Scenes in Gray and Black and Blood

Bruno Widmann makes our puny mortal brain ache

By Bruno Widmann "Two Seasons/Dos Estaciones" by Bruno Widmann speaks out of both sides of its mouth like it's Ari Fleischer. It proclaims one thing and paints the opposite. My puny mortal brain is aching today, and it's not from last night's champagne. Damn the Museum of Latin American Art! Damn them!

The Uruguayan Widmann divides his exhibit into Liberty and Hope, Libertad y Esperanza. He titles his paintings Iconsand All Together and Something More.

And then he shows us scenes in gray and black and blood, about as hopeful as the dancing mothers of Pinochet's Disappeared.

I don't know what to make of Widmann, and it doesn't help that his abstracted geometricisms are impossible to decipher. You know there's a narrative there somewhere, but his thumb-sized figures, crowded blotchily into the middle of large canvases, aren't giving up their secrets. They are as undifferentiated as a child's attempt to sculpt people from Plasticine, and it's impossible to tell. Surely that's not a marching band, in their matching blue blocks for jackets and tan blocks for hats? Surely not? But then why do two of them hold objects that are conceivably trumpet-shaped? Squiggles of red slash randomly about the canvas, and a dust storm—or something conceivably shaped like one—lumbers over the assembled. Wait. A military marching band, maybe? Seems more apropos to the oppressive gray squares, the slashing blood. Seems more like it. Maybe.

Of course, in some cases, Widmann eschews obfuscation and sets before us a straightforward narrative, one unabstracted and easy to decipher. And then I'm left feeling like it's too easy, like he's talking down to us, like his Sisyphean fable could be at home in a gallery in Laguna Beach.

There is just no pleasing some people.

* * *

The easy offender is Let's Do It. Still on ashy gray, still hopelessly hopeless, it shows two tiny men pushing an epic egg, perhaps 20 times their size. But the men are straining on opposite sides of the obstacle; they will never move their boulder. They will never succeed. Ha, ha! Heartless Widmann.

Widmann's imagery may be, in general, impossible to read—too smudged, too abstract to figure out what's going on while not being abstract enough to count as nonrepresentational and judged only on its angles—but its aesthetic is another matter. It's clear the feeling we're supposed to get from the palette and small symbols: we're supposed to feel a claustrophobic misery, a poverty of spirit. Yes, we see people as big as a thumb, but we can't tell if they're walking or dancing or goosestepping. We have some small reference point: the horizontal levels around which they're perambulating are like the floors of a cut-away dollhouse or the descending circles of hell. There are flat, duct-tape gray exteriors, repeated motifs of chessboards on which people stand as pawns, and trompe l'oeil diorama alcoves in which they're tucked like one-legged tin soldiers into a box. What they're doing there is anybody's guess, but the sense of swirling death is clear.

It's useless to wish for a clearer style of painting; the primitive nuevo of Tamayo is writ large here. They are cave paintings, rough stone idols, ancient heritage remembered and revered. It's not particularly the style herein Southern California right now, with our painters showing off by once again actually learning how to draw, boasting their spatial proportion and perspective; their vivid, ultrarealist imagery; their witty post-postmodernism. Instead of the effete aesthete, Widmann offers the urban tribal savage. United We Stand (from 2002) shows at the rear of the action some small, falling figures—like people jumping from the World Trade Center, perhaps? Before them, shoved into a boxy corridor or a refugees' boat, people are crowded like cattle or like Jews on the way to Dachau. They all look like Fidel Castro to me, or as close to Castro as you can get if you're looking for faces in clouds. I'm making it up, of course, like I'm making up the whiff of Guantanamo Bay I'm scenting. (Is it that, or is it people running through the streets of Nueva York, or is it a third thing entirely?) His intent and narrative are murky, but one thing is not: there is no pride in United We Stand—just war and fear and refugees.

Does Widmann really believe canvases of such mourning can still offer hope? Is even the darkest night just the time before the dawn? Or are his calls of Liberty and Hope mockery, with definitions that are more than vaguely Orwellian in these more than vaguely Orwellian times?

"Two Seasons/Dos Estancias" at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689; www.molaa.com. Open Tues.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Through June 29. $5; students/seniors, $3; members/children under 12, free.
 
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