Vanishing Points and Convergences: Salvadorean Artists in Perspective
Produced by Fugalternativa with the curatorial assistance of Aluna Curatorial Collective
From July 11th to August 1st, 2013 at The Biscayne Art Center, Miami
Vanishing Points and Convergences
by Adriana Herrera
“Vanishing Points and Convergences: Salvadoran Artists in Perspective”, allows visitors to come into contact with the diversity of the country’s artistic practices. Their strength prevails despite having originated in a peripheral zone in relation to the hegemonic centers, from which the narrative of what is characterized as “global” is constructed.
In response to the lack of information regarding the general history and the development of art history itself in San Salvador, due largely to the country’s geopolitical position, Ronald Morán, Danny Zavaleta, and Luis Cornejo exhibit their individual work in Miami, as an initiative associated to the recent creation of “Fugalternativa”. The purpose of this collective contemporary art project in El Salvador, which also includes Walterio Iraheta, Carmen Elena Trigueros, and Simón Vega, among other artists, has emerged to accompany the country’s contemporary creation, and strengthen its dialogue with the world.
This dialogue has been undertaken by a group of artists who confront with their artistic and discursive practices the paradox that often the hegemonic places determine the imaginary of what art is, or ought to be, in the peripheral countries. “The serious problem − Gerardo Mosquera wrote − is not that they (these epicenters) impose their criteria on what is valuable, but that we accept this, convinced that it is so.” What is serious, in his opinion, is that the Third World is incapable of attaining an artistic self-legitimization or of consolidating its own “epistemes”.
Quite on the contrary, Vanishing Points and Convergences enables us to appreciate the scope of radio of creative action and the potential of dynamics of creation in El Salvador, that converge at certain points; but that also explore pathways, as diverse as they are legitimate, to raise from art, epistemes, their own bodies of cognition − and re-cognition. This show allows a view of the way in which Morán, Zavaleta, and Cornejo explore the spaces of the world they inhabit, how they alternate between the local and the global, and how they approach their work as artists through different methodologies and proposals in the context of Central America.
Despite their different trajectories, and the quasi contrast during some moments, of sources, references, themes, and solutions, one may notice in the three artists a convergence regarding a renewed interest in painting, understood as a medium to which the processes and artistic recordings of other media are transported. All this within a sphere ranging from the pure visual documentation of walls in slum areas, as in the case of Zavaleta, through the vast archive of iconographic media references pertaining to the current generation in any big city that Cornejo depicts, to the recording of the activation of Morán’s labyrinthine and almost invisible installations.
They are largely “Richterian”, practitioners of the way in which Gerhard Richter blurred the borders between painting and photography. But his legacy is a means to address their own concerns, which sometimes delve into and exert an influence on their own context, but which also seek a way out into new ontological explorations of the condition of contemporary life. The three of them avoid − each in his own way − the exotic imaginaries, but they share different ways of causing unease through their works.
In Ronald Morán’s work (San Salvador, 1972) the different strategies of dematerialization − of objects or of the work of art itself − become an immediately recognizable language, yet one that is never static or confined to its own style. In works which are already paradigmatic, he addressed domestic violence through installations in which the furniture and objects were covered with polyester foam, a material replacing cotton − so soft, so white, so light, that it aroused the necessary strangeness to elicit a different mode of observation of the familiar space. But he also evoked massacres of native people through beautiful gardens of paper roses whose petals were inscribed with messages from the survivors. In the most recent series of mazes he resumes the ironical covering tactics but in walk-through spaces.
Initially, the disconcertment produced by his white plushy walls, felted to the point of making it impossible for visitors to hear the echoes of their own voice, evoked the rooms for schizophrenic people − padded to protect them from the self-injuries that might result from their hitting their bodies against the walls − and somehow allowed the spectators to feel their way through the maze of their own silence in regards to the different forms of social violence. Part of the works exhibited transport the recording of his installation, his mise en scène devoid of human presence, to painting, which thus restates before the eyes of other viewers the dilemma of mazes with impenetrable walls, as an echo of the insanity of the present-day world.
But in his most recent work, the itinerary resembles more closely its mythical origin. The legend of Ariadne’s thread, which allows Theseus to follow its track so that, once the Minotaur is dead, he can retrace his steps and leave, leads Ronald Morán to the construction of mazes in white thread. His work holds a dialogue with numerous references − from Duchamp to Richard Serra or Eva Hesse − but it poses a poetics of his own: despite the wall being invisible, despite the fact that the starting point and the end are revealed from the outset, he seems to tell us that the will to go through them not only completely, but assuming their fragility and taking responsibility for it, is equally important.
The challenge posed to each viewer in his/her itinerary gives way to the determination to record for the first time through paintings based on photographs, the human presence, which now appears as trace, fleeting gesture, ceaseless movement; where what is important is being, or having been there. The body, which is also a social body, is at the same time thread and labyrinth, a continuous passage under the tension of not tearing the piece, which Morán records rendering visible group dynamics, social networks of which we are not aware. In each work of dematerialization, in the generation of images of a beauty that originates in irony, and in his play of tensions between presence-absence, violence and subtlety, there are different ways of stopping the world, and introducing the strangeness required to generate an alternative vision. It is necessary to enter his labyrinths with sharpened senses, in order to see where we need to go.
Danny Zavaleta (b. 1981, San Salvador) has generated his language inserting in contemporary art iconographies of popular sectors, including those that are banned: the visual compendium of tattoos and graffiti, as well as to the gestures, the jargons, and even the texture of the walls found in the marginal slum areas, where the maras concentrate in his country.
Originating in complex circumstances involving migratory displacements, forced repatriations, and a rigid system of castes without mobility or options, these groups composed of reckless quasi-children and adolescents obtain a social identity by imposing their power through violent strategies outside the law. Zavaleta represents in different media the graphic signs that support a rituality in which forms of belonging and modes of identity are built under the permanent and uncontrolled threat of death.
Irony is also a conceptual strategy in his works, which are derived both from the investigation of the “ciclas” or mara groups, and from the familiarity with its subjects, since the artist has not been an outside observer who appears in these scenarios and reproduces an aestheticist and foreign vision, but somebody who grew up in Soyapango, one of the areas where that urban map of violence is concentrated.
Made In, the homespun costume exhibited here, parodies the format of the most representative icon of popular culture: the typical Salvadoran dress. But it replaces the traditional pastoral embroideries representing birds, trees, or the rising sun with codes found in the mara templates for tattoos. Likewise, it compiles figures repeated in the country’s buses, in which the popular, religious, and iconographic languages mix with those of the widespread violence and personal keys.
The use of embroidery − one of the ancestral crafts inseparable from the everyday life of many indigenous communities, but also one of the forms of precarious livelihood in present-day big cities − adds other elements of local social reflection to the dress piece. But at the same time, through its iconoclastic restatement of what the national costume really is, it cites references to art history, which evoke the practice of performances and deconstruction of the iconic, as it occur in the relationship between Joseph Beuys’ felt gab, and its appropriation by Maurizio Cattelan.
By transplanting and unifying religious phrases and gang signs in black threat on immaculate white tablecloths, he renders the installations disturbing. Each piece embroidered with minimal elements − denying the profusion of color and forms in the popular aesthetics − destabilizes the borders of representation, and attacks the notions of a social gaze that generally stands with its back to its own abysses.
The act of introducing in institutions, galleries, or museums all these marginal iconographic formats, confers a sort of legitimacy, if not to the violent practices that sometimes accompany, to their desperate claim for insertion and social belonging.
On the other hand, Zavaleta’s paintings are an exploration that gathers together in his blots, textures, and figures graphic components that are repetitive elements in the maras’s graffiti when somebody dies. Likewise, he reproduces the walls of his urban territories, copying them from a photographic documentation that he translates to the canvas. But the artist also poses a diachronic gaze of violence and of forms of exclusion which run across centuries. Thus, the image of a man whose head has been covered with a hood by the Inquisition in the Middle Ages coexists with the signs tattooed on the skin of the places where the Mara-18 or the Mara Salvatrucha extend their simulacrum of power. Since it is, anyway, a power which imposes terror without generating any kind of transformation, and which implies an insane transit which often ends in death.
The layers of paint seem to gravitate over empty places, the graffiti float between fragments of flaky walls like a gigantic metaphor for lack of social cohesion. In some cases, like in the graffiti-like drawing of the “jaina” (a mara member’s woman), Zavaleta uses the elements of its idealized representation to construct a non-existent character in the maras, and in this respect, an scathing fable of their sexism, since this is an empowered woman, a gang leader.
Through these types of works, or projects like his caustic alphabetization chart -which showed, from A to Z, linguistic and iconographic conventions of the maras- one of his greatest achievements has been the researching and giving visibility to the multiple graphic alphabets of violence in the context of contemporary art. Zavaleta has transplanted to the art world the fissures of a social fabric in which it is possible to say: “My mum doesn’t pamper me; my mara does”.
At a moment when, as he asserts, “there is a rare thing called truce”, his works, filled with local referents but engaged in a dialogue with the painting of the generations that lived moments like the Fall of the Iron Curtain, form a map that helps to tread the present territory of a country like El Salvador, opening it up to a future dialogue.
Luis Cornejo (b. San Salvador, 1979), on the other hand, personifies the liberation from that mandatory requirement of the local as certificate of authenticity, which is often forcefully demanded of the art of the periphery. He quotes Umberto Eco’s vindication of the fact that one does not need to write for the purpose of changing the world, and he vindicates the figure of the man of letters “restored to his maximum dignity: that of writing for the simple pleasure of making up.
The body of his painting makes use of the right to paint on the basis of his personal iconographic archive, which is also that of a circulation era in which there is a cannibalism of images drawn from art history, without there being a differentiation of the sources’ categories. If Pop cannot be understood without Duchamp’s readymade, and hyper-realism without the latter, Cornejo’s work celebrates a return to painting, in which the virtuosity of the classical portrait-painter appears only to proceed to “carnivalize” itself through a mixture of references to Walt Disney stories, graphic languages taken from the Internet, iconographic signs from comic books, and a continuous onomatopoeic play in which his characters gradually show signs that reflect the saturation of images.
His models personify characters that are, in turn, subject to self-satire, to the negation of their own codes. He himself is a classic painter and the boy who crosses off the painting by painting cartoons on it, and he admits that the body of his works is a metaphorical self-portrait. But this is not only about self-representation, with all that it contains of the contamination produced by the images, but also about its inevitable connection with the collective imaginary of an epoch, to the holdings of the fragmented and accelerated visual archive that he can share with his colleagues from Central America, but also with artists from any European city.
In part, during his residency in Germany he freed himself of the weight of political concerns as a rule governing the practice of Central American artists, but also of the distancing from painting, which characterized a generation that grew up listening to the announcement of its death.
He returned to oil painting with a playful conscience, with the freedom to comment on anything he felt like, without feeling guilty about the looting and free combination of movements that decades earlier still retained codes for their own strategies. If his work has a political virtue, it is that of being resistant to the demands of exoticism, and of reminding us that Central American painting can enjoy the same freedom from the pleasure of the “indiscriminate eye”, which in any place promiscuously moves amidst all the visual references of the time. Also, through the contamination of images, the definition of oneself is transformed, and a cannibalism of identities takes place, which contains the tension between affirmation and negation. Or that of being an open-ended question. A transit. An art of vanishing points and convergences.