MFAH exhibit introduces Venezuelan Informalists
HOUSTON — From the 1955s to 1975, a group of Venezuelan artists sought to make sense of the world following the end of the Marco Pérez Jiménez dictatorship as the country transitioned to a democracy, as well as the societal shifts that came with Venezuela’s burgeoning oil business and wealth inequality. They embraced the Informalist movement, which began in France following World War II and ran parallel to the American Abstract Expressionist movement.
Many of these artists are unknown outside Venezuela and the exhibition “Contesting Modernity: Informalism in Venezuela 1955-1975,” at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston through Jan. 21, is a wonderful introduction to these Latin American artists.
As the country transformed, the exhibition tells us that the artists sought to “subvert notions of beauty and aesthetics in favor a visceral approach to art more in tune with the period’s raw political context.”
The most striking of the artists is Elsa Gramcko. She features in a couple of the exhibition’s five sections. Her 1958 work, “No. 22” is indicative of her late-1950s paintings. The abstracts have an organic quality, but also a strong graphic element to the design. The colors are solid with no shading. Gramcko’s work is a rejection of the style of her contemporaries in America, whose work was more gestural. There is an elegant complexity within the seemingly simple abstract patterns — which echo the cutouts of Matisse’s late period. While organic, there is also a nod to the mechanical — organic machines that reach out to the viewer.
Gramcko is also represented with her 1977 assemblage “Motivación interior alredor de un objecto (Inner Motivation Around an Object) 1977,” a wonderful assemblage incorporating wood and a metal faucet. By this late stage, Gramcko seems to have moved backward to surreal imagery. The drip, which is embedded in the wood panel, is an illusion but begs the question of whether the wood understands the function of the faucet?
Gramcko is one of several women in the exhibition, proving that in Venezuela women have more value than their American counterparts in Abstract Expressionism.
In the section titled “Surface Tensions.” The informalists sought to experiment with mixed media on canvas. José Maria Cruxent’s “Sans erotisme il n’y aurait pas d’amour (Without Eroticism There Would Be No Love),” from 1965, is a stunning visual feast, incorporating a net. It captures the visceral concept perfectly. From a distance, it is a textural enticement that draws the viewer’s eye around the work, a constant swirling movement. The work is non-representational, but there is a gestural tension that is exciting and disturbing at the same time.
In “Une forme special d’hipocrisie ‘La Pudeur’ (Modesty, A Special Form of Hypocrisy),” Cruxent uses vegetable fibers, textiles and oil on canvas to create an organic mass, which draws the viewer in. It is reminiscent of one of NASA’s long-range images of some far off solar system filled with gases and particles just waiting to spark life.
Mario Abreu’s “Caja Mágica (Magic Box)” is a wonderful assemblage, with the artist challenging the viewer to find the hidden meanings of everyday objects. The fact that they are displayed in an altar-like display box, seems to imbue the ordinary with mystical properties.
The influence of the Abstract Expressionists is subtle but most apparent in Francisco Hung’s “Materias flotantes (Floating Matter) 1964, and “Pintura No. 5 (Painting No. 5) 1964.” They both have a vibrant, wildly gestural style that are informed by his interest in calligraphy. “No. 5” positively glows as the white strokes cut through the red ground.
Manuel Quintana’s Castillo’s “Orfeo (Orpheus)” 1960, is abstract, yet at the same time representative, as it evokes the steps to hell.
Other standouts include Fernando Irazábel’s wonderful gestural drawings where he uses tape to remove the ink, giving the pieces incredible depth. Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt)’s untitled piece features a 3D wire construction on a plexiglass base. At first glance, the wire “drawing” casts a shadow drawing, but on closer inspection we find it is an illusion, that it is actually a drawing that represents the shadow. It is both thought provoking and playful.
The exhibition encompasses all aspects of art, from graphic design to film. The artists on display in “Contesting Modernity,” which is comprised mostly of works from the Mercantil Arte y Cultura in Caracas, deserve to a higher profile. I, for one, have some fun research to get on with.
MFAH is located at 1001 Bisonnett in Houston. For more, visit http://www.mfah.org.