I See Fat People

Fernando Botero is stuck with his shtick

Photo by James BunoanAbout three-quarters of the way through the Museum of Latin American Art's "Fernando Botero: The Evolution of a Master"—an exhibit that can only be described as juicy—you get the sense Fernando Botero's tired of his shtick. You don't know Botero? He's the dude who paints the fat hookers and fat horses and even fat Mona Lisas. See? Now you know exactly whom I'm talking about. Botero's very recognizable. But after a hundred or so portraits of jiggly voluminous pulchritude, you sense Botero wishes he hadn't been quite so successful—some say he's among the most important living Latin artists—and that he could paint a Kate Moss or a Calista Flockhart here and there, just for a change. He can't, of course. It'd be like Wyland painting a boat full of Japanese fishermen slaying dolphins in blood-red coves, or like Thomas Kinkade painting his hazy homefires in a crack den. It's just not what the people want.

Immediately on entering, one feels comfortable and at home. There's Woman With Mirror, from 1998, her teeny round breasts forming surprised eyes in her torso's face, à la Magritte. There's Madame Assis, wall-eyed and with a crazy nose-jobbed Michelle Pfeiffer nose, her fat little pig hands friendly and well-kept. They're less Titian than kewpie-doll because they're not grown women underneath; they've got the indistinct features of four-year-olds. There are all the happy fat people we've come to know and love. As Wolfgang Puck says, "Live, love, eat!" Okey dokey!

Living, loving and especially eating are what Botero's subjects do immaculately well. They dance, they cavort, they do it for money, but with a great jolliness. There's nothing mercenary about the hos; rather, they seem to be answering a higher calling to spread the love—and those juicy ham hocks.

While Botero's brothel bacchanals often seem to be a bit over-the-top—just tell me that bed wouldn't break with seven fatties walloping away!—his portraits of lone madams are probably the best things in the show. Detail of a Woman, from 1976, shows a fat lady with a beauty mark and sexy green eye shadow. In her fat hand is a cigarette. Her breast, with no regard for anatomical correctness, hovers above her arm pit within an inch of her shoulder. But there's an essence to her that's missing from the others—she's not reactive, she's not hellbent on entertaining herself to death. She's still, not frenetic. She's a woman, not an unsexed child. She has poise; perhaps she even has class.

Then you come to Mandolin on a Chair, from 1957. It owes a lot to Braque, but even so? Even then? The mandolin? It is fat.

Find a good thing and run with it, Botero.

The second half of the show is devoted to exhibition posters from Madrid; Niigata, Japan; Munich; Belgium; and Seoul. Botero's early po-mo works—painting a pair of Piero della Francescas, but fat; painting Rigaud's Louis XIV, but fatter; painting a swan-necked (yet hefty) Mademoiselle Riviere à la Ingres—could have directly inspired the appropriations of our own Sandow Birk. They're very funny, but do they actually say anything, or were they merely a way to fill canvases when Botero's own imagination was waylaid? And there are so very many: the fat Jesus, the fat Francisco Franco.

There's even Botero's own fat self, where he has to layer himself in cholesterol deposits but, kind of like the Michelin Man, sticks muscles underneath the mush. It's there you realize the globby, fatty corner into which he's—you'll pardon the expression—painted himself. Also? He looks bizarrely like Lenin, unless that's just homage to Diego Rivera.

What fun!

Botero's paintings are happy and joyous. Even painting the rich (A Family), with their maid hovering and their fat, 28-year-old toddlers (grown-up babies like Giotto's Christs) and their hillside mansions in the backgrounds, Botero's satire is gentle. You and I may see complacent piglets while the people around them starve or serve them, but I bet they really liked their portrait!

One of the least finished portraits is the most pleasing. A product of its times, Our Lady of Fatima, from 1963, disdains realist polish for something more expressive. Unlike Botero's usual careful and deliberate matte finish, she's painted in choppy crayon-like scribbles. Her hair is pink, her face blushing and clownish, and Our Lady looks like the prototypical Oompa Loompa.

Botero may be stuck in his gilded cage; he may even be in a big fat rut. But when half the hemisphere is swooning and buying your prints because you just gave them self-esteem in a bottle—because you made them and the portions at Claim Jumper okay, when no one else would see their beauty—you keep churning it out with an assembly line like the studio of Raphael.

That's no reason not to love the exhibit; anything with fat hookers cavorting in sextets can't be bad! It's just a reason to be careful what you wish for.

"Fernando Botero—The Evolution of a Master" 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 Jan. 11, 2004. $5; students/seniors, $3; members and children under 12, free.
 
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