Lo feo de este mundo: Images of the Grotesque presents work from the extensive Latin American collection at the Blanton Museum at UT Austin.
, 1968… Colored ink on paper”]
The exhibition features explorations, and in some cases celebrations, of the deformed and dysfunctional by Latin American artists. Art created to protest traditional conceptions of beauty has been a longstanding subversive phenomenon in Latin American culture, with origins in 19th century caricature and contemporary expression in the comic. The show asks, what do rigid perceptions of beauty say about the audience and society that reared them? Beyond challenging aesthetic norms, many of these artists have had an underlying social agenda as well. In the early part of the 20th century, Latin American artists resisted classical ideals of beauty, which they thought were reactionary symptoms of fascistic political systems. Their art became vehicles for political and aesthetic protest.
Blanton curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro divides Lo feo de este mundo into five somewhat disjointed parts. The first section, titled Caricatures and Calaveras, includes the work of Mexican artists José Guadalupe Posada, Raul Anguiano, and José Clemente Orozco. All three use forms from popular culture, like caricature and newspaper cartoons, to mock Mexican conventions. Posada’s Calavera: Don Ferrico y su amor (Skull: Don Ferrico and his Love) features two small zinc etchings mounted side by side that poke fun at traditional portraiture. The drawing on the left shows a rigidly posed and formally dressed Don Ferrico and his lady. Both figures have skulls heads, or calaveras, a traditional symbol of reverence for the dead in Mexican culture. By using skulls in a portrait, Posada takes a picture normally reserved for the preservation of life and immortality, and makes it an ode to death. The etching on the right features Don Ferrico (skull-headed again) throwing a fist towards his love’s (skull) head. Here, as in much of the work of the exhibition, the violence is both unsettling and humorous.
The next section of the exhibition is devoted to the work of José Luis Cuevas. Cuevas published a manifesto in 1959 criticizing the nationalistic, moralizing work of the Mexican muralists. He challenged his contemporaries to represent universal themes like suffering and cruelty. He wanted art to be a comment on the reality of the human condition, not trumped-up propaganda about a nonexistent national identity. The Blanton’s collection of Cuevas’ expressive prints is from a series titled Homage to Quevedo (1969). His work features disturbing, distorted figures that occupy a space between caricature and classical portraiture. The prints’ surprising color combinations are simultaneously washed out and aggressive. Lo feo de este mundo II (The Ugliness of the World II) is watercolor blue with black smudging and outlines. A large bust is shown in profile in the extreme foreground. Oddly menacing and cartoonish, the hatch-marked head looks like it’s considering whether or not to eat the other figures in the print. These smaller figures form an unusual arrangement: one stares defiantly back at the bullying head, while another, a child in the center, looks perplexedly at the viewer. Individual anguish and confusion dominate this print. The same expressiveness permeates Cuevas’s Mirate en este espejo (Look in the Mirror), hung at the entrance of the exhibition. Made with silvered acetate, the print is a mirror, so the viewer enters the Blanton and sees himself with a group of suffering, hybrid monsters.
Dark humor and the synthesis of high and low art forms dominate the third part of Lo feo de este mundo. Featuring work from Otra Figuración, a mid-60s artist movement in Buenos Aires, this collection is a dystopic vision of humanity. Especially striking and nightmarish is Que corrían mordiéndose (Who Ran Biting Each Other) (1968) by Carlos Alonso. This drawing of red and black ink on paper depicts three groups of demons chasing each other. One group descends from above and plucks unlucky fellows below. The print’s most unsettling characteristic is an unharmed human who occupies the foreground, watching the action and writing on a piece of a paper. The figure looks like it could be Alonso himself, the artist who observes humanity devouring itself.
Lo feo de este mundo could have ended on this dour note. The last two parts of the exhibition are interesting as independent considerations of Latin American pop art from the last thirty years, but they don’t seem to fit with the previous sections. The Mexican caricatures, Cuevas’s expressive prints, and the dark visions of Argentina consider human suffering as products of specific cultures, not as it extends beyond their borders. The last two sections, on the other hand, consider Latin American art’s dialogue with North America and cultural imperialism. Reinterpretations of Pop art and straightforward comic subversion dominate these works from the 70s and the present. The artwork, despite its misplacement, is striking. For example, Augusto Rendón’s Mitos y monstruos (Myths and Monsters) (1971) uses comic book panels to combine traditional comic images with jabs at the Catholic Church.
After the intensity of the earlier sections of the exhibition, the coolness and irony of the artwork at the end is disquietingly pat and easy to digest. The grotesque, so brutally and honestly rendered by the caricaturists and expressionists, is dissipated by the latter sections’ distant, passive aggression. In the mid-20th century, José Luis Cuevas called for the representation of real human suffering and ugliness, but it would seem from Lo Feo de este mundo that sincere presentation of such serious, politically-minded aims had fallen out of fashion by the end of the century.
Images courtesy the Blanton Museum of Art.
Marie-Adele Moniot is a writer and graduate student living in Austin.