by Maria Porges
A crepuscular gloom invests Gonzalo Fuenmayor’s charcoal drawings with a mood that is at once defiant and elegiac. His images, realized on an increasingly ambitious scale, offer viewers surreal and often disquieting visions, suggesting the ways in which stubborn residues of colonialism remain long after its demise.
A Colombian by birth now living Florida, the artist has considered such questions before. In his last show here, several drawings incorporated palm trees or banana leaves and fruit—sometimes, picturing the vegetation as it invades elaborate Western interiors. Bananas, a strong presence in both shows, are reminders of the long history of the United Fruit Company’s meddling with Colombia’s economy and politics, bad behavior that regrettably continues into the neo-colonial present.
In Empire, Fuenmayor deploys a variety of strategies to disrupt visual expectations — a “toolbelt” of bananas worn by a lissome nude female torso in The Tools of Prestige or a palm tree intruding into an opulent 19th century theater in A Touch of Euforia. In the latter, the hallucinatory nature of the event is accentuated by the fact that the tonal values have been neatly inverted, as in a photographic negative. The normally dark interior is dominated by the white of the paper, with black accents. Only the tree, almost horizontal as it descends towards the seats, has been rendered in a “normal” tonality.
This tonal reversal, of black and white to white and black, is deployed with great success in several works, including, most dramatically, Imperial Dementia. This enormous diptych (90 x 104 inches) pictures Buckingham Palace’s White Drawing Room, its elaborately oppressive décor clearly designed to intimidate even important visitors to the English court. Fuenmayor transforms this scene into a through-the-looking-glass version of itself, in which the dark skin of the seated queen, featured in an enormous painting on the wall, is almost as riveting as the black bulbs on the crystal chandelier that emit shadows instead of light.
In Cannibal Protocols, we see a state dining room similarly reversed, its long, satanically black tablecloth retreating into a mirrored distance. Like several other works in the show, this drawing is presented in a tondo (circular) format. This type of presentation has been popular intermittently since the 15th century, but with few exceptions (Damien Hirst, for one) is largely absent from contemporary art. Here, however, the drawings’ round shape seems to invoke something quite different from its Renaissance antecedents. They suggest the voyeuristic experience of looking through a peephole, a telephoto lens or even binoculars. We are either far away from what we are seeing (allowing us the illusion of distance, whether of time or space) or we are, in effect, spying.
This makes some of the images feel like an uneasy blend of the political and the pornographic, as in Encounter, which shows an ironically tropical version of Leda’s mythical rape by Zeus in the form of a swan. Fuenmayor’s twilit jungle scene features a startlingly big parrot astride a naked, simpering blonde whose resistance seems symbolic at best. Others, like those in which the image of a sinking palm tree figure prominently, feature tropical foliage inserting aggressively inserting itself into Western public spaces — theaters and museums – alluding to the often-painful process of trying to assimilate into Western culture.
By far the most compelling of these round pictures, however, is The Beasts of Conscience. A running figure, its body engulfed in flames, moves through darkness, its head replaced with an inverted bunch of bananas. No background clues provide any indication of time or place, but this haunting image apparently originated with Fuenmayor’s 2013 invention of an imaginary Latin-American superhero called Bananaman. The flames are a reminder of the fiery origin of charcoal — Fuenmayor’s medium of choice. Another interpretation would be that this (super) human torch embodies all of the grotesquely inhuman behavior of colonial history. In the implacable drive towards hegemony, the artist reminds us, conscience goes up in flames.
Like an explorer, Fuenmayor seems to be standing at the edge of his known universe, as embodied by the dreamy, familiar surrealism of Magritte — to whom he pays overt homage in The Thrill of the Exotic III. It shows a bowler-hatted man whose face is obscured by a tropical bird instead of a dove. A work like The Monopoly of Patriotism, depicting a piano marooned in tall grass, pierced by hundreds of arrows, reminds us that the attempt to bring Western culture to so-called savages might not be working out as planned. (Mark Tansey’s acerbic commentaries on art history come to mind.) Of all these images, the burning figure of Bananaman, powerful beyond its modest scale, sums up well Fuenmayor’s vision of a post-colonial world in which the reverberations and consequences of the past will be brought into the light, one by one, to be reckoned with as best we can.
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Gonzalo Fuenmayor, “Empire,” at Dolby Chadwick Gallery though June 1, 2019.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves a professor at California College of the Arts.