Scroll down for more information
Mythology is not usually seen as a significant aspect of daily life. It’s normally thought of as fairy tale-like stories heard as children at the feet of our parents on cold winter nights. Although accepted as having cultural importance, they remain either exotic tidbits for most or objects of historical value for scholars.
Over and over, however, principally through the fields of art and psychology, the mythic has been shown to be a live force, a living entity manifesting itself in daily life. This orientation governs the art of Oaxacan painter, Guillermo Olguín. His work reflects a mind that, by its very nature, sees and feels in mythic terms. Everything in his work - people, environments, objects, etc. - is of a dual nature. On the one hand, he gives us the literal appearance of something. At the same time, an archetypal dimension has been added to that something. This duality makes his paintings reverberate with implications that go beyond the paintings themselves. In its truest sense, myth is a personal experience brought to the level of universality. That, in essence, characterizes Olguín’s art.
Equally important to his work, however, is his understanding of paint. As in mythic terms, he also sees and feels in terms of paint. The way he applies it, the intense expressiveness it achieves, become archetypal elements in themselves. It’s what makes his mythic imagery so striking. From a 20x10 self-portrait, a grotesque, clown-like face looks directly out at the viewer. The ugliness of the picture, its utter tastelessness and sloppiness of execution is shoved in our face, so to speak. It’s as if the paint were flung onto the canvas without much care and hurriedly formed into a face. Almost as an afterthought, an eye, nose and mouth have been quickly added. Large, overly thick textured brush strokes, violently applied dominate the painting. Its fury reminds one of American abstract painter, Willem de Kooning’s women and the ugliness in the work of British painter, Francis Bacon. Even the colors Olguín employs are drab and uninteresting. The background is a dull, sickly green. It’s like walking into an exceptionally seedy and rundown neighborhood. Yet, though fury and violence dominate the painting, the eyes, tiny slits through which the person inside peers, reflect tenderness, vulnerability, and much hurt and sadness.
The effect of the painting is as unique as the work itself. The ugliness and violence, so total without respite, is clearly repellent. Yet, despite its overwhelming grossness, the emotional force and intense expressiveness of the piece exert a power that make it impossible to turn way from. Those expressive elements, which are clearly personal, have been taken to an unimaginable extreme. The words of Polish theater director, Jerszey Grotowski, come to mind. “If you take the personal to the farthest degree possible, you arrive at the impersonal, or universal.” That is exactly what Olguín has achieved. He has created an archetypal picture of self-hatred, a quality that, to some degree or other, all of us can identify with. In that lies the reason for the painting’s power and why a work you would think belongs in a garbage can grip us so.
Versatility also characterizes Olguín’s mythic approach. A 25x10 untitled oil on canvas of a gigantic black archangel hovering over a fish is in a completely different style from the self-portrait. Much of the painting’s richness and meaning are contained in its formal elements - paint, coloring, and form - as in the self-portrait. A tradition of ritual celebration as a means off paying homage to the gods for bountiful harvests inspired the work. The sparseness of its coloring - black, blue, tan, white - sets an archetypal tone, as does the suggestiveness of so much of the painting. Both together give the work a stark, otherworldly beauty.
The application of the paint, the lack of solidity in the black of the angel, its varied shadings – blue black, blue gray, etc. – add to the painting’s ephemeral quality and also give the paint an aliveness that intensifies its expressiveness. It differs on the fish, however. An almost infinite shading of blue and white suggest a kind of pale silver. Also, the fish itself is so made up of brush strokes, streaks, and smudges that a fish is more suggested than literalistic. Could it be that the image, even though its blinding brightness against the shadowy angel can’t help but capture our attention, is not quite complete, that it is still being formed, possibly still in the procees of being born out of the hovering darkness?
The seeds of an art that would take his work beyond picture-making into painting were far from obvious when he began showing at Galería Quetzalli, one of Oaxaca’s most prestigious galleries, in 1993. The Oaxacan style - figurative, over-rich seductive coloring, pre-Colombian imagery repeated ad-infinitum, and that expected Mexican edge of the surreal - dominated most Oaxacan galleries to the exclusion of other kinds of work. Olguín fit perfectly into the program.
His beginnings at Quetzalli were immediately successful. In fact, he became a kind of wunderkind, the new fair haired boy of Oaxacan painting of that period. But after a few years, chinks in the armor began to show, and his disappointment with his own work grew. Though it remained at higher level than much of the painting you saw in Oaxaca, it began to have a certain sameness. Even its distinctiveness became all too recognizable. No matter how rich or even imaginative, it no longer held surprises. In 1997, his dissatisfaction reached a peak. It led to his breaking with the Oaxacan style and the subsequent discovery of a unique voice. While it could not be said he led a revolt against the tyranny of the Oaxacan style, he certainly was a forerunner in the changes to the landscape of Oaxacan painting. To better understand those changes, of which Olguín was an integral part, one must look at his work in the context of the history and development of the Oaxacan style.
The style arose in the late 1970s, seeking to utilize traditional Oaxacan culture, its myths and legends, in a contemporary context. The pioneers of this new approach never saw themselves as innovators. Most were from small Oaxacan villages who had come to the city to study painting. In order to facilitate their learning, they utilized their personal experience in their work. The myths and legends of their particular communities, with which they had grown up from early childhood, were part of their personal experience. They never attempted, however, to literally illustrate existing myths or legends. The traditional culture rather served as a take-off point, an inspiration. The approach gave birth to a uniquely original style of contemporary painting and produced some of the most outstanding work of the period. A few visionary art dealers from Mexico City saw commercial possibilities in this new style and envisioned Oaxaca as a potential new art center in Mexico. They opened galleries there and began promoting the new work throughout Mexico, the United States, Canada, and Europe. The style caught fire and captured the attention of collectors, gallery owners, and museum directors.
As with so many innovative movements throughout art history, a slew of imitators jumped on the bandwagon when it became apparent that here was a hot item. What had begun as innovation degenerated into formula. The style identified itself more with interior decoration than art.
Oaxacan painting had now become part of the tourist industry and investment possibilities became a factor in this new market. Although small groups continued producing fine, original work, those artists found it more and more difficult to compete with the extraordinary amount of mediocrity that had inundated the market.
On a visit to a coastal black community of Mexicans of African descent in 1997, Olguín became intrigued by a lifestyle that venerated spiritual values and a sense of the ecstatic. He was also taken by the fact that ritual dance and collective dream-sharing were integral parts of daily life, not just extra-curricular activities. His attempt to depict this life-style in his art led ultimately to the discovery of a whole new approach to painting and to a deepening of his mythological orientation.
The beginnings of his new approach centered around his depiction of the ecstasy that permeated the community through dance. The quality of suggestion with a heavy mixture of the abstract and surreal soon began to replace his literal sensibility. The people of the community with whom he lived for a period of time are very tall. Instead of drawing recognizably tall individuals in the literal act of dance, he represents them by long, thin lines, at times, even as heavily stylized matchstick-like figures that bend and curve, encircling and intertwining. The effect is a suggestion of orgiastic, wild erotic dancing. Quickly painted, splashing, swirling lines and visible brush strokes intensify the ecstasy of the movement. He was now depicting movement directly, in its essence. A shift had taken place from painting people performing particular actions to that of painting the actions themselves. At times, particular juxtapositions of the stick-like figures and the way they would curve with one another suggested relationship.
The role of color also changes. It now suggest psychic environments rather than literally depicting physical ones. Mood and feeling has also replaced literal description. For example the tone of a dream might be dark and orgiastic, reflecting the particular psychic environment in which the dream is taking place. In any case, gone is the painted paradise look that had come to be identified as a Oaxacan style The colors have also become sparser, almost puritanical, resulting in another dimension of power.
While working in this new way, he also studied the work of certain contemporary masters. Francisco Toledo’s starkly swift brush strokes, Alberto Giacometti’s tall, statuesque sculpture, Amedeo Modigliani’s long, thin, angular figures, and Willem de Kooning’s elegant, sensuous abstracts find their way into Olguín’s new work. But hardly as literal copies. They are more inspirations that point him in the direction where his unique voice lies.
Olguín’s new approach was to express movement, forms, and rituals not literally but suggestively in terms of paint, color, and line. As a result, those elements were given a mythic power, transforming detail into essence.
The next level of development began with his trip to India. It brought the work begun in the coastal community to fruition and also introduced new elements. In addition to the use of paint and the act of painting taking on even more importance, he begins also to experiment with industrial paints. This has the effect of intensifying the sensuality in his use of paint. His imagery, though not totally removed from the black, stick figure style, has a new depth. Everything is softer and more suggestive, as if seen through a veil. Figures and their actions are almost a blur against a background that seems, at times, in decay. At others, a variety of soft, hazy colors fade into one another, hardly having a clear existence of their own. The focus on movement, rather than narrative continues but with a greater sense of unreality. The figures now seem to move through an evanescent world whose reality is constantly changing, never fixed. Even the reality of its existence itself is questionable.
The significance of the development that took place in his work during the time spent in India is not about India, per se. Though affected by Indian culture, it reflects yet another stage, a deeper level of richness, in its mythic expressiveness.
His use of color and application of paint in “Burning Ghats,” a remarkable painting from that period, have more depth and precision. You could even say that those elements have taken on a life of their own, having a deeper understanding of their role, where they’re going, and what they’re doing. Also, the work has a new level of clarity and simplicity. His work in India is not to be seen as an exotic diversion but as a development that builds on his discoveries in the coastal paintings and will continue to take new twists and turns in subsequent work.
A common affliction to which many Oaxacan painters fall prey is a tendency to remain with a style long after its development has come to an end. Oaxaca’s galleries are filled with painters who continue turning out mere variations of workthat originally brought them financial success and an identity. Fear of taking chances and an unwillingness to step out of the cozy nest they’ve built for themselves over the years have come to characterize the work of many. On the other hand, Olguín’s subject matter, a seemingly endless variety of the unexpected, is constantly changing. In addition, each new work invariably leads to new ways of using paint and new means of expression. As a result, a different style may appear with each new painting.
Around 2001, he began a surreal fantasy style. If not influenced by Hieronymous Bosch, it most certainly appears to be inspired by him. “Fiesta Nocturna,” shows strange looking animals and humans, their faces distorted, criss-crossing through a nightmarish environment on long stick-like legs.
For this new work, he experimented with encaustic, a painting technique that incorporates transparent glazes and heavy impasto texture. The three dimensional sculpted quality given by the impasto texture intensifies the grotesqueness of the figures and accents their distinctiveness from one another. In addition, the shininess of the paint deepens the dark brown nightmarish background.
In an untitled painting of a dead bird lying on its back, a work done in the same period as “Fiesta Nocturna,” the colors range from deep to pale brown. There is no solidity to the colors; they vary in shading, and brush strokes are quick and visible. Pale brown paint drips down from above onto the bird’s stomach, intermingling with the deep brown of the bird’s matchstick-like legs. An unusual event regarding this painting gave birth to an additional feature in Olguín’s new style. The dripping happened by accident. It was due to a carelessness on Olguín’s part while working. He set the painting aside, planning to throw it away, when a client, to whom he was showing his work fell in love with the piece and bought it. The painting has an ephemeral beauty which the encaustic intensifies and the drippings give it a quality of sheer poetry.
It’s difficult to identify an Olguín style. At times, he may stay with a given style, exploring and developing it through many paintings. At others, he will abruptly change from one painting to the next. In fact, the constant change of styles is as much characteristic of his work as any other aspect. Does this indicate an artist who has not found his voice. Sarah Newmeyer, in “Enjoying Modern Art,” talks about this same issue in regard to Edouard Manet, a precursor to Impressionism. I don’t mean to be so presumptuous as to put Olguín and one of modern art’s masters in the same class. What she has to say, however, about Manet’s variety of styles may have some pertinence to that of Olguín.
“He painted many brilliant pictures and, although they are unmistakably his, their variation in style show how....complex was his talent....Manet never quite found his place in art, his theme, his style. Artistically, he was continually in a state of flux, not because he was uncertain but because he was always seeking – yet never for a constant goal. With him, art was forever in transit.”
Courtesy of @Murray Paskin