Bowers Exhibit Shows Fernando Botero Is More Than Just 'That Guy Who Paints Really Fat People'

Well-Rounded
The Bowers largely succeeds in showing that Fernando Botero is more than just ‘that Colombian guy who paints/draws/sculpts really fat people’

With shows such as Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model receiving unprecedented ratings, it’s small wonder that eating disorders continue to top the list of maladies for teenage girls. In 2007, Uruguayan fashion model Eliana Ramos died from self-starvation only six months after her sister collapsed on the runway and perished from a heart attack caused by malnutrition, causing the fashion industry to re-evaluate its idea of the waif and add a minimum body-mass-index requirement for catwalk-ers.

In the Bowers Museum’s “The Baroque World of Fernando Botero” exhibition, body dysmorphia is preponderant in a very different way. Rotundity, stigmatized in contemporary society, remains a historical symbol of wealth and fertility (consider the more than 24,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, the famous Paleolithic sculpture with a tiny head, miniscule arms, and a large belly and breasts). This exhibit celebrates “extra” attributes while injecting a simultaneous sensitivity and brashness into many of the works.

Botero is known more for his commercialism and corpulent figures than his painterly brushstroke or psychological interpretations. The Colombian artist’s works have ostensibly occupied an anodyne place in contemporary art. While somewhat ironic and witty, they are usually safe and predictable: bucolic scenes of women more Rubenesque than even Rubens would have painted, still-lifes in which hyperbolic bananas resemble overstuffed sausages and banal bronze sculptures. Amassed from his own private collection, the first North American retrospective of his work since 1974 attempts to present an alternate perspective of the world’s most recognizable South American artist. Viewers with preconceived notions about the prosaic intent of the 77-year-old South American are deliberately challenged by a distinctive mélange of painting, sculpture and works on paper. Yes, everyone’s obese (and mostly in a beautiful way), but the exhibition of 100 pieces also brings forth works that are complex, sinister, dark and deep.

The first painting one encounters is an existential riff on the 17th-century Dutch masters. House of Marta Pintucco is an oil-on-canvas rendering of a whorehouse with conspicuous memento mori (“Remember that you will die”) undertones, a chaotic mess in which the painter has carefully imbued each of his subjects with a certain pathos. Two men sleep, one holds a whiskey and vies for action with an uninterested prostitute, while another lady struggles with her yellow brassiere. The floor is littered with a cross-eyed baby, snuffed cigarettes, a half-eaten meal and an empty liquor bottle. Marta Pintucco, the madam, clutches the doorframe with a gnarled hand, her nails painted siren-red.

Botero excels at drawing; he creates an ordered uneasiness, especially when he makes reference to the terror, violence and political instability of his country. A series of pencil, charcoal and sanguine works on paper featuring the downtrodden and destitute are particularly compelling. A Mother shows a woman holding her dying child, her head back and mouth open, tears streaming down her anguished face. And in Displaced Persons, a refugee sits on the ground among his belongings, holding his head in his hands as he wonders what has happened to his family, a little doll haphazardly placed atop the baskets, pans and bundles serving as the only reminder of his child.

The paintings and drawings produced in his signature fashion and based on masterworks by Delacroix, Ingres, Picasso and Van Gogh fall flat. Each is technically adroit and possesses a sort of whimsical humor, but they all exist as gimmicky copies of the originals. Similar are the paintings done in the style of the Spanish Colonial Baroque, in which extravagance, decoration and pious Catholicism are skillfully manifested, yet the feeling these works elicit is one of indifference. The 16 bronze sculptures in the exhibition seem a commerce-driven afterthought, though the sumptuous Italian-gray-marble Still Life takes a decent stab at redeeming the sculptor.

The show’s highlights are from the late ’50s and early ’60s, a series of paint-laden, loose and chunky constructions. Notable works from the period include The Boy From Vellacas, a haunting image of a dead dwarf, and Homage to Ramón Hoyos, in which a stylized battle is created using Fauve colors and painting techniques. The strongest of this era, Girl On a Horse, nods at Velásquez while maintaining a strong sense of self. A huge head formed by anxious, scratchy strokes takes up most of the image, while thick, Phillip Guston-like brushwork in pastel colors makes up the foreground to create a rich, dynamic tension.

Botero’s “Baroque World” is ultimately a successful foray into finding ways around the poster-print marketing for which he has become famous. And in the end, it is the fat lady who sings.

“The Baroque World of Fernando Botero” at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 550-0906; www.bowers.org. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. Through Dec. 6. $12; seniors/students/children 6-17, $9; children under 6, free.

 
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