Lo feo de este mundo:
Images of the Grotesque
Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art
The University of Texas at Austin
Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, new curator of the Blanton’s extensive Latin American art collection, picked an intriguing linchpin for his first major in-house exhibit. Lo feo de este mundo gathers a stylistically divergent group of over 40 Latin American works, spanning the twentieth century under the thematic banner of revealing truths about human nature through marked hideousness.
Perez-Barreiro borrows the exhibition’s title from a 1969 José Luis Cuevas lithograph depicting a gathering of bulbous caricatures that alternate between eyeing each other disdainfully and ignoring each other outright. One can imagine all of these creatures erroneously thinking, “I’m the only normal one here.” Postwar Mexican artists like Cuevas were reacting against the collectivist nobility espoused by muralists, focusing instead on humanity’s lack of self-awareness and empathy for the plight of their fellow man. On a historical level, this movement links European notions of expressionism with the earlier, more traditional Mexican iconography of Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Posada’s work is the earliest in the show, and the intricate zinc etching Don Fèrrico y su amor (not dated) from his popular Calaveras (Skulls) series demonstrates how the artist subtly mocked upper class affectations during the pre-Revolutionary autocracy of Porfirio Díaz.
Among the visitors to Posada’s Mexico City workshop in the 1890s was José Clemente Orozco, then still a primary school student. Although Orozco was best known as a muralist, his offset lithograph Las Masas (1941) recalls Posada’s satiric inclinations by depicting “The Masses” as a cold-blooded, amphibious mob with large mouths and sharp teeth but no eyes or ears, suggesting a disillusionment with the romantic notion of a people’s revolution. Twenty-seven years removed from Las Masas, Argentinean artist Carlos Alonso’s Que Corrian Mordiéndose (Who Ran Biting Each Other, 1968) similarly depicts a bloody mob/gaggle clawing itself with jagged talons.
While the previous two works mock the supposed benevolence of humanity through half-man/half-beast characters, Raul Aguniano’s Dichos Populares (Popular Sayings) series illustrates another folly—the futility of man’s attempt to maintain the illusion of dominion over the animal kingdom. One lithograph depicts a smiling, wild-eyed woman violently swinging a broom at a bird’s nest because the birds refuse to sing for her. The birds look back at the woman with a mixture of incompetence and obliviousness, mocking her efforts on behalf of nature.
Antonio Berni, Detrás de la Cortina [Behind the Curtain], Illustrations for Romona Pupila, 1963
Gift of the Museum of Modern Art, 1982
Antonio Berni’s celebrated Ramona series examines moral issues raised by the liaisons between an impoverished, beautiful girl from a Buenos Aires shantytown and men of wealth and power. Detrás de la cortina (Behind the Curtain, 1963)—Berni’s painstaking relief etching, and a centerpiece of the Blanton exhibition—depicts an ornate curtain parted to reveal a wrinkled old warrior seducing the voluptuous Ramona while an actual photo of a famished child cries out from a TV set. The image of the crying child seems to morally indict both participants, though not necessarily in equal measure.
The Argentinean “Otra Figuración” movement of the 1960s was driven in part by a desire to avoid false representations of beauty, a notion central to Rómulo Macció’s Estes buenas mujeres (These Good Women, 1962). At the back of the canvas, a sensually thin line drawing of a beautiful maiden gazes longingly into the distance while scratchy, unbalanced renderings of fat, angry women glower at the viewer from the foreground. This image is subject to several interpretations, not all of which are sympathetic to women or the artist.
Because its consumerist overtones were construed by some as a subtle form of cultural imperialism, the emergence of Pop Art was hotly debated in Latin America. However, the artistic respect afforded to Latin American cartoonists helped allow for the appropriation of Pop Art’s comic book form to critique political and religious institutions. Augusto Rendón of Colombia alludes to the Vatican’s deference to fascism by adorning the papal vestments with a swastika in his Mitos y monstruos (Myths and Monsters) series.
Liliana Porter, Yellow Glove IV, 2001
Courtesy of Sicardi Gallery, Houston
The playful yet sinister contemporary work of Argentinean-born artist Liliana Porter utilizes toy action figures and anthropomorphic figurines to comment on various forms of cultural hegemony. In her 2001 Yellow Glove series of Polaroids, a belligerent Mickey Mouse blocks the photographer’s view of an indigenous peasant doll-woman, using his big yellow glove to cover the lens. Likewise, one of Porter’s Para Usted (For You) video shorts shows a porcelain, dog-shaped lamp bound by its own cord. All we hear is mewling barks, suggesting discontent with the idea that all non-human entities exist solely for the functions accorded them by humans.
Grotesqueries often happen when aspirations to perfection go fantastically awry. The very idea of perfection presupposes a belief in the absolute, which can wind up being perfectly horrific for those on the wrong side of the equation. In willfully falling well short of perfection, this cavalcade of the grotesque attempts to embrace humanity as it really is, buboes, blemishes, warts and all.
José Luis Cuevas, Lo feo de este mundo II, from the series Homage to Quevedo, 1969
Gift of Dr. Maurice Abitbol, 1981