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Pearls from artists* # 421

Mexico City

Mexico City

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The economic meltdown that followed the crash of the U.S. stock market in 1929 shattered the country’s faith in itself.  With one third of the country unemployed and droughts devastating the Midwest, many Americans doubted their ability to endure and triumph.  More than ever, as the American novelist John Dos Passos asserted, the country needed to know “what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on.”  Guided by the Mexican muralists, whose art they had ample opportunities to study in reproduction and exhibition, American artists responded by seeking elements from the country’s past, which they mythologized into epics of strength and endurance in an effort to help the nation revitalize itself.

Thomas Hart Benton led the charge.  Long a vociferous critic of European abstraction as elitist and out of touch with ordinary people, Benton hailed the Mexican muralists for the resolute public engagement of their art and for portraying the pageant of Mexican national life, exhorting his fellow American artists to follow their example in forging a similar public art for the U.S., even as he firmly rejected the communist ideology that often inflected the Mexican artists’ work.  African American artists were likewise inspired by the Mexican muralists’ celebration of the people’s fight for emancipation.  In creating redemptive narratives of social justice and liberation, artists such as Charles White and Jacob Lawrence transformed that struggle for freedom and equality into a new collective identity, one that foregrounded the contribution of African Americans to national life.        

Vida Americana:  Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925 – 1945, edited by Barbara Haskell

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you tell us about the different series of work you have created and what they embody?

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

A:  The Black Paintings series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings grew directly from an earlier series, Domestic Threats.  While both use cultural objects as surrogates for human beings acting in mysterious, highly-charged narratives, in the Black Paintings I replaced all background details of my actual setup (furniture, rugs, etc.) with lush black pastel.  In this work the ‘actors’ are front and center.

While traveling in Bolivia two years ago, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  So  far I have completed nine pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One is awaiting finishing touches, one is in progress now, and I am planning the next one.

All of my pastel paintings are an example of a style called “contemporary conceptual realism” in which things are not quite as innocent as they seem.  In this sense each painting is a kind of Trojan horse.  There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them.  Some mystery must always remain in art.

The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world.  I recently gave an art talk where I was reminded how fascinating it is to learn how others respond to my work.  As New York art critic Gerrit Henry once remarked, “What we bring to a Rachko… we get back, bountifully.” 

Comments are welcome!

 

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