SOJOURNS IN THE LABYRINTH

 

 Edward J. Sullivan

Whenever we are confronted with an exhibition of the work of Roberto Márquez or study a selection of photographs of his paintings accomplished over the span of his career (which now covers more than ten years) we inevitably experience a sense of both bewilderment and admiration. Our natural tendencies to categorize art according to either national characteristics or precise stylistic traits compel us to label the artist as a "Mexican painter" who follows a "realist" or, at least, "figurative" mode of vision. Yet the more we study his art the less "Mexican" it appears, even though this label has been employed by a number of critics who seek a facile explanation of some of the painter's themes and colors. To classify his painting as strictly "realist" is also far from satisfying. Less convincing still is the much-misused designation "magic realist" to describe the often oneiric qualities that we perceive in many of Márquez’s canvases.

A precise definition of Roberto Márquez’s art comes about only with an understanding of the remarkably wide range of references, appropriations and transformations. For any viewer who studies it with care Márquez’s art soon departs (often rather radically) from any of the set categories of contemporary painting.

Márquez’s sources of inspirations are, in some cases, based upon the art of the past. He is an ardent investigator into the myriad traditions of western painting (and sculpture). He has traveled widely and made systematic studies of the classical, medieval, renaissance and modern movements. Yet art history goes only so far in unraveling the many strands of the visual imagination of this artist. Ina profound sense Roberto Márquez defines himself as a poet of the perceptible image. He is able to grasp a likeness, a recollection or a reflection and transform it in a way more akin to poetic manipulation of a metaphor than the painterly maneuvering of observed phenomena.

Indeed, the art of poetry is a vital component of his cultural formation. In the early 1980s Márquez became associated with the literary forum conducted by the Mexican poet Elias Nandino in Guadalajara. He was greatly stimulated by his interactions with the young poets who formed a part of that circle. They would read and criticize each other's writings on a regular basis and from this workshop emerged many literary figures of note in Mexican letters today. Poetry as well as other forms of literary expression were critical in the aesthetic formation of the young painter. Márquez has stated that as a youth in Guadalajara he was motivated in his artistic and literary efforts by the poet Jorge Esquinca whose poetry Márquez has illustrated on several occasions. These were often published in the literary magazine Campo Abierto which, emerged from the activities of Márquez  and his colleagues in the Taller of Nandino with which he was associated from 1980 to 1982. Lasting for several issues, this journal contained prose and poetry by the members of the group as well as other writers. The young students designed, illustrated and published the magazine themselves. Their interests in literary publishing became so serious at one point that they founded their own firm which they called Cuarto Menguante. This fledgling publishing house was responsible for over twenty volumes of belles lettres. The first of these was a collection of the poetry of Nandino entitled Conversación con el mar which contained illustrations by Márquez. His drawings for this book set a precedent for his future illustrations for other volumes such as Puerta de verano (poetry by Vicente Quirarte). Augurios (Jorge Esquinca) and, in 1990, Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Ojos de perro azul which Márquez illustrated for the Japanese publisher Fukutake Shoten.

Márquez has continued his intense interest in the art of poetry. His tastes are eclectic and he is as attracted to the work of Ezra Pound as to that of Octavio Paz, Xavier Villaurrutia, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and other classic poets of the Spanish and English languages. The writings of Jorge Luis Borges has had great significance for Márquez. The poems and narrative works of this Argentine master possess both a subtlety and intellectual complexity that the artist finds most appealing. In several of his paintings Márquez pays homage to this great figure of South American letters. It is important to point out, however, that in his own painting Márquez does not strive for any specific literary allusions or references. While there is certainly an essential poetic quality in his paintings they are in no sense of the word narrative illustrations to a text.

Literary allusion became for Márquez an innate mode of expression and the indelible marks of thoughts made palpable through verbal utterances form an inevitable trait of the images of this painter. Just as Jorge Luis Borges created imaginary paintings with words, Márquez uses words and phrases (which are sometimes painted directly onto the canvas) to underline the subtle complexities of the things we see on his canvases. When contemplating a painting by this artist we begin - almost unconsciously - to construct a story to explain the setting or the activities of the characters that Márquez has created for us. Yet the narrative impulse of our imaginations can go only so far in fabricating paths of comprehension for the inevitably enigmatic creations of Márquez. Just when we think we know the 'real' meaning of a given picture by him, Márquez will confound us by withholding key clues from the viewer, thus forcing us to contend with a labyrinthine entanglement of strands of possible explanations for the tableau he has assembled for us. Although we may be perplexed, and even at times frustrated, by our inability to 'read' a work by Márquez as if it were a linear narrative with a subject and object, beginning, middle and end, we are inevitably drawn by the artist into an almost mesmerizing web spun, Penelope- like by impossibly fine threads which connect the intricate and elusive strands of meaning.

If poetry and literary metaphor form an important element in the fabric of Márquez’s art, musical references and intimations of harmonic cadences and rhythms underscore the ineffably mellifluous patterns of visual correlation in his works. One of Márquez’s favorite musical genres is the opera. As he paints, opera is often heard in his studio. Although he sometimes favors nineteenth century Italian bel canto spectacles, he is not unappreciative of the delicate effects of a work by Strauss or the dramatic impact of the operas of Wagner. The highly condensed dramas of these composers' works create an atmosphere of emotional tension that is translated into the often cryptic dramas of Márquez’s paintings. Symphonies, oratorios and even more modest chamber pieces suggest themselves in Márquez’s imagery. Just as the most successful composer is able to evoke a transcendental passion or angst, this painter's most successful works transmit to the viewer intimations of universal emotional content.

Márquez has stated, however, that all types of music are of interest to him. Contemporary rock or even minimal compositions form part of his musical repertory. Although he has not studied music formally he feels an attraction to the act of creation of a musical composition which far transcends the casual interest of most listeners. Many of his paintings are directly inspired by the music he happens to be hearing at a given time. In no case, however, can we point to a specific painting and link it with a particular opera, symphony or chamber piece.

Roberto Márquez was born in Mexico City in December 1959. Both of his parents were from the state of Jalisco and at about the age of nine the artist's family returned to their native region to establish themselves in Guadalajara. The artist's fairly conventional childhood culminated in his university studies in architecture at the Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de Occidente (Guadalajara) between 1978 and 1983.

Until this time Márquez had been interested in drawing and plastic form but he had not decided upon a career as an artist. Finishing his degree studies, however, it became clear to him that making art was the thing that aroused in him his greatest passions. Nonetheless, he confesses to a constant pendulum movement in his professional desires, often feeling as attracted to the literary arts as to the visual. Márquez was fortunate in contacting a man named Carlos Ashida, who is both an art dealer and an avid supporter of young painters, who provided him both the financial and moral support to continue as a painter and develop a career in Guadalajara.

Growing up as an artist in Guadalajara inevitably places a heavy burden of tradition on any young artist. It is a place which has a long and venerable history as the birth place for some of Mexico's greatest and most influential painters. Although Márquez was born in the Mexican capital, his familial ties are with the state of which Guadalajara is the capital and virtually all of his earliest artistic activities took place in that city. The state of Jalisco is rich in the colonial traditions of painting, sculpture and architecture. However, it is with the modern era that we witness the flowering of the region as one of the greatest art centers of the country. If one were to look at a roster of the most significant names in modern Mexican art one would observe that a very large proportion of them were from Guadalajara or surrounding towns and cities. In the nineteenth century the portraitist Jose Maria Estrada (whose style some have mistakenly called 'naive') was one of the area's most outstanding practitioners of painting. The intensity with which he portrays his sitters and the unadorned truthfulness of his likenesses have made a strong impact on numerous artists of our own time, including Márquez.

The twentieth century heritage in Jalisco is outstanding. The man who has often been called the father of the modern mural movement, Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo) was born in the state capital in 1875. Symbolists Jorge Enciso and Roberto Montenegro are both natives of Jalisco and did many significant works there. Carlos Orozco Romero, well known for his Surrealist-related compositions was born in Guadalajara in 1896. One of Mexico's most famous women painters of mid-century, Maria Izquierdo, came from San Juan de Los Lagos, Jalisco. Other key figures to emerge from the cultural milieu of Guadalajara include the muralist Raul Anguiano as well as Jesus Guerrero Galvan and Juan Soriano, still active as a painter and creator of monumental sculptures. Xavier Guerrero and Alfonso Michel were both born elsewhere although their careers matured in the city.

Yet the painter who created the greatest impact upon artistic life in Guadalajara in this century was Jose Clemente Orozco. Born in 1883 in the town of Zapotlán el Grande (now known as Ciudad Guzman), Orozco went to Mexico City as a young man. Nonetheless he returned to Guadalajara in 1936 to begin work on a series of frescoes in the University, in the government palace and the Hospicio Cabanas. Those in the former orphans' hospice, often compared in their grandiose size and monumental scope to the Sistine Chapel frescoes of Michelangelo, are perhaps the greatest achievement of his career. Roberto Márquez says that while living in the capital of Jalisco the frescoes of Orozco were among the most prominent things that he would observe on a daily basis. These paintings are so much a part of the fabric of life in Guadalajara that the young artist virtually took them for granted. Later, however, he came to realize the exceptionally important place that the work of Orozco plays in his own work.

Although Márquez does not feel himself to be an integral part of a "Jalisco school" (if such a thing indeed exists) he acknowledges that with the passing of time the more he observes the effects of his having developed in that particular artistic milieu. Márquez participated in his first group exhibition, the "Salon de Octubre" in Guadalajara in 1982, the same year in which he had his first one-artist show - also in Guadalajara. The first time he exhibited in the United States was also in the context of painters from the capital of Jalisco. This was in an exhibition entitled "Pintores de Guadalajara" at the Robinson Galleries in Houston in 1984.

Márquez became more acutely aware of the Mexican characteristics of his art after he had left Mexico. This is a common phenomenon with many artists who identify more closely with their national cultural heritage from a distance. He has said that before leaving Guadalajara he was much more interested in absorbing every bit of information possible through Mexican and especially foreign art magazines regarding the latest events in the art worlds outside his native country.

Márquez had considered moving to Mexico City in 1985, but was dissuaded by the devastating earthquake which had recently occurred there. He decided to go to Arizona instead. The family of his wife Ana Saldamando was living there and he felt that relocating to Phoenix would be a good transition, introducing him to a new culture north of the Mexican border. One of the most palpable effects that living in Arizona had on Márquez’s art was in terms of light and color. The directness and strength of the sunlight in that southwestern state inevitably brightened and cleared his palette.

He was made even more aware of this when he left Arizona for New York in 1989. In Manhattan he experienced a further radical change of color, light and atmosphere and a gradual darkening of his colors took place with a consequent enriching of the mood that each tone cast in a given composition.

It was also in Arizona, says the artist that he began to study the modern masters of Mexican painting with greater attention. Among them Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo. Rufino Tamayo and David Alfaro Siqueiros were and continue to be, especially important to him. Orozco. However, the greatest of all artists from Jalisco, has a place of even higher significance in Márquez’s visual imagination. Nonetheless it is plainly evident, simply by studying his oeuvre with even moderate care that there is little in his paintings that can be specifically related to Mexican pictorial traditions. He does not consider himself a part of any specific artistic movement in Mexico although he does recognize his affinities with those contemporary figure painters such as Julio Galán and Nahum Zenil who are concerned with self -questioning and -examination in their art. Several critics have mistakenly considered Márquez’s work almost exclusively within a Mexican context. Yet much more significant are his roots in the art of certain European masters.

Roberto Márquez is an avid traveler as well as a collector of art books of all varieties. The repertory of visual forms upon which he draws in the creation of his art is impressively broad. Nonetheless we can point to several periods in the history of art and a few specific artists who have played critical roles in the formation of his imagination. Remembering that Márquez  was trained as an architect it is not surprising that he has been particularly drawn to the Italian masters of the Early Renaissance. He is attracted to those artists in whose works are perceived an architectonic substructure. Giotto. Cimabue. Masaccio. Fra Angelico. Fra Filippo Lippi and Andrea Mantegna are all painters whose solidity of form and sculptural clarity present in every human figure they painted characterize the most glorious moments of the Italian quattrocento. In the work of each of these painters architecture itself often plays a central role. Figures inhabit real, believable spaces in the paintings of these masters. The intelligible architectural units in which they move are radically distinct from the fantastical realms populated by the participants in the dramas of Gothic panel paintings or frescoes. However, when studying the work of Roberto Márquez it soon becomes clear that he reserves a special place of honor for Piero della Francesca. A pupil of Domenico Veneziano. Piero came from southeastern Tuscany. Although he worked for a brief time in the quintessential Early Renaissance city of Florence, much of his most significant art was accomplished in smaller towns nearby. His most impressive achievement, for instance, is his fresco cycle in the choir of San Francesco in Arezzo depicting the legend of the discovery of the True Cross. Márquez  has studied these works with great care, learning and incorporating into his art Piero's lessons not only of perspective and composition but, more importantly, absorbing the quietude and meditative calm with which Piero traces even the most dramatic tales. There is an inwardly directed sense of emotion to the work of Piero della Francesca. Márquez has incorporated this element of Piero's art in the creation of his own enigmatic legends and myths. The participants in Piero's silent dramas appear to communicate with their eyes alone. There is a mute intercourse among these sacred actors, likewise, in Roberto Márquez’s paintings there is a laconic discourse often taking place among the figures.

Regarding the modern artists whom he admires, he is constantly changing his focus from one twentieth century master to another, absorbing and sometimes appropriating from a large number of artists. Although he has serious admiration for the poetic values in the work of Cy Twombly. Márquez confesses to being more drawn to the European tradition than to that of North America. The painters who have retained his attention throughout the years have been Picasso, some of the European Surrealists, especially Giorgio di Chirico and others of the Italian Scuola Mettafisica as well as Balthus. In studying the work of Márquez one finds a number of points of contact with Balthus. The two artists' juxtapositions of figures is often similar and Márquez is obviously interested in the European painter's mastery of the suspenseful mood. There are, nonetheless, important areas in which Márquez diverges from Balthus, eschewing the often menacing sexuality which is a regular feature of the older painter's art. Although overt eroticism is rarely present in his paintings, they are redolent of a deeply felt sensuality in which Márquez is able to suggest a celebration of passion and desire inherent in human relationships.

Above all. Roberto Márquez is a painter of the human form. Whether within complicated architectural settings or performing acts of enigmatic ritual, it is the figure itself that always emerges as the dominant element in the artist's compositions. Although Márquez did not formally train at an academic art institution he has an innate grasp of the principles of the classical modes of fashioning a painted surface. As we have seen many of his pictures take place in a contained space. The architecture and the figures' relation to it are carefully planned. The proportions are discreet and the movements suggested are measured and. at times, almost ritualistic. In addition, there is an element of timelessness that pervades the art of Márquez which goes hand in hand with the intimations of classicism. There are few visual clues to the time in which the artist sets the action of his canvases. The figures who are not nude often wear simplified clothing (striped trousers or short pants) that give no hint as to a precise chronological moment.

There are generally only one or two participants in the silent, pantomime-like dramas that play themselves out on his canvases. In a few pictures, such as the 1986 There Were no Roses in the Cool Cafe (plate 5), or the 1988 Life is Not a Dream. But It Can Be a Dream (plate 16), there may be as many as four characters, but there are exceptions to the rule. Márquez’s figures often confront one another with haunting, questioning looks. As in I Will Become Like You So I Will Not Lose You, 1990 (plate 27), or The Golem II, 1990 (plate 28), the figures seem almost to defy one another in an implied contest of wills. The faces of Márquez’s figures rarely if ever convey specific expression. These characters prefer to keep their inner passions to themselves, compelling the viewer to fabricate for him or herself a scenario that might explain the crux of the silent skit that Márquez puts before us. The enigmas devised by the artist through his figures are further enhanced by his manipulation of space, especially those instances in which interior space is created. The men and women are situated against rough-grained walls on shallow stages which allow them only restricted movement. This element in Márquez’s work conforms with his vital interest in Early Renaissance painting. Piero della Francesca's scenes, for instance, transpire in equally narrow, confined ranges of activity. Even in those compositions which unfold in an outdoor setting the artist uses certain devices such as walls or veils of vegetation to seal off the individuals from greater interaction with the world beyond their immediate surroundings. Márquez obliges us to contend directly with the subjects of his canvases. They are close to the plane of the picture, as if to imply inevitable movement into the space of the viewer.

Just as the painter's human subjects are paradoxical so are the places they inhabit. With very few exceptions the rooms, gardens or other spaces he creates are without specific identity. They could be anywhere; we are given no hints of location. The 1990 work entitled Augury (plate 261, is an unusual painting in that we observe the artist himself set against a wintry background of the skyline of Manhattan. Even with its recognizable architectural features the New York cityscape appears more like a theatrical curtain than a real place. Even in a work such as this which takes place in a space known to all of us, the painter continues to confuse our sense of geographical and spatial orientation.

All of this painter's images have a haunting and sometimes eerie quality. One of his earliest works, After the Flood, 1984 (plate 1 I, is one of his most overtly dramatic compositions. We observe nothing more than an empty room in which a knife rests menacingly on the floor. The wooden window shade is open, but the barred window certainly provided no means of escape for whoever dropped the knife and we are thus required to answer our own questions regarding the activities that may have taken place here. Márquez 's paintings are rarely, if ever, narrative works in the conventional sense of the word, but from time to time he has employed specific stories to suggest a mood or a composition. Such is the case with The Dream of Charlotte, 1985 (plate 3), depicting a woman in a bathtub and the image of a man reflected in a mirror. Márquez has stated that he was inspired by the French Revolutionary historical episode of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday. The best known version of this story in art is the canvas by Jacques Louis David now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels. Yet Márquez’s work pays relatively little homage to this neoclassical master. He has invented his own solutions for the pictorial problems presented by the theme and has also had recourse to the art of another of the painters for whom he has deepest respect, Diego Velazquez. The mirror motif is ultimately derived from the Spanish painter's masterpiece Las Meninas, yet here again we observe few direct connections with the European artist.

The pastoral reveries of Titian and Giorgione are recalled in the 1986 Theory of the Bear (plate 4), in which a man reclines beneath a tree while another man, wearing a bear suit, spies upon him from behind and a third observes the scene, like many of his paintings, this one was the result of the direct study of the model. The artist works either directly from the model or from photographs taken during a modeling session. Although he now uses mainly professional models, in the mid-1980s he would rely upon his friends in Phoenix to pose for him. In this case, as in other pictures, the models in the picture include Richard Lancaster and Clayton Kirking who were responsible for introducing the artist to the Scottsdale, Arizona art dealer and collector Riva Yares at whose gallery Márquez  has shown since 1986.

Life is Not a Dream, But It Can Be a Dream is one of the most ambitious compositions of the later 1980s. Here two male and two female figures parade before an elaborate architectural structure with pointed arches decorated with graffiti. As in so many works by the artist there is a feeling of the solemn and even the sacramental. Each figure gestures in an eerily self-conscious way. We imagine that each of their movements defines an emotional state or stands for a symbolic intention. The title is taken from a poem by Jorge Luis Borges and refers to the illusive nature of our fragile human existence. And indeed intimations of fragility and transience often serve as leit motifs in Márquez’s paintings. These melancholic musings on the frailties of our beings seem to be at the heart of much of this painter's oeuvre. Regarding the titles of his works, Márquez has stated that sometimes titles describe the action and at other times they do not. He always desires that a name be given to the pictures, not satisfied with leaving them untitled. The titles can even be invented words, as in the case of the 1987 Brni Wulf Ande Ro (plate 11).

As we have already seen, specific references to Mexico or Mexican artistic traditions are rarely present in a palpable way in Márquez’s art. Nonetheless there are certain instances in which we are inevitably obliged to consider the sources of inspiration from his native country. In / Can't See You, 1989 (plate 22), a boy dressed in the inevitable striped trousers sits on a stool looking at a book. Beside him is a clay model of the Cathedral of Guadalajara. Asked about the meaning of this element in the picture Márquez remarked that it certainly must be symbolic of the over-riding importance in his work of the cultural heritage of that Mexican city. Brief History of Mexico of 1989 (plate 19), portrays a blindfolded nude woman attempting to hit a piñata with a club while both, Hemingway or Proust (plate 17), and Death of Manolete (plate 18), both 1988, portray nude women, in a highly abstracted bull ring, participating in a corrida. While these images may refer directly to elements of a Hispanic reality by no means do they conform to any of the multitude of stereotypes that artists, both Mexican and non-Mexican, have consciously cultivated to appeal to audiences searching for the folkloric or 'exotic' aspects of Mexican art.

In Death of Manolete as well as in The Rake, 1986 (plate 8), women confront animals while holding their intimate apparel before them. These are two of the earlier examples of paintings in which women are challenged by dangerous forces which they do not choose to control. In the 1993 The Game of Fire (plate 52), a nude woman lies, Brunnhilde-like on a bed surrounded by tongues of flame. The red and orange checkerboard pattern of both the floor and walls of the room in which she undergoes her torment seem to magnify the terrifying aspects of the scene. In Unfinished Botany, 1993 (plate 54), a blindfolded woman is enmeshed in (and indeed almost strangled by) a garland of huge red roses and in The Net, 1993 (plate 55), another female nude is bound by a red cord and seems to cling tenuously to a net. It appears inevitable that she will fall into an abyss. We must ask ourselves how Márquez has developed such a thorough vocabulary of implicitly dangerous or painful scenes. On one hand we could judge these as examples of voyeurism on the part of a male artist perceiving the female as an objectified being. I would mitigate this notion, however, by examining the oeuvre as a whole wherein one finds virtually as many analogous scenes involving male characters about to be enveloped in a morass of anguish and suffering. For an explanation of such subject matter I believe that we must refer to the concept, so often developed by the artist, of the dream-like delicacy of the life force. Following Borges' view of the labyrinthine nature of our existence, it appears as if Márquez is attempting, through the entirety of his works, to come to a detente with the inexorable forces of fate.

To deal with the often overwhelming conundrum of life Márquez often turns to myth and legend, attempting to seek either refuge or search for explanations for the mysteries and inequities of existence. The references that we perceive through the paintings' titles may be obscure, yet these paintings are not meant to be easy to read. The artist certainly has a myriad of specific interpretations in mind yet, at the same time, realizes that once a work of art leaves the hands of its creator it enters the collective consciousness of all those who observe and react to it, therefore allowing a multitude of messages to emerge from it. He has executed several canvases utilizing themes relating to the ancient Czech-Jewish fable of the Golem. The Passion of AI-Hallaj. 1991 (plate 36), alludes to the obscure story of an Islamic saint who was martyred for his moral beliefs and Your Name Could be Phaeton, 1991 (plate 38). has at least some tenuous allusions to Greek mythology. Nonetheless, each of these images has a distinct life and meaning of its own. It may grow out, in an organic way, of its original sources (insinuated in the title) but it assumes a distinct meaning that may be amplified and transformed by each person who contemplates these paintings.

One of the works that best captures the hauntingly oneiric qualities of the art of Márquez, exemplifying his attachment to myth and his interest in the intimations of both the fugitive nature of life and timelessness is the 1992 painting Where is Avalon? (plate 40). A young man is seen all but submerged in a vaporous, watery place. Only his head remains for the viewer to see, his face looking out with bewilderment. The sky darkens and there is a faint note of dread present. Avalon is, of course, the island paradise in the western seas referred to in the legends of King Arthur, It was there that the Arthurian heroes went to die. It is a place of tranquility and repose. Márquez transforms this specific reference into an icon of our mutual existences. He obliges us to confront ourselves and our desires for an ultimate respite from the travails that plague us in our daily lives. In a greater sense, however, this work (like others by this artist) can be read as a metaphor for a greater purity in life, a renewal of the lost state of innocence that now seems so foreign to us but which. Márquez seems to think, is just slightly beyond our grasp.

We might take the ideas embodied in Where is Avalon? as symbolic of the universal message of this artist's visual production. He has been able to capture, in a unique manner, the ubiquitous vocabulary of universal truths, distilling them into images that are perhaps at first glance paradoxical and cryptic. Yet when the viewer looks beyond their surface they unfold for us a powerful message of innate compassion and understanding of the condition of humanity.

Edward J. Sullivan, 1994

Published in the catalog for the exhibition “Sojourns in the Labyrinth” a survey of paintings: 1984-1994, Tucson Museum of Art

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