms of style and subject matter. The first group consists of a series of dark, brooding pictures that stop just short of being terrifying. They evoke a strong shock of recognition in even the most jaded observer, and -for all who are sensitive to the tensions and feelings of imminent danger that characterize the present era -they are striking in their poignancy and irony. At least one of these paintings, Jericho, shows a return to the past and an evocation of a childhood terror/fantasy. In this work we observe the towers of the Cathedral of Guadalajara, perhaps the most potent symbol of the artist's native city, crumbling and falling down, while a lone mariachi, a tiny figure within the scale of the scene, plays a lament on his horn. Here the painter reminds us that all that is sacred may disintegrate in a single moment. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird is more direct in its evocation of urban alienation and fear, as it depicts a man silhouetted against a menacing sky atop a Manhattan building (easily recognizable for the characteristic New York City water towers), perhaps about to jump. Cazando Dioses (Hunting Gods) represents a literal shot in the dark.

The figure again appears in the most incongruously chilling of settings. A desert scene (perhaps the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona and northern Mexico), complete with agave plants, is covered in snow. The human subject of the picture, equipped for the cold in his red wool cap, fires a gun into the darkening sky. Is this a desperate gesture, or could it also be reminiscent of the shots of excitement and even elation fired by members of some groups in a variety of world venues at the most intense moments? Perhaps most intriguing of the recent paintings are those in which Márquez  has employed the type of literal illustrations of devils and other malevolent phantoms often used in Mexican colonial painting to evoke, among other things, the demons that tempt Saint Jerome and other holy men and women tested by God. Pintor Borracho (Drunken Painter) and especially the multi- panel painting EI Juicio Final (The Last Judgment) allow us a closer-than-ever view of the evil spirits that invade the painter's imagination.

In contrast, the second group of these most recent works by Roberto Márquez carry with them a very different aura, that of redemption and blessing. In his imagination, salvation is achieved by two means - integration with nature and the beauty of the youthful female figure. In La Primavera Ilicita (Illicit Spring), the artist himself is enveloped within a solitary tree in a budding field. Although he appears pensive, he is protected and embraced by the forces of germination and growth. In such canvases as Secret Flower III, Waldstein Sonata and Otoño Perdido (Lost Autumn), the woman is as much a part of the natural scene as the trees, leaves or flowers. In his creation of her, Márquez has made for us a simulacrum of his muse and the embodiment of beauty that serves to redeem him from the travails of the man-made world.

In this recent volume of work, Márquez has taken a serious step forward in creating pictorial equivalents of the essential qualities of life itself. These pictures may be considered as the yin and yang, representations of the inevitable but exquisite anxiety of opposing forces- despair and exaltation, pain and ecstasy, expulsion and acceptance. Similar in artistic sensibility to classic poetry, his work continues to encapsulate man's timeless yet eternal struggle for meaning in this sometimes dark yet sometimes beautiful world.

Edward J. Sullivan

Professor of Fine Arts

New York University, New York, 2004

Published in the catalog of the exhibition “The Season After the Deluge” 2004 Riva Yares Gallery  

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