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In his later years, as he descended into madness, Venezuelan artist Armando Reverón took to wearing a loincloth and wandering around a bizarre ramshackle compound where he created life-size dolls out of burlap sacks. The dolls were his family; some say he made love to them. They were also among his most enduring, haunting pieces of art, and today they help define the legacy of one of the most enigmatic figures in Latin American art history.
"Reverón's Dolls," a new photography exhibit at the Leonard Tachmes Gallery in the Design District, pays homage to the late artist and transports the spectator to the surreal realm of a forgotten world.
The exhibit features 37 works by Venezuelan photographer Luis Brito, who documented the rotting remnants of Reverón's macabre muses to preserve the legacy of his compatriot, who died in 1954 after a slow decline into dementia.
Reverón's life is the stuff of legend. Born in Caracas in 1889 as the only child of wealthy parents, he was aloof and sickly as a young boy. As a teenager, he studied painting and traveled to Spain and Paris, where he boned up on the work of the masters.
Returning to Venezuela, Reverón joined the Círculo de Bellas Artes, a group of anti-academic artists, creating a series of blue paintings that earned him early attention.
During this time, he met Juanita Rios, a young woman of Spanish and Indian descent, who became his model and lifelong companion. He also had the first of many nervous breakdowns and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Later, when the Venezuelan government began persecuting artists as subversive elements, Reverón and Rios fled to the coastal village of Macuto.
It was there that the couple built their bizarre kingdom. Living under woven palm fronds and detritus they had collected, they eked out an almost aboriginal existence. In addition to wearing a loincloth, Reverón took to painting with crude homemade brushes fashioned from bones and tattered rags he carried in a kangaroo-like pouch strapped to his waist.
He dubbed his strange domain El Castillete, the Little Castle. There his odd creative genius took flight.
"His was in a very particular world," explains Jorge Hulian, curator of the exhibit and the man who represents Brito's astonishing collection of photographs worldwide. "If you notice Reverón's trajectory during this period, he might be considered the first multimedia artist of his lifetime."
Indeed, in his later years, after lapsing in and out of severe bouts of depression, Reverón, with Rios's help, began adding to his humble tribe with the life-size dolls that played a signature role in his work.
His eerie creations, fashioned from burlap sacks fished from the trash, were deployed as models for Reverón's late paintings, and as their numbers grew, the artist began staging theater pieces with the dolls as his actors.
Reverón doted on his unsightly harem and created ratty household items for them, even designing outfits. He also named each one, gave them anatomically correct genitalia, and cared for them individually as if they were family members.
"Some believe he had relations with his dolls," Hulian informs. "If you notice, some of the dolls even have babies. You have to wonder that if in his later years, Reverón, who never had his own kids, might have 'fathered' these children in his deteriorating mind as a way to cope with his loneliness."
After the artist's death in 1954, El Castillete became a Reverón shrine, until it was destroyed by a mudslide in 1999.
Enter Brito, who knows something about troubles (the photographer was arrested last week for DUI in Miami Beach). He first encountered replicas of Reverón's dolls at the artist's old haunt before it was destroyed.
Brito, who in 1997 was awarded Venezuela's national photography prize, was commissioned by the state's Gallery of National Art to photograph the dolls to preserve Reverón's legacy.
"I never imagined that years later, I would encounter the real ones, the ones from the artist's own hands," Brito says. "With the most profound pain, with a sadness I can't explain, I observed how these wonderful beings were removed from forgotten boxes and hung like marionettes covered in termite dust and cockroaches."
Brito struggled to convey a sense of the dolls' inner lives as envisioned by Reverón himself. But by this time, the dolls — now decomposing and tarnished, with a decrepit patina suggestive of livor mortis mottling — would unlikely become reanimated under harsh photographic lighting and an unforgiving lens.
Undaunted, Brito played Polish composer Henryk Górecki tunes in the studio until his nerves were soothed. "I realized the dolls only needed one light. They needed to be isolated. They had been for years trapped in the penumbra and had come from the penumbra of their creator," Brito recalls.
He decided the dolls had to maintain a certain intimacy. He placed each one alone against a black background, believing they each contained an individual mystery — that each had an inner life he would allow to manifest. "From there on in, everything flowed," Brito affirms. "Reverón himself is revealed in these dolls. He is with them, and they are with him."
Hulian has added to the tenebrous nature of Reverón's macabre, mummified molls by painting the gallery walls a velvety squid-ink black. Against this backdrop, Brito's pictures pop out, giving the dolls a discomfiting psychological depth that sears the brain.
Brito's arresting collection of images depicts one red-wigged dummy with pomegranate-stained bee-stung lips. She wears a crystal necklace and a shiny purple halter top. The doll's pumpkin-orange organza skirt is hiked up to reveal deformed gams and putrid vaginal flaps. A bright studded ring twinkles on one of her stubby toes. She gazes at the viewer through what look like dead fish eyes.
Another doll is posed regally with a headband keeping her stringy blue coif in place. She is garbed in a richly patterned red, white, and blue Indian frock.
Other photos show Reverón's dolls cradling his imaginary offspring. "It's very strange," Hulian observes. "Some of them are carrying blond babies, and then all of the sudden you see one with a black child."
The exhibit is enhanced by a silent 12-minute, black-and-white video of Reverón working at his legendary lair. In it, the artist paints and interacts with his beloved rag figures in makeshift plays.
There is also a scene in which he takes off in a canoe while staring at the sun. "Reverón was very ritualistic in his approach to art," Hulian explains. "He believed that by gazing at a source of light, it would clear his sight to see pure color."
In 2007, New York's Museum of Modern Art hosted a retrospective of Reverón's work. The artist became only one of four Latin American modernists to have a solo show at the museum.
The exhibit included only one of Reverón's dolls, which some might consider odd given the role they played in inspiring his late work.
At the Leonard Tachmes Gallery, Jorge Hulian has peeled back the veil on Reverón's mystifying world with a deftly curated and engaging exhibition of Luis Brito's haunting pictures. It is not to be missed.