ROBERTO MÁRQUEZ: A MINOR SEASON

 

Edward Lucie-Smith

 

The new work of Roberto Márquez stems from several traditions; one of which, in keeping with the artist's Mexican origins, is Mexican art of the 20th century. From the time of Diego Rivera onward, Mexican painting has had an unmistakable flavor: poetic, exuberant, transcending established modernist boundaries. If we look for Márquez’s predecessors within Mexico itself, several artists come to mind. But the closest comparison is with a much respected painter-less well known in the United States than Rivera or his legendary wife, Frida Kahlo-and that is Antonio Ruiz (1897-1964), known as EI Corcito.

Ruiz's formative years were unconventional. He spent part of the 1920s in Hollywood, working on film sets for Universal Studios. After his return to Mexico, he deliberately kept to the margins of the Mexican art world, and his paintings possess a unique Individuality. One of Ruiz's most famous works is "The Dream of Malinche" (1939), in which the Indian princess Malintzin, Cortez's mistress and guide (and in that sense the betrayer of her people) is shown in bed asleep. The coverlet drawn up over her body is transformed into a Mexican landscape surmounted by a church built in the colonial style. The scene is depicted in EI Corcito’s skilled and delicate-but also deliberately literal-style, which he inherited from semi-naive Mexican painters of earlier generations, notably Hermengildo Bustos (1832-1907), who also influenced Kahlo.

One look at Ruiz's "Dream of Malinche," and we can perceive its relationship with the new paintings by Márquez. Yet, Ruiz's "Dream of Malinche" is directly allegorical, suggesting that Mexico's Pre-Columbian past still slumbers beneath the trappings of its European present. In contrast Márquez’s work does not propose simple equivalents of this kind and has no political agenda. Though Márquez’s paintings are often ambitious in scale, they are private meditations with a distinctly melancholy tinge far more pronounced than in the canvases he produced earlier in his career. A painting like "EI Doble," for example, which shows a figure that could be the artist himself standing and gazing reflectively at another, identical figure lying in a shallow rectangular hollow in the ground, can only be read as a reflection on human mortality. Yet the comparison between the two protagonists is subtly drawn. The space occupied by the recumbent figure is not immediately identifiable as a grave, nor are the surroundings necessarily a graveyard. And why are both figures fully dressed but barefoot, their trousers rolled up to their calves?

Bare feet are a recurrent motif in almost all of Márquez’s compositions. Even in a triptych called "The Devil's Sonata" in which no human figure appears, we see the imprint of bare feet on a beach in a trail of footprints leading into the ocean. These footprints seem both an emblem of human connection to the rest of the universe in the way that each footprint has direct contact with the ground, and at the same time, a suggestion of human fragility and vulnerability.

In another painting, "The Phantom Suns," a bare-chested, barefoot figure swings from the branch of a winter tree contemplating the three suns of the title, which are sinking toward the horizon. Behind the figure, but placed in the foreground of the composition, is a pair of boots. As the imprints in the snow indicate, the figure has discarded these boots and taken the last few steps without them in order to reach the tree.

In this Márquez painting, both the wintry setting and the hallucinatory clarity with which everything is depicted remind us of a painter who came from a very different cultural context than the one which produced Antonio Ruiz. That painter is Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), one of the chief figures in German Romantic art, and indeed of the German Romantic movement in general. Friedrich's paintings are small, but they portray vast landscapes and seascapes, which stress man's helplessness against the forces of nature. Usually they breathe an overwhelming sense of isolation. They also reflect a shift in religious perceptions in their attempt to replace traditional religious symbols with new ones drawn directly from nature.

This same thrust is also visible in the work of Márquez, notably in "The Devil's Sonata" and "The Phantom Suns." There are, however, important differences between Márquez’s sensibility and Friedrich's, reflecting different cultures and centuries. Friedrich is a northern artist whose religious musings emanate from the Protestant tradition. He was born in Pomerania and died in Dresden, and his imagery suggests the contrasting scenery of the German Baltic coast and the Harz Mountains.

Márquez’s work, on the other hand, shows strong links to the traditional symbolism of Spanish Catholic art. Paintings like "The Repentant Lazarus" and "The Theory of King David" refer directly to that tradition and to Catholic Post-Reformation art in general. David's victory over Goliath was a favorite theme of the great Italian artists of the Baroque period, and there are striking paintings of this Old Testament story by Caravaggio (1571-1610) and by Guido Reni (1575-1642). In "The Theory of King David," Márquez seems to follow a tradition established by Caravaggio by making the head of the executed Goliath into a self-portrait, though in Márquez’s work, David, too, is an image of the artist.

The usual interpretation of Caravaggio's "David" is to read it as a confessional picture. A contemporary source tells us that while the severed head of Goliath is a self-portrait, the triumphant boy was not only Caravaggio's assistant but also his young lover. Clearly, Márquez’s vision must be interpreted in an altogether different fashion, and it is tempting to see in it, not sexual connotations, but aesthetic ones: the artist frustrated by the scale of his own ambitions.

The most overtly religious work in the group illustrated here is a recent triptych, entitled "My Psychotherapy." In this painting, the autobiographical male figure appears three times in three different aspects. He is seen as headless in the left panel; drawing his heart out of his breast in the right; and almost nude and multi- armed in the center. These three figures are presented in a heraldic way, offering a fairly obvious reference to religious ex-votos. Yet the central image with its multiple arms refers not to traditional Christian iconography, but rather to Hindu deities such as Kali and Krishna.

If this triptych has strong religious overtones, Márquez’s other new works seem to look in a different direction. In contemporary art of the late 1990s, there has been a classic revival whose widespread nature is only now beginning to be recognized. This has manifested itself in many pIaces: in Italy, where the pittura colta movement has flourished for the last two decades; in Russia, especially in St. Petersburg, among the artists of the Novia Akademia who challenge the modernists of the Gorbachev period; in China, where the employment of western classical forms has become a gesture toward exoticism; in Spain; and also among numerous artists in the United States, many of them in California.

 

This new Classicism has its roots in Italy, in particular, where the neo-classical movement, begun in the early 1980s, was a manifestation of Conceptual Art. In Italy, and perhaps elsewhere, it had another source as well, in the late work of Giorgio de Chirico (1888- 1978). Until recently, de Chirico was chiefly recognized as Modernist divide to artists like Odilon Redon (1840-1918), Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), and Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918). Furthermore, we must not forget that the Picasso of the Blue Period was also a Symbolist.

What Márquez adds to this complex heritage is something quintessentially of our own day: the inseparable bond between the artist and his creation. Far more than other artists, those who belong to this particular historical turning point use their art to say, "This is who I am. My art is about myself. To reject it is to reject me as a person." Márquez employs his art to reveal his dreams and innermost feelings to the viewer. He is willing to be vulnerable in a way that his predecessors were not, and his vast technical skills make his self-exposure complete. In more than one sense, this is deeply courageous painting.

 

Edward Lucie-Smith

London, England, 1999

 

Published in the catalog of the exhibition “A Minor Season” 1999 Riva Yares Gallery

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