The Ecstasies of the Eye: “Pasiones Contemporáneas”

por: Enrique Olivares

The word “passion” evokes a vast well of images ranging from star-crossed harlequin lovers to the mountain hike of God incarnate, but it also happens to be the name of the Museo de Arte de Ponce’s latest exhibition: “Pasiones Contemporáneas”(Contemporary Passions). The exhibition is a tour through the Serapion & Belk private collection, showcasing American, European, Latin American and Puerto Rican contemporary art from the Serapión the past forty years. With more than 90 works from pop masters Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol, internationally renowned artists such as Damien Hirst and duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, as well as island artists such as Carlos Davila Rinaldi and Carlos Rivera Villafañe, the exhibit provides a polyoptic platform for the scrutiny of modern passions.

When it comes to engaging the artists’ “passion for depicted the frenzy of emotions, neurosis, and apprehensions of contemporary times,” as dictated by the catalogue, viewers might find themselves at odds with the works. Save for pieces such as Roche Rabell’s “La caída,” a vertigo-inducing vision depicting an ailing Sisyphus being torn asunder by a bevy of cultural icons, most works do not represent passion in formulaic or in a familiar artistic lexicon. Passion then, is displaced, from the thematic pictorial plane unto the practice itself, passion for the medium. Allowing enough ground for this type of approach, one keens on the possibilities of art, not only to reveal the limits of what it can do, but also the limits of that which it cannot. For example, while Köster’s untitled oil on metal piece draws attention, not just to the less-than ordinary surface, but more importantly to how that surface elucidates a new vibrancy and texture of the paint, Muniz ‘s trompe d’ink portrait of Frederick Douglass forces the viewer to reconsider two simultaneous ideas: what materials can do and the impression of what materials can do.

Though these two examples seem to effuse passion through the alienating medium, it is Christopher Rivera’s “Sueño Profundo” that lures the viewer through its design. Pencil drawing allows for a more detailed, and more immediate, rendition of a female corps smitten by her own reverie, and with no portal or key into what she imagines upstream. The spectator is presented with a paradox, an impulse to know more, to solve and open what inevitably is a closed frame: to be lured in, only to be deferred.  It is this that brings to mind Leighton’s “Flaming June,” (not the composition, and much less the color palette) in the way that both works effuse the suffering of “erōs.”  Erotic love, in its Greek sense, is a desire to possess (not in its capitalistic interpretation) the object, but possessing it by knowing more about it, much like walking past a Rossetti or a stunner in your local watering hole. It is the promise of happiness, and not happiness in itself that rouses aesthetic pleasure from within us. Passion, in this sense, has been conditioned by mystery, instilling a sense of hysteria, a mild form of madness, a gratifying torture for those left unknowing.

These examples of visual “curio-erotica” in the medium signal to its basic practice: seeing, and there could be no better example of this in the exhibition than Andy Warhol. His blown-up silkscreens of saturated hibiscus and Technicolor death chairs draw attention, more to the fact that our perception is so bombarded by barricades of images that they slip away from our lives. We have looked at these effigies hundreds of times before, in newspapers or napkins, yet we haven’t comprehended that there is a subconscious visual language which we at times void completely, not “seeing” it. This brings us to the tried, yet nonetheless true, statement of studying Warhol’s ouvre as an introduction to becoming a cultural wallflower. One must be delicate whilst crossing such waters, for it is at times too easy to fall into critical pitfalls, ascribing all of pop art and contemporary art in general as cynical, even though cynicism is a an explored theme. One must not consider the artist completely detached from society, taking a step back from structures as a great Romantic would, to criticize them. To the contrary, the artist is even more enmeshed with the organs of society. It would not be incorrect to affirm that his Death and Disaster series is void of immediate meaning because the artist does not present what he wants us to see, but how he wants us to see.  We must look at art just the same the artist saw his vision, not despite history or culture, but through these particular factors.

We must consider, not just what we are seeing but, how. Our gaze is just as informed and manipulated by visual baggage at times to heavy to shake off, but this makes looking all the more interesting. As a final example, I consider Dutch artist Kiki Lamers’ “Unitled (Girl with Long Hair),” a monochrome portrait of girl. Why is it that whenever I look at my cousin’s corn-haired daughters I have no reaction other than mirth and joy, but looking at this portrait I feel all but comfortable? Is it because of her vague, slightly uncomfortable expression that I am at unease, or is it more? Does this painting reveal more about the decorum of the art world or more about my own personal reservations?

Passion is suffering, but this suffering is strictly teleological. What gives art, as well as our perception of it, character is how we keen on an inner standing point. We suffer our emotions in relation to the external world, our bodies as archways and mirrors through which experience funnels through. Passion and suffering does not exclude chicanery, falsity, intensity or apprehension, but incorporates them as the disparate works of art show. The Museo de Arte Ponce has round up a group of works,  in “Pasiones Contemporáneas” that demonstrate vignettes of artists’ suffering through visions that can only be remedied by  responding, interacting and dialoguing with the world around them, the same way we remedy it by dialoguing and experimenting with art.

“Pasiones Contemporáneas” will be exhibited from Aug. 11 until Dec. 3. The Museo de Arte de Ponce is located in 2325 Las Américas andd is open Wednesdays through Mondays, from 10 AM until 6 PM.

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