THINGS THAT HAPPEN AFTER THE FLOOD

Jorge Esquinca

I look at Roberto Márquez’s recent paintings with the same sense of amazement that his first canvases and drawings inspired in me more than twenty years ago. In them I find a renewed fidelity to the themes and obsessions that render him sleepless and make him one of the most unique figures in the panorama of contemporary Mexican painting. Last year the city of Márquez’s birth, Guadalajara, saw a generous retrospective show of his work: Relación de una ausencia (Tale of an Absence). This show brought together a considerable number of Márquez’s paintings, starting with the 1984 oil After the Flood, an enigmatic homage to a poem by the child prodigy of French poetry, Arthur Rimbaud. At this young age - Márquez was only twenty-five at the time -the artist had already set his destiny. It was a destiny yet to be thought out although already illuminated by that disconcerting canvas. It was an unobtainable longing for perfection - a longing that breathes in each one of his pieces, in those he painted from that moment of revelation and in those he now gives us, like the fulfilled testimony of an arduous discipline. Ostinato rigore, one could say, in accordance with Leonardo's motto.

Over the years, Márquez’s art has come to shape a selective world. It's the method of an exclusive system of symbols that results in the creation of a world so personal that at times it can seem to be the fruit of dreams and nightmares or of luminous and volatile epiphanies. Without ignoring the invasion of chance, it nevertheless seems to me that Márquez’s paintings come closer to a careful appropriation of his tutelary models and of dialogue- composed of vital encounters and breaking-offs - established by tradition. It is, in principle, an art open to the most diverse and even contrasting influences: the graffiti of anonymous walls and poetry, popular altarpieces and Renaissance painting, Mexican songs and opera.... Art, music, architecture and literature merge and burn in the melting pot of his imagination. All of these come back, transformed, in the everlasting instant embodied in a painting: the one and only verifiable truth.

A stranger to himself, a hunter of his own image, Márquez merges with his work and watches as the alternative face offered up by his art springs forth. One of his first self- portraits, done in 1985, shows him seated on a chair, arms crossed, looking impassively at a woman standing in front of him as she points a gun at him and shoots. The painting is literal: we can see the gun go off and the path of the bullet as it comes towards his face. Márquez is wearing a shirt with vertical blue and white stripes, a design that, with few variations, he always uses to portray his own character's attire. It is a type of disguise that singles him out and at the same time unites him with certain marginalized figures: the convict, the clown in a poor circus, the urban vagabond who wears the wardrobe of others with humble dignity. The self-portraits in this show picture Márquez again and again decked out in attire of this same design. In one of them we again see the pistol which now, in the hands of the artist, points toward the sky. Hunting Gods is the title of the oil in which Márquez appears standing in a countryside planted with magueys -the cactus that is blessed with the honey of pulque and tequila -the drinks par excellence that raise the Mexican blood alcohol level. Yet we find ourselves in front of the frozen image of a snowy landscape where the painter raises in vain the revolver which he will never shoot. (Someone with greater insight would argue that the gun went off moments before and that the falling snow covering the planted field is the result of a wound inflicted by an invisible god.)

What is certain is that these new self-portraits transmit a delicate dose of violence that the artist practices, in principle, on his own representation. We can see it converted into a teporocho-the Mexican version of the French clochard- receiving the punishment handed out by two burlesque demons whose figures bring to mind those of popular altarpieces. A delirious allegory results from the diptych titled The Last Judgment, in which a floating Márquez is transfigured into a dual deity who gathers the souls of the deserved to his breast and vomits out those of the infidels into the mouth of the abyss. Biblical topics have also been recurring themes throughout his work. Angelical apparitions, the suffering and miracles of saints and the martyrdom of virgins alternate with passages taken directly from the sacred scriptures. From this source for his paintings, a kind of fascination with religious imagery acquires new meaning under Márquez’s eye. This meaning departs frequently from the orthodox vision and includes elements of humor, irony and eroticism that invite one to look at the pieces from an almost profane perspective, which is at times subtle and at others an open transgression.

A clear example of this attitude can be seen in the oil Jericho, an allusion to a passage in the Old Testament described in the Book of Joshua. The text describes the fall of the walls of Jericho, resulting from the intermittent sound of seven sheep-horn trumpets played by the same number of priests during seven days: "And it happened that when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, they shouted with great clamor, and the wall tumbled down" (Joshua 7:20). In Márquez’s painting, this event has undergone a clear transformation. The artist, by placing the story in a distinct context, has conferred upon it a highly seditious tone. A lone musician - a mariachi - sends the sound of his trumpet toward the Guadalajara Cathedral: its dome and towers, famous for their inverted gannets, crack and crumble. Is this a severe criticism of the hardening that contemporary Mexican ecclesiastic institutions suffer from? It is, without a doubt, a disquieting piece, very unusual in Márquez’s work and even in the panorama of present-day Mexican painting.

Other worlds and other tones come up in a contrasting way in the works in this exhibit. Three paintings, The Lost Autumn, Waldstein Sonata and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, show a solitary figure - in the middle of the forest, among the tree branches, on the edge of a roof-with his arms stretched towards the heavens. It is not the first time Márquez establishes a dialogue with this Wallace Stevens poem -we can find similar references in his early work- in which the appearance of the blackbird acts to catalyze the imagination. For example, the 1997 oil The Tears of the Golem shows the same isolated figure, set up as an offering, receiving the fluttering of the birds and the murmur of the sea. That stance returns now and reflects the will to rise up that can be understood as the intimate urgency to establish a pact, a new alliance between earth, sky and humankind. It is the gesture of one in prayer whose upraised arms draw only half of a circle that, in the best of scenarios, will be completed with the intervention of a supreme power.

Márquez’s work is founded in these paradoxes; it makes visible the substance of our deepest dissonances. With them, it constructs the basis of a possible harmony. The woman's body that buds - a flower among flowers - and reminds us of the lover in Song of Songs, owner and master of an inalienable visible secret, is another of the themes that again inhabit this work composed of mysterious evidences and secret correspondences. To paint her in the middle of nature or, as in another of the pieces that make up the show, naked and asleep at the edge of the sea, may be one of the routes of access Márquez has made his own during his vital trajectory. It is a route of contemplation and recreation of the visible world's most prized gifts, of praise and preservation of a kingdom still present; investigation and discovery of an always fleeing beauty that the medium of painting establishes in perpetuity.

Jorge Esquinca                                                                                                              

Guadalajara, Mexico, 2003

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

Please reload