Trampling the Grid

CIFO's commission artists offer slaphappy taproots, martyrs, and more

Figuring out what constitutes art can be a craptastic adventure. Or so Alvaro Oyarzun implies in The Painted Image or The Most Beautiful Memories of the Life of Captain Carrot currently on view at CIFO.

Engulfing one entire wall and part of another, the Chilean's sprawling project is part of "Three Perspectives: CIFO 2007 Commissions Program Artists," also featuring work by Venezuela's Eugenio Espinoza and Colombia's Jose Alejandro Restrepo.

The trio was chosen for the exhibit as part of the nonprofit's efforts to "broaden global understanding of the work of artists who are making a significant impact in Latin America but are less familiar to U.S. audiences," explains Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, director and chief curator of the Cisnero Fontanals Art Foundation's space.

This year's winners, who were selected by a panel of peers and leading art professionals, are exhibiting new works commissioned by CIFO specifically for the show, along with previous works.

Composed of some 500 small-scale drawings, paintings, and photographs — some new, some old — and arranged floor to ceiling near CIFO's entrance, Oyarzun's monumental collage is meant to be viewed as one complete painting in which the disparate elements intertwine in the underlying plot — not unlike one of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritú's movies, minus the heft.

According to wall text, in theory, Oyarzun's work mines art's fundamental philosophical issues and the complex role, and life, of the artist. His characters, described as "amorphous archetypes of artists," loosely lead the spectator through a grungy, ambivalent narrative questioning the need for art to exist.

Many of the self-taught artist's pen and graphite drawings depict a gallery of grotesques, each with a bit of text telegraphing Oyarzun's strategy of flouting the conventions of painting while attempting to impose his own voice.

In one, a three-eyed, pus-oozing woman holds a tome titled The Social History of Art, while next to her a megacephalic mook peruses a reference book examining historical images of the body. Underneath a line reads, "Beyond all the problems, my love for painting remains intact."

Another drawing shows a man farting spider webs over text that informs, "In any regard we already knew that when it came to painting we didn't hold out much hope."

For non-Spanish speakers — or anyone else, come to think of it — deciphering the riot of visual noise can be a taxing strain. What is a viewer to make of the jumble of paintings of ghoulish freaks, dead dogs, giant crabs, rotting fish, and even a portrait of a senile old man scattered throughout? Or of the painting of the exterior of a condo in which the artist's alter ego, Captain Carrot, peers from behind a balcony rail? Or for that matter, the series of eleven napkin-size paintings directly below? They depict a used condom, a penis, diseased organs and bones, and what even appears to be an unsightly ode to a turd.

Perhaps the best way to ingest Oyarzun's festering fable is to follow the tiny pictures of Captain Carrot — who looks like a poor cousin to Mr. Potato Head — wending their way through the wacky imagery clogging the walls.

You don't need to understand Spanish or have a plot outline to catch on to the critter's travails.

The homunculus burnout is seen shambling through the weeds, scaling ramparts, and excavating a hole. As his journey toward becoming art-savvy unfolds, Captain Carrot is seen wrestling a dinosaur, engrossed in an art publication, and confronting a hare. He later enters a museum made out of a cardboard box, and becomes transfixed by a huge portrait of himself, before falling fitfully to the floor.

In doing so, the slaphappy taproot seems to echo a line in one of Oyarzun's squirrelly drawings that ironically spoofs the self-taught: "Neither in favor of nor against but rather well-assimilated — or an I don't know what from the profoundly idiotic."

There is no denying that Oyarzun is a talented painter with a sharp attention to detail and an unerring eye for humor. But after lingering for more than an hour trying to absorb the stew into which Oyarzun seems to have poured every can and box from his kitchen cabinet, one walks away convinced his cockeyed vegetable gets the last laugh.

In an adjacent space Restrepo, one of Colombia's video art pioneers, tomahawks spectators with some old-time religion tweaked with a bit of stunningly blunt, modern hyperviolence.

Estigmas (Stigmas), a series of five fiberglass sculptures housing mini video monitors, lassos the viewer into engaging with the work from mere inches away. In one piece a pair of outstretched arms jut from the wall as if reaching for the spectator. Thick cords of electrical wire run like brachial arteries from the hollow of the forearms to the floor. The Christmas lightbulb-scale screens, embedded in the palms to denote stigmata, depict a man driving nails into a penitent's hand with a brick.

Disembodied feet on the floor and a head on a column serve up more of the same. Restrepo knocks a hole the size of a quarter next to the mug's left ear, where he places the twitchy video as if to deliver a coup de grace.

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