ABYSSES AND INSOMNIA

 

Luis Carlos Emerich

 

The human figure is predominant in the paintings of Roberto Márquez-a realist idiom open to multiple readings. However, it is probable that the subjective potential of his output over the last twelve years was first suggested early on in his only "uninhabited" work, the only picture that allows one to perceive that the atmosphere is the true primary force in all of Márquez's work. (Over the years this power would come to have complete mastery over Márquez's human subjects and would transfigure trivial situations into extraordinary events. In that painting from 1984, entitled Después del diluvio (After the Flood) [cat. 1], Márquez omitted the human figure, but the rustic room depicted here is not really unoccupied. At first glance it seems possessed, not unlike the house "besieged" by the demons of writer Julio Cortazar's imagination and, as such, situated in the imprecise border between consciousness and unconsciousness. Intervening in this remembrance are what appear to be deliberately invoked forces: desirable for the energy they impart, but daunting because of their unimaginable magnitude. For this reason, the room not only constitutes a stage setting, but a zone of sensibility, far-reaching and resilient, as needed for the display of nuances and unforeseen turns of spirit that lie somewhere between fawn-like fears and hidden pleasures.

 In such an atmosphere of unattainability and uncertainty, Márquez will stage all kinds of existential reflections in the form of charades or old-world tableaux vivants, even fables or parables of apparently colloquial inspiration. Devoid of evident anecdote, his paintings may prompt one to search for possible secret codes. To this end, surely, the viewer will have to turn to the field of poetry, for there are no discernible arguments in these visual narratives, only sporadic phrases that make the images even more impenetrable.

 Después del diluvio depicts the interior of a room in a house with white-washed, rust-stained walls, a weathered brick floor and a rickety wooden window with an iron grating. These elements define the rural and time-worn setting as well as suggest the idiosyncratic nature of its possible inhabitants. As in Italian metaphysical painting, the diffuse lighting suggests that the place is disposed to receive or emanate something beyond the limits of the ordinary. Not only is this suggested psychologically by the chiaroscuro that accentuates the solitude of the room and its acquiescence to the invasion of the invisible, but also by the presence of a knife "thrown" on the floor, its opaque blade puncturing the luminous rays emanating from the window, while its handle remains in shadow. The knife, about to merge chromatically with the floor, lies between two planes of light-a possible allusion to "inside and outside"-as if to suggest that it now has, or once had, an intentional use beyond its household function. The interior atmosphere indicates that a violent act was (or is about to be) committed. Abandoned or waiting to be discovered, the knife affirms its nature as an offensive weapon and is a prelude or an epilogue to a fatality; indeed, it penetrates any trivial thoughts, opening like a wound the doors to a metaphysical speculation.

Después del diluvio is a realist painting, given its geometric structure and its traditional Mexican chromatic treatment. By this I mean its realism is neither orthodox, photographic, symbolic nor hyperrealist; instead, it is a way of representing physical reality with the fidelity and detail just sufficient to suggest it.  And since anecdotal reason is omitted from this representation, its realist objective is only a discernible framework for supporting a metaphor that the seduced viewer could complete, if not compose like an enigma of his or her own life experience.

 

With minimal but thought-provoking elements, Márquez proposes the search for a key outside that room where sundown or daybreak indistinctly occurs, or even outside the canvas itself, in a zone of cloudy logic. Después del diluvio resembles a déjà vu, and as such it is a furtive image, an assault that alters the flow of what is accepted as real and objective. Después del diluvio poses questions about the content of the seemingly inanimate yet mentally latent, in that sphere where-as Jorge Luis Borges would say-"being possible is enough for something to exist," but where "what is reasonable (even plain, pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception."

Be it the interior of a rural house like this, or a courtyard, street, river or simply mere spatial planes that, no matter how indeterminate, refer to the realm of provincial daydreaming, these will be placed in the imprecise mental stratum where the conscious" imagination, the incomplete vigil or dreams themselves nourish vital thoughts. Since 1984, this complex, fleeting place has been made available to compose a single basic work in future years, centered around the folds of the imagination, encompassing wills beyond the human, diversified and enriched by as many interpreters-persons yet to come, or to be invoked-as there are conflicts intertwined in the search leading toward an affirmation of self-identity, accepting as a premise the meaninglessness of life or the perception of life from the viewpoint of the inexplicable.

In a time outside of time, in a space like that recalled by a somnambulist or a tightrope-walker over an abyss, this work has come to have as many versions as there are events that modify, annul or renew visions of life. That unpronounceable text, always on the tip of one's tongue or paintbrush, resembles that of a virtual, nomadic theater on the road leading anywhere that daily life experiences have transmigrated to become riddles. When the human subjects of these paintings make their "appearance," they manage to modify the scene, but not its obscure intention. They will be led and "directed" in a disconcerting fashion, like memory in the face of the uncertain, because Márquez situates the plots that they contribute in the vague realm governed by the light of flickering reason, so that all else is seduction.

WITH HIMSELF

The context of this scenario may be provincial-but what transpires is not. When the circus performers, hawkers, insomniacs and somnambulists (all within our painter and poet) move to the big city-as seen in Augurio (Augury) of 1990 [cat. 3lJ-they change the setting but not the plot. Moreover, Márquez intensifies their self-estrangement and their internal workings by pitting them against other estrangements and other internal workings that are perhaps more spectacular but not more profound. One discerns in the work of Roberto Márquez the ritualistic, invocational nature latent in Mexican popular culture-especially in the state of Jalisco-nourished by myths and legends and by an urge to maintain it through periodic allegorizing. That tradition, capable of gathering archetypal universals of human behavior to face the unknown (and in the case of Márquez, facing internal abysses), is transmuted and employed in an attempt to prove the permanence of its enigma in unusual situations. The paraphernalia changes and rituals are decontextualized to evolve into festivities, but only to delve even deeper into the essential myth of being, here and now as always and anywhere.

Symbolic elements are further refined by Márquez in order to invest his subjects with both attributes and defects, as in emblematic painting, but certainly they continue to refer to a certain intimacy and, above all, to expectations that emerge at an early age, later to be confronted by signals of estrangement from their own circumstantial condition. As in El circo del poeta (The Poet's Circus) of 1988 [cat. 20J-as in all of Márquez's work, although he sometimes reduces the representability of objects to a minimum, or does away with it altogether-all his individuals carry a considerable emotional weight, which by the force of inhibiting itself, acquires fantastic dimensions. In a debate between longing and doubt, they seem to "act out" a prolonged adolescence or a silent, solitary existential upheaval. With them, Márquez travels over world and time. Each new contingency refers to the past, as if to imply its mythological origin, but pressed by present-day necessities, facing a future as uncertain as are the sources of just such a mythology. In this way, introspection and reflection are resolved in a visual lyricism forced to ebb and flow between tradition and the present, enduring the successive transfiguration of atavistic traits into new "clothes," from ancestral prejudice on into equally unsustainable but preferable logic, as if they were the front and back of the same disguise. Perhaps catalyzed by a drastic differentiation with regard to other idiosyncrasies, these reconversions assimilate new energy, confirming that province and metropolis are the face and mask, as in all mythologies.

For over twelve years, Márquez has rendered subjects in inexplicable situations that recall the deepening reflexive delight provoked by a poem. His work does not go in search of logic, for Márquez is driven by an internal force as powerful as that of sexuality. His human subjects may well be embodiments of the unspoken forces faced in a vacuum or a virtual timelessness devoid of real struggle, producing subtle tensions in the air. It would seem that the active agents in this indefinite setting are the personal enigmas of these young men and women who, in a trance, form a system of instinctive relationships of attraction and rejection, fear and desire, war and play, but deprived of any possible denouement.

In Kircher joven (Young Kircher) from 1992 [cat. 44], the extremely intimate scene is reduced to two planes. The theatrical backdrop of his works of the 1980S is transformed here into a surface which, like a vertical chessboard, exhibits a playful modular pattern over which the word MAGIAE is inscribed. There is evident admiration for the poet or the magician on whose skin the letters seem to blossom. His tattooed torso ("illustrated" like the man in the story by Ray Bradbury, tattooed with the sinister narratives which he is condemned to live) exalts the marvels and torments of life in this world, outside this world, in addition to being condemned to further entangle or unravel its mysteries.

In La mujer serpiente (Snake Woman) of 1995 [cat. 63~the composition has been reduced to a single frontal plane where a human figure with her back to the viewer, wears on her skin her identity, ancestral and current. This ritual attire, or indelible historic/mythic/religious tattoo, indistinctly recalls Aztec gentlemen, history as a traveling circus and myth as an inescapable, initiatory investiture. Márquez has been traversing an intricate succession of turns in consciousness, memory and daydreaming, and he has placed them in an environment that, more than a specific Mexican province, perhaps alludes to the province which, with regard to everything, is inhabited by each human being. By this I mean an unalienable individuality, including that of the painter himself, free to express his reflexive observations, stressing the most complex of them all: the sensation of the infinity of that which is human, and perhaps, more clearly, about being young, and full of energy, yet without knowing exactly for what purpose.

 

 WITH YOURSELF

 

To associate the expository simplicity and the considerable poetic complexity in the work of Márquez with the fact that he was trained as a painter in Guadalajara, Jalisco, is to know that at an early age he moved from his native Mexico City to a land fertile with the creative imagination of Marfa Izquierdo, Roberto Montenegro, Carlos Orozco Romero, Raul Anguiano and Juan Soriano, among other painters whose models of realism went beyond the real.

These painters had close ties to the craftsmen of Jalisco whose natural fantastic temperament they refined into metaphysics painting and surrealism, as a European counterpart to Mexico's vernacular imagination.

The work of Márquez can be compared to that of Izquierdo if' that it plants in the unconscious sophisticated metaphysical reflections under the guise of still lifes, dreamlike altars and an eternal circus. His work can also be compared with that of Montenegro, in that it renders unusual the daily life of people who, like genetic memory, identify and interpret his enigmas in the same way, no matter where they go. Similarly, Márquez can be compared with Orozco Romero who, academically, renders the daydreaming of the spirit; or even with Anguiano who painted blue mountebanks and jugglers as if Picasso had been born in Guadalajara. Ultimately there is a connection with those painters from Jalisco who recognized De Chirico, Magritte, Delvaux and Tanquy, among others, as relatives born overseas and who, in spite of speaking another language, were intrigued by the insufficiency of reality in justifying the phenomenon of being. In the 1930S they absorbed the essence of European metaphysics and refracted it for provincial circumstances, in a sort of appropriation of painterly languages suited to exploring the local way in which the unconscious was made manifest, that is, in an imagination resembling that which flourished overseas, devoid of intellectualization, and that in literature reached its high point in the work of Juan Rulfo and Juan Jose Arreola.

If asked to explain why the greatest twentieth-century painter from Jalisco, Jose Clemente Orozco, does not seem to have influenced Márquez at all, I would say that Márquez's extreme individualism, his conscious acceptance of the direct, social, virtual purposelessness of art in validating him from the viewpoint of intimacy, and the integration of local reference as a vague incident  of the universal, are all aspects of Márquez that lie at the extreme opposite of Orozco, but with a similar force of penetration into  consciousness. The internal struggle of the inhabitants of the world according to Márquez is nothing but the reflection of the unstoppable, unbearable uproar of individual questions which, because they reverberate secretly, penetrate deeply and are disseminated.

This artistic and historic legacy may well have facilitated the validation of Márquez's artistic career. However, it did not constitute a road to follow, but perhaps a spectral impulse that led him to draw from European painting with a sensibility intensified by the example of the generation active from the 1920S to the 1940S, to which the above-mentioned Mexican artists belonged. It can be assured that their cultural acclimation in

Jalisco was due to the rise of painterly activity as an intimate experience and only intimately transferable, as opposed to the extreme opposite, the public and combative position sustained by Jose Clemente Orozco.

Clearly, certain elements that have nourished the work of Márquez (European medieval, Renaissance and baroque painting) were assimilated on account of his natural predisposition to adopt the metaphysical tradition of Jalisco. It is possible to affirm that the fantastic dimension suggested by his painting may well originate from the supernatural quality achieved by the temporal distance of the works produced by the great anecdotal and allegorical painters of Christianity (who transfigured the apparitions and earthly possessions of heavenly spirits in the absence of or under the admonition of the earthly and celestial powers represented indistinctly by the State and the Church) and above all, by being manifestations of a profound religious faith, which is ultimately a primordial form of creative energy. To say that such a faith, is profane in the work of Márquez is not to say that its intensity is diminished in any way. Instead of painting Christs, saints, martyrs, virgins and heavenly armies-or indeed, courts and courtiers to magnify their exploits-Márquez chooses to render ordinary beings in ordinary settings to explore extraordinary powers, that will no longer be used for dogmatic persuasion, but for searching within to discover their original vital pulses. On this account, daily events seem to be ruled by instinctive powers that only poetic thought can capture and attempt to render as images. Charged with these invisible forces, his subjects interpret themselves in distant relation to others who also act out roles they have never learned. Humankind is a mythic force as opposed to a mystic force, flowing here and now in a people assessed by physical appearance and the type of bond between them, absolutely unspecified because of the indeterminate nature of their interrelations.

 

INSIDE, OUTSIDE

 

Like the options available to many Mexican artists who emerged in the 1980S, those of Márquez with regard to figuration-following abstraction's dominion for over three decades-can be seen as an act of liberation from tendentious impositions which, on the one hand, precisely implied the possibility of ultimate liberty vis- a-vis irrational forces, and on the other, its exact opposite: the predominance of the idea regarding the image. There is no tendentious premise, however, that does not emerge in essence or at least fragmented with each new turn or break. In the work of Roberto Márquez there is an irrational creative component, and although human figuration contextualizes the action, there is still the idea of an uncontrollable beyond, a mental automatism that, because it is precise, makes that irrationality even more complex.

Márquez's paintings may well suggest that under the enormous weight of materialism in the twentieth century mythological thinking was left to survive hidden in its origin, dreams, revealed- as individual and nontransferable enigmas. And for painting to revalidate its immemorial power over beings and things, generations of artists had to come and go. While rejecting the medium as a representational vehicle, these artists considered painting a conclusive action in itself, if not an object and, in some cases, a demonstration of aesthetic, anti-aesthetic and para- aesthetic theorems. By transcending traditional limits-that is, the virtual two-dimensionality and figuration of painting as an anecdotal/poetic container-they rediscovered that narcissism is inevitably drowned by reason. By opposition or through an indifference to painting as a reflection of itself, several solitary giants emerged who, like Francis Bacon and Balthus, transformed the illusion of painterly reality into an existential riddle. With them, as well as with the Nicaraguan painter Armando Morales, dreams returned to their pre-Freudian condition as mythic admonitions and premonitions, if not the unique, inscrutable and truthful confirmation of the human realm, about which anything can be said, except that it does not exist.

In the 1980S, compelled by a sense of drowning, painting as a genre, surprisingly, took to heart the archaic. Forgotten motivations like the sense of estrangement in the face of objects and existence, rejected topics like the relationship between improbable events as the only evidence of existence, and even pictorial mannerisms discarded through historic invalidation, all regained a previously ignored force-more so because they had been thought buried by reason in the past-for exploring the present as a not-so-evident consequence of the past. In colorist, representational Mexico, astonished still by the unreal aspects of life, it seemed that internationalism in art was simply the absence of identity or, rather, another unsuspected facet of a particularly daunting aesthetic demagoguery. Through painting, the entire world discovered that the particular and immediate were so strange and unfathomable, that everyone began searching for roots wherever they could. History or myth, legend or belief, fantasy or reality, the archaic or the modern, everything signaled the desperate need to recover an identity  (whichever it might be) facing the threat of globalization. At the dawn of the 1980S, the First World was suddenly "post" while the Third World had yet to know, dream of, comprehend or assimilate the "pre".

To look back was equivalent to looking within. And within many Mexican painters lay a country still the subject of myth and legend, to the point of appearing to be an enormous doubt, unnoticed for centuries, and for who’s unraveling there was an arsenal of exploratory devices that abstraction had deemed obsolete. As in Mexico, at least two recently emerged (though by then stable) tendencies reverberated in Latin America: German neo- expressionism and the Italian trasvanguardia. One, with the generation of vigorous forms of expression and reflection to depict ideological devastation; the other, with a re-appropriation of the historical past by means of a philosophical reformulation. Both were lessons in the revival of the universal through the local. These predominant tendencies of the 1980S, nevertheless, were embedded in the apparent commonplace of rejecting any predominant tendency. Mexico thereby derived a plurality which it has since validated for itself, thanks to the emergence of talented individuals who were reluctant to accept the former greatness of Mexico and, at the same time, willing to demythologize the symbols and designs of tradition.

Roberto Márquez developed as a painter within that climate, with the peculiarity of his having done so outside the crowded creative center which Mexico City had become, later leaving the country in search of a personal confrontation, perhaps to be open to influence and, in his case, to further confirm and refine the validity of what was apparently namable as "local," but which for him would be his inner being. To go out into the world, therefore, has served to widen the possibilities of projection of mental figuration which, in this case, emerges from a personal mythology founded-like all mythologies-on belief and imagination as opposed to reality and confirmation. For Márquez, his reality is represented by his recondite sensibility. That this is staged virtually in a traveling vernacular theater, or in the studio of a primitive provincial photographer, or rather, in the fantastic tableau of representative painting with an idiosyncratic and specific backdrop, expresses the need to use artifice in order to situate universal enigmas in the particular.

To levitate, as in Sobre el diluvio (Above the Flood) of 1987 [cat. 18 J; to walk nude down the street, as in La vida no es un sueño, pero podría lIegar a ser un sueño (Life Is Not a Dream But It Could Be a Dream) from 1988 [cat. 23 J; to burst into a room flying, as in Bajo la mirada de Euclides (Under the Gaze of Euclid) of 1996 [cat. 66J; or to pass through a mirror, as in La obsesión de AI-Hallaj (The Passion of AI-Halla}) from 1992 [cat. 45J are all perfectly possible acts in a theater which has access to such scarce and common material resources-artifices to create illusion-as ordinary people, but unlike them has the imagination to recognize them as containers of the unusual. If Márquez equally invokes pre-Hispanic ritual and popular Christianity, fantastic Arabian Nights narration and small-town family life, or the circus, or a profane rural fair and heavenly realms, it is due to a vision as eclectic as that of one who confuses pleasures with fear, inhibition with intensity, or a carefree demeanor with freedom. This rustic "dramatic text" is sustained by a commonly-used symbolic subtext. Serpent, apple, fish, bull, knife, mirror, water, lion, bear; all of these constitute an ancestral figurative language that speaks of natural impulses which, in this case, are invariably in reference to youth and almost always to the potential carnal relationship between man and woman.

"Pintar es un secreto abismo." ("To paint is a secret abyss.") These words, written by Roberto Márquez himself, are the title of a 1989 painting where a barefoot young man plays a trumpet, standing in front of an abstract painting on a wall at whose foot lies a trash bin. Such a secret abyss could be the continually fruitless intent to define existence, but also the timeless nature of the search and the random nature of discovery. To paint, I might add here, is to be truly "alert," as Erich Fromm would affirm, to the messages sent by the unconscious. The permanent vigil of the self and of its bowing before phenomena not easily reducible to words; not to address but to undress and paint its unforeseeable flux, to submerge or to displace oneself over the flow of imagination; these elements make Márquez's figuration support itself in a chromatic atmosphere so delicately hued that it desolves in a pervasive dark tonality, enveloping all. All the work implied by this shading expresses the infinite flexion that color should undergo, like a mental projection, to suspend in the air the sensation of that which, no matter how accurately things are represented, will always flee toward that atmosphere where one must intuit the power looming.

Roberto Márquez is one of those who has gone in search of existence in his own intimate circumstances. Like Nahum B. Zenil, Alfredo Castaneda and Julio Galan, he has considered himself the model he would most deeply come to know, but not to contain, unless infinity can be made to fit in the smallest imaginable setting. If Márquez presents a greater diversity of "actors," it is, perhaps, because to become immersed in himself is to effect his surrogate selves, be they humans, animals or things, be it time, space, magic, knowledge, reason or poetry, each one an abyss into which one could equally plummet or rise, especially if one goes naked or sleepwalking through this and other worlds.

 

 

Luis Carlos Emerich

Translation by Roberto Tejada

 

Published in the catalog for the exhibition “Fragmentos del Tiempo”  1997 Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey

Please reload