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“Argentina Now”

The International Monetary Fund exhibition “Argentina Now” is an official presentation under the sponsorship of the Argentine ambassador to the United States. As such, it is possible that the show’s “representative survey” may be slightly skewed in favor of inoffensive, undemanding, and uncritical work. Or it may indeed be true that there is very little cutting-edge work being produced in societies experiencing political and economic uncertainty. Art history since the birth of the avant-garde indicates that truly radical art tends not to emerge in politically or economically tumultuous periods (with the major exception of Russia in the second decade of the 20th century). However, the inclusion of José Alberto Marchi, Juan Cardozo, and Ernesto Bertani in this show indicates the presence, however discreet, of an evolved avant-garde consciousness among the “best” Argentine official art.

For the most part, the exhibition contains unexceptionable if also somewhat unremarkable works which demonstrate the truly international character of 20th-century art. The work ranges from the fauve-look-alike canvases of Leopoldo Presas, whose Pensativa might have been painted by Matisse before 1910, to some truly dreadful geometric abstractions by Eduardo Mac Entyre and Ary Brizzi, and some also dreadful horse paintings by Adriana Zaefferer, whose talents have made her the favored portraitist of Queen Elizabeth’s horses and dogs. In between these extremes are some figures-in-interiors, genre landscapes, the abstract and abstracting work of two sculptors, and a range of narrative imagery with tendencies toward both descriptive realism and soft-edge surrealism.

Surrealism and descriptive realism combine in the most outstanding works in the show, those by Marchi. These three paintings are small with the delicacy and intimacy of Early Netherlandish devotional works on panel, but they are in fact oil on cardboard. Two have arched tops and all are placed in heavy wood frames much larger than the images, adding to the precious-object effect. The three scenes take place in ambiguous spaces which contribute to the contradictorily nightmarish yet whimsical character of the narratives. Their titles—The Useless Search for Ophelia (Hommage to Sir John Everett Millais), Watchers of Dawn, and Underground Gardener—in no way prepare viewers for the emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic complexities they depict.

In Useless Search…, a group of working-class men in bowler hats stand knee-deep in dense greenery on the bank of a dark stream that flows through a swampy landscape. Some of the figures, which seem lit by a studio light, look out of the painting; others look across the water at moss-covered rocks and tree roots. Their gazes follow the lines made by strings stretching from each man’s hand to a twig, root, or tree on the opposite side of the painting. The figures and their surrounding forms are painted in a harshly photo-realistic style, but areas of the landscape background are handled with great painterly sensitivity and a remarkable evocation of surface texture. With close study, the humor implied by the title dissolves into apprehension.

A similar anxiety-producing mystery inhabits Watchers of Dawn. The center of this small image is almost black, and there is a loosely painted strip of pale blue and gold at the top. In the lower third of the image, a group of again spotlighted figures sits before a stage on which three figures, working as if before the mouth of a blast furnace, pull strings to raise a square of fabric on which is drawn a crude symbol of the sun. The strings pass behind the workers, across the stage and down into the audience where they wind from hand to hand, weaving the group into an elaborate but useless net. One string, painted in trompe l’oeil, runs up from the sun symbol to the top of the painting, then arcs downward to the left where it falls into the hand of an isolated figure at the edge of the stage. The narrative contrast between the preposterous and the deadly serious, and the range of painting styles and emotional tone, are contained by the pallet’s restriction to a fairly narrow range of browns and blues.

In these two masterpieces, along with Underground Gardener, Marchi makes nuanced allusions to both literary and pictorial traditions; the works could easily serve as ironic sociopolitical commentary as well. More than that, they achieve the rare status of works whose significance is ultimately more than the sum of their parts.

A somewhat similar sensibility seems to lie behind the deceptively lighthearted images of Bertani, whose drawings and paintings ridicule the pretensions of Buenos Aires’ middle class. The grotesque and ridiculous pot belly featured in Abundance (1990) is certainly an emphatic social commentary, but inclusion on the fat figure’s thigh of a tiny, tall figure causes whimsy to unfold into the macabre. Bertani frequently paints on suit fabric, and this particular image is made of acrylics on a blue-and-gray checkered fabric that might have been taken from the suit it depicts. A simple gray weave is the background for Sorry, No Funds, an oil image executed especially for this show at the IMF. A headless figure struggles with five sets of arms that are thrusting greedy hands into a variety of pockets. In the serpentine intertwining of arms is a tension that plays against the topical title, perhaps diagramming an aspect of the desperation some petitioners bring to these powerful international funding institutions.

A more traditional but still alarming surrealist technique operates in Bertani’s Drinking Maté, in which two small figures, a man and a woman, sit in the shadow of two enormous gourds. The narrative description clashes with the illogical vegetable presences so that even this typical Argentine pastime is infused with potential disaster. Life, these artists seem to be saying, is like that. Perhaps it is the indirection which surrealism allows that makes both Bertani and Marchi’s works so much more effective as social indictments than are the more self-consciously self-righteous expressions of sociopolitical correctness currently fashionable here.

A more direct critique is presented by Juan Cardozo. Formerly a soldier, Cardozo has spent time studying in California and had his first solo show in Switzerland. He uses a flat, hard-edge style to depict caricaturish figures who represent Argentine types such as the military hero, the rancher and ranch worker, and the musician (in Argentines) or media conventions from TV soap operas and boleros (in Caught, No Exit). The almost cruel edge in his work will look familiar to avant-garde audiences, yet he is insinuating a new, characteristically Argentine imagery into familiar international practice. His works demonstrate how media-analysis techniques can produce images which speak to viewers unfamiliar with those sources. That knowledge is required for certain levels of interpretation, but Cardozo’s paintings convey sentiments that can be sufficiently sustained by the images alone.

There is a frustrating insufficiency of technique and vision in most of the landscape images in the show—a particular disappointment if painting is looked to as an effective translation of the unfamiliar. The descriptive realism in Rodolfo Ramos and Norberto Russo’s images of the pampas possesses an almost Dutch genrelike precision, but the works lack a sense of informing iconographical structure. There is a similar hollowness in Fernando Romero Carranza’s landscapes with horses and a puzzling placelessness inRikelme’s pointillist views, although the latter’s 1990 The Plough is arrestingly stark. It seems that Argentine landscape painters—certainly the ones represented here—have not yet found a pictorial structure with which to interpret their grand landscape adequately, as, for example, did 19th-century American painters when they discovered in the English tradition of picturesque and sublime a way to represent their natural wonders. Lacking such a structure, these works seem merely illustrational, deflating most of the expressive effects that their technical excellence might otherwise achieve.

The most effective work deriving from landscape is Aldo Sessa’s 1993 photograph, Patagonia, in which two large sheep in the foreground dwarf a distant farm building set against a grim horizon. There are also appealing works by Nicolás Rubio, but his Summer Sunset and Colored Moon are as much landscapes of dreams and memory, although they may be rooted in his extensive travels up and down the South American continent.

The exhibition also contains three recent works by MarceloBonevardi, whose mixed-media constructions invoke mystery and ruin through the conventions of the fragment and the palimpsest.Bonevardi has lived and worked in New York much of his life, and his relief structures are formalist experiments in texture and design filtered through a surrealistic consciousness influenced by Joseph Cornell, but they omit Cornell’s frequent use of media and art-historical images. Bonevardi’s work rests firmly at the poetic end of the surrealist spectrum, as does that of Raúl Alonso, who has three works in the show. Together, they establish a counterweight to the more investigative uses to which artists like Marchi and Bertani put surrealist devices.

Such a presentation as “Argentina Now” at a site like the IMF surely has as one of its objectives the placing of Argentine art and artists into the high-status international art world. This gambit is played out over and over as formerly colonial countries (or simply formerly isolated ones) enter an international community which has adopted the European tradition’s fondness for fine art as a backdrop to power. For many decades, the language of that world has been, for contemporary art, the language of the avant-garde, which is now the way artists and culture workers signal to each other over national borders. “Argentina Now” may demonstrate that cutting-edge may not have achieved the status of official art in Argentina. A hint of the distance the Argentine artist must span is given by the exhibition catalog’s epilogue: “The publishers have finished printing a first edition of this book on October 7, 1993, the day of Our Lady of the Rosary.” One wonders what the avant-garde can make of that.