RAUL GUERREROby William Corwin
Ortuzar Projects | June 21 – July 27
Raul Guerrero is a pragmatic conceptual artist: he aims for the maximum emotional and mythopoetic impact using a pithy economy of means. For instance, The Rotating Yaqui Mask (1973) presents a fearsome devil’s visage with authentic animal horns and teeth, attached to a small motor installed on the far wall of the gallery. A foot pedal activates the machinery and the mask begins to rotate on the wall. This simple mechanism is a substitute for the imagined fiestas, dancers, and choreography that drag conceptually behind the Yaqui mask as a not-inconsequential mass of cultural baggage. Yet the precipitous spinning of the grinning demon on the wall goes far in conveying a great deal of the disquiet, fear, and even horror of those myriad traditional performances.
Throughout the exhibition, Guerrero chooses to not interject himself into the paintings, videos, and photographs; instead he appropriates pre-existing styles of painting and vocabularies of imagery such as posters and religious imagery produced for mass-consumption by anonymous artists; stills from popular movies; and fonts recognizable from advertisements. This method is used especially in his work appropriating imagery from the romantic film Mujer Del Puerto for a work of the same name (1993-1998). Guerrero dispenses with plot and narrative, but he uses cinematic techniques such as mise-en-scene, radically alternating the scale of figures in foreground, middle ground, and background much as a director might do; and employing text so as to mimic the closing credits of a film. Mujer del Puerto (1993-1998) is based on the tale of star-crossed lovers in the 1934 movie based on the Guy de Maupassant story The Port. In the painting, a dramatically and vertiginously framed composition is overlaid with the definitive word “FIN,” implying a terminal and pejorative statement. The intensity of the lighting and positioning of the figures indicates a filmic source, and even without knowing that the plot is one of betrayal, destitution, and desperation, the artist’s explanation/verdict is clearly labeled across the front. The production studio is listed below “FIN.” In this way Guerrero tacitly informs us of the origin point of his inspiration—Mexico in the 1930s and thus lays down a historical context/reading.
Vuelo Mundial (1977), a three minute video, asks us to imagine a specific entity, in this case capital cities around the world, simply by showing the name at the bottom of the screen accompanied by the ideograph of traveling placed above each capital’s name ¾a stock black-and-white image of a propeller plane with audio of the motor. Even in 1977 this evoked the retro 1930’s golden-age-of-Hollywood scene change trick to show movement across wide geographical distances (think Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981). We never experience any actual city or site, instead we find ourselves in limbo, somewhere between a shaggy dog story (a long arduous absurdist joke with no punchline) and an intellectual exercise which demands that we fill in all the blanks based on our own mnemonic capabilities. The video juxtaposes travel as a dream-realm of popular cinema with the reality of how impossible such a flight around the world is for those living in an impoverished developing country.
Ultimately, collecting a distinctively Mexican selection of signifiers on canvas leaves Guerrero in a no-man’s land between a vernacular non-political surrealism and conceptual painting. This is a not a pejorative assessment though, Guerrero’s Oaxaca series of paintings are an innovative direction in the tradition of Mexican painting, clearly inspired by Rivera, Kahlo, and Si Quieros, among others. For instance, a series of four paintings from the artist’s Oaxaca series: Vista de Bonampak (1984), and Pre-Colombian Lovers, Desire, and The Pool of Palenque, all made in 1985, appear to draw on the style and imagery found in the popular and always titillating series of paintings depicting the ill-fated Aztec lovers Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl seen in Mexican restaurants, bars, and homes. But gone are the muscled strapping warrior Popocatepetl and his deceased buxom princess Iztaccihuatl. Instead Guerrero has created a series of visual assemblages of details of ocelots, frogs, palm fronds and waterfalls drawn or inspired by the quotidian love story imagery. The artist requisitions a few more specific objects; the Venus de Milo and quotes from Mayan wall paintings, to imply that though cobbled together from popular culture, he is angling towards a more accurate and de-mythologized representation of Mexican culture, by removing the hackneyed myth and working solely with the details. Without being didactic, the artist instills meaning and import with a conceptual artist’s slight-of-hand; there is no illusion or fakery, merely careful collection, culling and arrangement in the service of presenting the elusive idea of a culture. This perhaps parallels Guerrero’s own quest to understand his Mexican origins, as he grew up in California. But, by using the tools of conceptual art such as appropriation, quotation, and mimicry, Guerrero is able to explain cultural circumstances and rectify colonial mythologizing utilizing many of the objects and images that confused and caused those misunderstandings in the first place.
William Corwin is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.