The pictorial representation of a human subject has been a way of capturing personal and collective histories, ideas and identities. Portraiture as a practice has moved from creating images for private consumption to being an expression of public realities. Throughout its history it has fulfilled a variety of functions as a traditional pictorial genre: personal validation, the affirmation of a certain status, a record of intimacy and memory, critical and dramatic representation of the human condition, or simply as a resource with which to materialize an ideal of beauty.
Portraiture has been present in different aesthetic currents, sensibilities, concepts and explorations. The group of works in this section presents different methods of figuration and composition, from portraits involving a traditional frontal posture within a staged setting to freer, more experimental configurations. This section includes both figurative and abstract examples of the genre’s possibilities, related to its capacity to represent a person not only physically but also emotionally and psychologically.
Of special note here are Mexican painters whose use of portraiture transformed artistic production based on nineteenth-century notions of the classical and the traditional. Present in this section are artists like Julio Castellanos, Roberto Montenegro and Jesús Guerrero Galván. The latter’s work includes more lyrical traits drawn from the indigenous world. In a similar vein, the show features the work of Adolfo Best Maugard, who brought the postulates of the European avant-garde to Mexico, and that of Alfonso Michel, who integrated cubism with geometrical figures and fragmented lines in the piece on display here.
In more contemporary works, portraiture is also used to speak of the artist’s other thematic interests and lines of inquiry, including the representation of the artist’s own body and personal stories, as is the case in the piece by Nahum B. Zenil; the use of images from media like the press or the movies, as in the case of Wilhelm Sasnal; or even the conception of the portrait as a protest image, as we see in Shepard Fairey.
Finally, this section features two drawings that serve as a reminder that this practice has served for a long time as a way of preparing for a painting.
The group of works by Enrique Guzmán correspond to an iconic period of his production, from 1971 to 1976. In the context of the exhibition they serve as a bridge between the Portraiture and Figure and Spatial Dislocations sections, since the artist’s pictorial practice merges both approaches.
The integration of personal stories with the different imaginaries present in his body of work and the reinterpretation of everyday elements generate a space that functions as a self-portrait and a private act of artistic exercise. This condition of self-referentiality coexisting with plastic experimentation is also characteristic of the work of Julio Galán. Both artists are notable exemplars of neo-Mexicanism, a period in the history of art in Mexico characterized by a convergence between variations on the representation of identity and on the handling of pictorial space.
This group of works presents different ways of representing space pictorially. The title of this section refers to changes in painting’s internal structure and in the arrangement of space within it. It also demonstrates painters’ interest in going beyond the limits of representing their surroundings.
These spatial explorations were influenced by the European avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, especially by surrealism in the case of Mexican art. The artists’ strategies for modifying spatial representation include the creation of irrational or fantastic scenes as well as throwing some of the elements of the composition out of proportion and working with different depths of field.
We see this tendency in the works from 1940s Mexico, for example, in artists like Manuel González Serrano and Gabriel Fernández Ledesma.
P.P.P. Levitation, from the series "The World Doesn’t want me any more and doesn't know it”, 2006
P.P.P. Sesso, from the series "The World Doesn't Want Me Any More and Doesn't Know It”, 2007
This section deals with the narrative quality of painting and the construction of stories through it. It brings together works that obey the essential and original character of the representation of reality, showing how this function has been transformed over the course of the twentieth and part of the twenty-first century.
Presented here are works by several Mexican artists from the first half of the twentieth century who were interested in the rural context, but also in the tragic scenes that played out during the Mexican Revolution. Thus, together with poetic scenes, like the one by Cordelia Urueta, we find other, mannerist ones, as well as scenes that portray the outside world, like the piece by Alfredo Zalce, while the works of José Clemente Orozco and Manuel Rodríguez Lozano show us two more dramatic aspects of Mexican history.
The exploration of private and public space stands out first in the work of the Argentine Guillermo Kuitca, who painted theatrical stages and abstractions of architectural plans and maps on various occasions, and secondly in Francis Lisa Ruyter’s integration of pop language into his images, as well as John Baldessari’s collaboration between photographed scenes and plastic interventions.
The genres that fall under this section include allegorical and historical paintings. Because of their importance, they tended to be made on large format canvases and have been questioned by different artists since the late nineteenth century.
This section features the work of two contemporary artists who have approached the creation of scenes from two very different perspectives. The Mexican Germán Venegas represents an allegorical scene that refers to a moment of crisis in which the calamities —expressed through grotesque characters— parade before us. For its part, the piece by the German painter Neo Rauch seems to represent a historical moment, but the scene involves elements that set it apart from a real event and bring it closer to a realm that might be associated with surrealism.
Landscape is one of the traditional genres in painting, which has also been addressed from different perspectives, for example, from the relationship with nature and the depiction of it, or as a description of a surrounding, that makes reference to a distinctive identity.
As opposed to the most common conception of the genre, this collection of recently produced artwork presents different samples of summaries of atmospheres and landscapes while reviewing various production methods.
Regarding the local production, the work of Gunther Gerszo — one of the pioneers of abstractionism in Mexico — interwove the interest for landscape and the architectural space.
The work of Mario García Torres is a part of a more extensive project based on a specific landscape: the agave fields of Tequila, Jalisco (México). The displayed work recovers endemic plants from the zone. The artist subjects the plants to an oxidation process with metallic powders, which makes the plant´s silhouette resurface. Subsequent to this collection, in which this artwork is included, the artist rearranges the landscape from where tequila — an already distinctive product from the country´s identity — comes from.
The use of flowers and plants as production material is also present in the work of Dan Colen. The preparation process of this piece is representative of the multiple ways of approaching painting in present times. One of its principles is the creation of images that emerge from randomization instead of emerging from a plan or from thinking that the piece of work is something steady and long lasting.
The work of Sarah Morris results from a language associated to geometrical abstraction. The landscapes she generates are inspired in the footage she films in different cities. Each painting — each abstraction of a city — creates a different color palette. Through these pieces, she speaks about power structures and about what she describes as urban, social and bureaucratic typologies.
The approach of other artists to landscape is mediated by the use of images that emanate from the press, as is the case of the work of Wilhem Sasnal. Similarly, the Mexican artist, Moris also initiates his work from images from the media, in this case, from tabloids. The artist cuts the most violent part of the scene, leaving in plain sight only the surrounding landscape.
This section includes artwork that has recurred to different strategies in order to surpass the limits of two-dimensionality. Some pieces explore the overlapping of objects to the surface of the canvas while others use daily elements as support, placing painting inside the field of physical construction. The objective of this module is to show the different relationships of the artists with the objects, either as part of a formal construction — resorting to the use of the object in the pictorial construction — or modifying the usage value of the objects and integrating them into the plastic.
Tauba Auerbach´s work stands out. In the series Creases, she carried out a traditional process of painting which, from the creation of a repetition pattern and of composition — by means of minimal elements in the form of pixels — achieves amplified effects of something three-dimensional in visual terms.
Besides questioning the limits of the canvas or of the framed work, these proposals raise a new possibility in the perception of the pictorial plane and of the piece regarding the space it occupies, while generating a radical shift in the language of painting.
The work of Venezuelan artist, Jesús Rafael Soto is fundamental. He is associated to Kinetic art, a movement that, from the integration of different materials and objects, seeks the production of dynamism and movement in the pieces by means of the spectator´s displacement, thereby provoking new relationships between space and time.
On the other hand, the production of American artist Robert Rauschenberg also blurred the boundaries between sculpture and painting in order to make way for the creation of pieces that integrate urban life reminiscences.
Finally, we have to mention the work of Alberto Gironella, who in Mexican context, was characterized for creating his own language embodied in his collages and assemblages — for which he used product labels, photographs and such common objects like corcholatas (metallic bottle caps) — in order to integrate them into his plastic process.
Color has been one of the expression tools of painting throughout the history of this subject area, but it is not until the 20th century that it gained autonomy and became a main character. In monochromatic artwork, color will be the one that dominates the space of the canvas and the element that generates all kind of reflections, either spatial, psychological or even spiritual.
Through a reduced color palette, Ettore Spalletti analyzes topics related with geometry, precision and emotional properties of simple materials. In order to create works such as La luce e il colori, verde dil prati y Bianco del geso, oro, the artist elaborates a filling with oil paintings, which he dilutes with several pigments alongside chalk dust. The final color is obtained by spreading the pigments throughout the surface using a process of abrasion, which causes an opaque and velvety look. Spalletti plays with shapes, colors and shadows, creating pieces that are in constant transition.
At the end of the 1940s, Lucio Fontana walked away from the figurative and illusionist pictorial tradition, in which, from the use of resources such as perspective, depth effects were achieved. In his search for finding the real space of the painting, he made a series of works called Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concept), in which he punctured and made cuts to the cloth. This resulted in the artist´s comprehension that painting is no longer an illusion contained within the limits of a frame, but a complex combination of shape, color, space, gesture and light. The emphasis in the material trait of painting led him to always use monochromatic surfaces in his artwork.
The use of written language as a compositional element in painting appeared with the first artistic avant-garde movements of the 20th century and it was a frequently used resource in the Dada Art Movement. Later, two movements, as diverse as Pop art and conceptual practices, integrated language as part of their visual vocabulary. Artists like Ed Ruscha, who was influenced by these tendencies and by the world of advertisement, developed a series of artwork in which the theme is directly expressed through words and not through images.
Resorting to the exploration of conceptual art, Ignasi Aballí creates pieces in which he depicts his interest in the relationship between painting and language. In Carta de colores (Color Chart), we find an enumeration of authors that, according to the artist, have been essential to painting. The listing condenses temporalities, geographies, styles and shifts in pattern, creating a portrait of the evolution of this subject area.
As we can see in this section, the use of color as a central element as well as the use of language, explore the possibilities of painting beyond the representation of our surroundings.
One of the topics that this section addresses is the way in which the artists have tried to give another meaning to the physical presence of the pieces. Based on chromatic experimentation, the incorporation of materials, the evidence of the textures, or the application of objects to the cloth, they have reconsidered the process of production in painting.
In each of the pieces of this collective, the importance of the quality of the material is evident. You can perceive a mixture between voluminous and notorious brushstrokes, textures and even materials that function as much for their plastic characteristics as for supporting the artwork; it is the case of Richard Long´s piece, in which the wood of the mounting is visible and also forms part of the composition.
Lilia Carrillo was a pioneer in the changes that painting experienced during the second half of the 20th century in México, specifically regarding the relationship between the canvas and the matter as an area of manifestation and the emotional vision of the plastic act. She opens this section since she initiated the Informalism Movement and used materic abstraction and textures as an expressive resource.
In the case of Vivian Suter, she works both, at her studio and in the open. Her canvases frequently remain outdoors while they dry, which exposes them to the thick vegetation and the weather of Panajachel in Guatemala, where she has lived for more than thirty years. Elements from the surrounding area attach to her paintings, becoming a fusion between artist and nature. The arrangement of the artwork in space is also important in her work since it turns away from the dependence that painting has had concerning the wall.
Similarly, Albert Oehlen has combined, in different stages of his work, the simplicity of computer made images with the complexity of manual manufacturing so that the materiality achieved becomes a narrative route of the process and a questioning about how to cover up a surface.
In this section, we can also find more experimental works, like those of Liat Yossifor and Sigmar Polke. While Yossifor ´s work is the result of a relationship between matter, cloth and his own body, the artwork of Polke — one of the most important German artists from the second half of the 20th century — is a consequence of the experimentation with different chemical products, many of them used in photography.
Finally, it is important to point out the video of Santiago Sierra, Pinturas realizadas por un arroja fuegos (Paintings Made by a Fire-eater, 2003), which presents a close link between pictorial art and action. The works resulting from the fire-eater maneuvers show an extreme posture regarding the manufacture of the painting, its materials and its theme. The social complaint and the questioning of the labor relationships are characteristic of Sierra´s production and they generate, at the same time, questions about the nature and function of painting itself.