Photo by Jack GouldIn the 1970s, much of Latin America was not a nice place. It wasn't so much the flies-in-your-eyes poverty of the peasantry while the moneyed few lived behind big walls with armed guards sprinkled gaily atop like caviar on toast points. It was more than that: it was the U.S.-backed regimes lopping off heads like the Queen of Hearts while chains of women keened for their Disappeared, all in the long historical shadow of the United Fruit Co.
Maybe that's just me. Then again, maybe not. In the grimmest exhibit we've seen since the last Santora opening, Gerardo Chavez's "Rhythms of the Fantastic" at the Museum of Latin American Art offers a never-ending procession of bug-like storm troopers goose-stepping their way up and down and all around, doubling back and forth until the whole canvas is aswim in them. They multiply hallucinogenically, like Elephants on Parade. The exhibit breaks the spirit almost as effectively as a CIA-trained death squad.
The Peruvian Chavez is not of the primary-hued, happy, hippy Expressionist or Magical Realist schools, whose bold tropical reds and yellows we most associate with Latin American art. His canvases are awash in watery sepias, their thin earth tones positively anemic. You have to look closely to discern shapes and figures, and even then they morph into one another. But again and again, you spy the segmented bodies of bugs and grasshoppers, laying waste with their endless populations. You can't fight them off; if Starship Troopers had been a good film instead of 90210 in Outer Space, Chavez's work might have been its entomological inspiration. You spy horns and bony talons layered in pale color like school transparencies. Somber grays and taupes weigh gently upon his canvases like the sky over downtown Long Beach, mixed with the delicate blue of fairies' wings or Leonardo's waterfalls. And always, decay and death mix with everything.
It's simplistic but easy to read this as a denunciation of Peru's decades-long occupation by ruthless military regimes—ones operating under Star Chamber conditions, in which people are accused and tried and found guilty and put away or executed sans any kind of jury or real charges—and so we will.
Chavez's 1970s work depicts a Goya-esque world seen through dung-colored glasses and peopled by monsters with ravening appetites. Even sex is a mute act of desperation among a less-than-human cast. Small mnages like Rapto IV look mechanical and lethal, populated by copulating demons like the "work" of copulating-demon lover Emily Maldonado, though less graphic; there are no devils penetrating orifices with their own tails in Chavez's work.
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It's wondrous how the aesthetics of the '70s—Chavez's aesthetics—were so global; you see the same thing in Chavez's work from that period that you might have seen in a Fresno State University dorm room circa 1976: drippy stalactite images recall stony, hobbit-like caves missing only shag carpet to replicate the whole Dungeons & Dragons experience. Of course, that would be Dungeons & Dragons with legions of Brueghel-like corpses and pre-Alien creatures brandishing razory, slavering jaws. C'est le morte.
A little of this sort of thing goes a long way, and apparently Chavez got as tired of reproducing it as we do of looking at it. By the 1990s, Chavez had moved on—same theme, new metaphor, same blinding repetition. Sure, there are astonishing works like El Otro Ekeko—a titanic (173 inches by 173 inches) tribute to the domestic god of good fortune, but a disturbing one (one expects him to shovel hapless supplicants into his mouth like Goya's Saturn Devouring One of His Children). But Chavez seems to have spent the rest of the decade on the same insipid carousel horse. It's surely fraught with autobiographical relevance for the artist, but for the rest of us—okay, I'll only speak for myself—it takes on a mealy symbolism better suited to the lavender bedroom of an 8-year-old girl than a man deep into middle age. It's as bad as unicorns. Or Hello Kitty. There's small redemption in the fact that here, too, the paintings seem to be a social commentary. The wall text says Chavez, one of 11 children, wanted desperately to ride the carousel but was too poor to do so. And so, it seems, he obsesses about it in grand fashion the rest of his adult life, taking an appropriately carefree symbol of childhood and burdening it with all the sad darkness of want and need and hunger and envy and doing without something all the other children have. But I still think—especially after what seems like 45 canvases depicting the same thing—it's trite.
Missing in Chavez's evocative, purposely thin—like Dickensian gruel—paintings are any kind of lushness or corpulence. There's a good reason, of course: he's not Pollyanna, and thank you for that. Contrasting beautifully is Sergio Velasquez's Mujer con Papaya in the room devoted to the museum's recent acquisitions. In that one, an angel-faced woman with mountainous thighs (light escaping from between them to illuminate her whole fleshy being) sits, placid and juicy. She doesn't worry about death squads or juntas. Between Velasquez and Chavez, they would lick the art world's platter clean.
Gerardo Chavez's "Rhythms of the Fantastic" at Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689. Open Tues.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Sun., noon-6 p.m. Through Sept. 12. $3-$5.