Until now, mention of the name Oswald to American audiences occasions references to grassy knolls and conspiracy theories.
Not any longer.
“Of Rage and Redemption: The Art of Oswaldo Guayasmin,” organized by the Guayasmin Foundation, with its only West Coast appearance at The Museum of Latin American Art, will make a household name of this Ecuadorian artist whose work constitutes an avatar to oppression and violence - synonyms for twentieth century history - as well as to motherhood, nurturing, and reconciliation.
Showing the life cycle of a metaphor, the work easily hopscotches from the personal to the national to the universal. In the catalogue you learn that he came from a poor family, that his father, who didn’t support his career choice, was brutal and curt. That his mother was exactly the opposite. In fact, it’s written that she provided breast milk for him to mix with pigment so he could quickly capture a pressing scene. That in itself provides a lovely description of the creative process.
We learn that he witnessed a fellow student killed during a political demonstration and that one event set him on the odyssey that would provide the thematic ballast for his life’s work. His mature output, his crowning achievement, really, shows the effects of political struggles, especially that of Andean indigenous peoples.
The exhibition of 80 paintings, drawings, and prints executed between 1937 and 1996 is divided chronologically and thematically into four sections: a “First” period (1937-1945), “Path of Tears” (1947-1952), “Age of Wrath” (1964-1974), and “Tenderness and Later Work,” c. 1985-1999. Though the work’s arranged chronologically you tour the show counterclockwise, as if walking backwards in time.
It’s a powerful show. Much of the work is larger than life, consisting of multi-paneled oils on canvas, to better describe fragmented states of mind. His compositions, like his messages, are simple. Figures, especially, are schematized, broken up into constituent parts, to better symbolize the atomization of the world’s collective soul. In place of any action and movement that would suggest narrative, his work seems frozen in one eternal screech. Forms are composed of body parts. Figures, especially, as well as still life subjects, are crammed up against the picture plane, to suggest that you’re getting a personal viewing of an esthetic documentary into traumatized states of mind.
Guayasmin’s is not a literal rendering of people, places, and things. The work is expressionistic in nature; it’s more about feeling than literalizing. If you think about it, the very large, figurative pieces that are strategically and well-placed within each of the galleries remind you of Picasso’s “Guernica.” But don’t think about sources: the work is too visceral for that. He paints his home town but it’s not only dwarfed by it’s enormous, surrounding mountains, it’s got the same spooky sense of place that Goya gives to Toledo. Though his palette is broad – reds, greens, yellows, oranges –it’s tone is sepulchral-somber. Even a couple of still life portraits of flowers are rendered with a tone that is more reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe than Vincent Van Gogh. And his last work, that of the “Tenderness” period, is tinged with melancholy: these sitters have seen far too much.