An invitation to explore the periphery, edges, and beyond
“You have to look at the edges,” Marcus Zilliox said, pointing to the large 17th Century French painting, The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John, and Saint Mary Magdalene (Mathieu Le Nain, oil on canvas, 1607-1677). “During this period, the artist meant for your eye to travel in a circle, starting at the outmost edge, and gradually, in a circular motion, move inward to the center.” In the air, his finger traced the outline of the canvas in a spiraling motion, resting on the upturned face of Mary Magdalene, gazing at the condemned Christ. “Whoever or whatever is at the center is what the artist wanted you to focus on.”
We had just left the DRCLAS Latin American and Latino Art Forum opening of Zilliox’s mixed media show “Collapsing Ivory Towers,” the title piece of which was Mi Vida Loca (acrylic and collage on wood, 48″ x 36″, 1997), a layering of sharp primary colors forming geometric and organic shapes, within which flew butterflies and angels. Across the surface of this piece red dots were scattered, representing the #2 red dye in the processed food that has made up much of the diet of his home community in Arizona. We now stood in the middle of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ William I. Koch Gallery staring up at the faces of Christian martyrs, whose bodies and souls writhed in a different sort of pain. Slowly turning, we examined each piece in the 16th and 17th Century European Collection, scanning Italian, French, and Spanish pieces, and moving on through the Dutch, Flemish, and German masters, to see if Zilliox’s center-periphery theory held.
Animated men and women in their 30’s and 40’s, here for the MFA’s Friday night singles cocktail, drinks in hand, mingled around us, talking loudly, straining to hear one another above the background music while trying to make eye contact with strangers and, with luck, obtain their telephone numbers. One man moving in this human current stopped next to us and asked what we were doing. “Looking at the paintings,” I responded and pointed to Ruben’s Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris (oil on canvas, 1622-23). The man looked at the piece, then at me, laughed, and continued his pilgrimage.
“Things are different now,” Zilliox explained, still examining the paintings. “The center is not so clear. Neither are the edges. Today, life is more frenetic. Society is more fragmented. What is important, may not necessarily be at the center, but scattered throughout. Messages everywhere.” For decades, post-modern theorists have argued that within “late capitalist culture” images are no longer connected with what they signify, that through seemingly endless replication and reinterpretation meanings have multiplied and established chains of signification broken. As audiences, artistic genres, and methods of production changed, common systems of external referents that most people could identify ceased to exist. Today there is little control over how final pieces will be interpreted, much less consumed. I looked around me at the paintings, the polished stone walls, the bar, the band, and the hundreds of singles circling the room under the religious paintings. Perhaps Zilliox and post-modernists such as Baudrillard are correct: the seemingly endless reproduction of objects and images dominates our symbolic production and consumption, and we, entering a new millenium, with drinks in hand, have internalized and are reveling in it.
Despite post-modern critiques and the increasing sense of disconnectedness between art, its production, and consumption, no painting stands in isolation. Every work is connected to the individuals who create and consume it; the people themselves complicated creations, worthy of study. Through the DRCLAS Art Forum, artists and their audiences explore ways of communicating subtle aspects of culture, identity and the surroundings we live in or have left behind. Students from area high schools, many born outside the U.S., visit the Center to learn from artists who discuss the experiences that formed them and helped them create the pieces now on display. Many of the artists in the DRCLAS Art Forum 2000 series are self-described intercultural hybrids, who have spent their lives crossing boundaries (geographic, cultural, racial and ethnic, etc.).
Through their art, they try to understand their journey and communicate the way they see their current surroundings and their inner landscapes. As with Zilliox’s work, most of the pieces displayed in the DRCLAS Latin American and Latino Art Forum 2000 series do not seek to represent, as much as re-present and evoke. These reified, manipulated, hyper-real and often abstracted images of objects, landscapes and people use the familiar as windows into other perceptive realities.
In Dominique Pepin’s “Of Reflections and Ceremonies: Meeting with a Mazatec Shaman” (September 2000), photographs of the landscapes in the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca, Mexico, provide viewers with the impossible view of a world reflected back onto itself. The textures and positive and negative spaces of this parallel universe, at first glance, provoke an almost Rorschach interpretive impulse, before drawing the eye and mind into the world of shamanic trance and transcendence. In these representations, the monochromatic simplicity of the sepia tones allows the textures and patterns of naturally occurring objects (mountains, trees, and valleys) to dominate. The singular crease which divides the print down the center, as in Cemins vers le Cerro de la Adoración (20″ x 38″, 1998), creates the illusion of a visual pathway, beckoning the viewer to come closer, follow, and ultimately, wager which side is the original and which the reflection.
In Touth Andrade’s “Brasil: Nature and the Inner Self,” (March 2000), a single red Hybiscus (oil on canvas, .6 x .7 meters) saturates the canvas. The scale and intensity of color momentarily disorients the eye and drawing its viewer closer into the center, like an insect, tempts it to touch, partake and fulfill an edible, if not sexual desire. In her Botanica Brasileira (oil on canvas, .8 x .9 meters, 1998), a Brazilian flags pulses with the movement of worker ants, molting butterflies, dew-covered bromeliads, and bees. Porpoises, turtles, and fish swim through another painting in the series Bandeiras Brasileiras, displaying in an aquarium-like frame the life that inhabits the famed jungles and coasts of Touth Andrade’s homeland and animates her notion of “Brasilidad.”
In each exposition, the artist uses a different trope to orient the viewer and, through some element of the medium (color, composition, etc.), to communicate the strength of a connection not previously recognized. In Procession Near Tecpan (oil on canvas, 60″ x 80″), the folds of red and yellow ceremonial blouses known as huipiles overlap, covering the shoulders and arms of the female cofradia members. The huipil, the cultural marker of indigenous Guatemalan ethnicity, gender, status and place-identity, defines the individual figures while visually interconnecting them as a singular social group, spatially unifying them in the march that temporally links them to centuries of tradition. Outside the visual tapestry of the canvases that make up “Mayan Processions” (September 1999), painter Winifred Godfrey hangs an assortment of woven huipiles and other garments. This rupture in the traditional framing of the pieces reinforces the trope of “the weaving of social fabric through communal pilgrimage,” and takes steps towards dissolving the traditional boundaries of artist and artisan, object and subject.
Through the dark earth tones (black, browns, and greens) of many of the pieces in “Interior Gardens” (December 2000), Cuban-born Connie Lloveras takes the viewer downward into almost subterranean levels of self-reflection and back into rooms filled with longing. Canvases, often visually partitioned by clear lines between dark and light, are accented with deep blues, vivid reds, and shades of yellow and white. Her pieces are sad, but strangely, comforting. After the rest of the visitors leave the reception for Llovera’s show, the final exposition of the year, I stay to show the pieces to one last group. We walk through the empty building looking at the pieces. Lloveras asks the viewers what the pieces mean to them: In Blue, Cocoon and Butterfly (mixed media on paper, 30″ x 22″, 2000), does the colorful rectangle from which new life emerges represent sadness or hope? There are a number of pieces featuring vacant chairs: Pointless Conversation (mixed media on canvas, 60″ x 48″, 1995), Catching Stones (mixed media on canvas, 60″x 90″, 1998), and Alma (mixed media on paper, 30″ x 22″, 2000). Could these be referring to the frustration and isolation of exile or perhaps, a more permanent departure, death. It’s late, and bitterly cold outside. There are no taxis, so the group begins their walk toward Harvard Square. I lock the outside door, clear the wine bottles and glasses left over from the mingling crowds, long gone, put the empty chairs in place and turn off the lights. Before closing the door, I look around one last time. The glow from the streetlights outside illuminates a piece I had not noticed before, Telephone (mixed media on canvas, 60″ x 96″, 1999). In the air, I trace the outline of the canvas in a circular motion, following repetitive images of receivers spiraling inward, resting finally on the telephone in the center. I stare at the canvas, remembering Zilliox’s explanation and the lonely men and women at the singles gathering months before, circling, trying to make contact with one another and obtain phone numbers.
Unlike the creators of classical works who sought to represent and provided interpretations, the artists whose work fill our Forum today claim they prefer to create and leave the interpretation to the viewer. They encourage us not to focus on the center, but explore the periphery, the edges, and beyond and to link it to the world we live in. Resisting their role as the ultimate authors, these artists seek to collaborate with their subjects and audiences, and in a rebelliously democratizing, if not anarchic move, multiply the voices in dialogue, and help people, in desperate need, to connect with one another and their surroundings.
Jeniffer Burtner is the DRCLAS Brazil program coordinator. She has worked with artists and marketers in Latin America since the late 1980s, researching and writing about the relationship between identity commodification and petty commodity production in regional tourism markets.
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