Tiny, Unhappy People

by Ana FarbyMedieval mystics—Catherine of Siena, say, or Theresa of Avila—experienced God as something like a holy orgasm. So it's a real pity when religious faith manifests itself in dull colors on canvas. The Catholics (and ancient Egyptians and whoever it was who built the Hagia Sophia) have it right: for them, the glory of God is a splashy affair, edged with gilding and positively lousy with stained glass.

But for Eduardo Esquivel, faith and ritual are brown and small. While there are lessons to be learned from this limited palette and scale (humility, for one; the people in his canvases are faceless and pinkie-sized, as perhaps they should be amidst the grandeur of all creation), it doesn't inspire one with the greatness of God.

"Painted Worlds: Argentina" at the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) claims to be about how painting looks at the environment. It certainly is that, if Esquivel's environment—his native Argentina—is all dirt, all the time. At least there's a lot of it: the dirt is vast, in umbers like Tamayo's, and dwarfs the people.

But it's very clear that Esquivel's real concerns are not environment but faith and ritual. And taken with the other painters in this show, we get a glimpse of the world as it looks from the edges of the American empire.

Esquivel's large canvases (71 inches by 69 inches) show from a bird's-eye view circles of tiny people on their dirt background, holding torches aloft. In some canvases, they have halos; in others, there are patterns like crop circles. It's all very Stonehenge, but there's only a little mystery to it.

Most of Esquivel's canvases here are pretty much the same colorwise, until you're drowning in browns as if you're lost in the sunburned San Joaquin Hills in September. And if you count Mario Prez's canvases across the room, the number doubles. Prez was born in 1960—five years after Esquivel—in the same city of San Juan, and has an almost identical idiom: thickly scumbled oils in sienna, tiny figures faceless in the desert, all seen from above. But Prez's works are more interesting; he's less obsessive and more inclusive. Instead of portraying the same torch-bearers, some of his works (like Mambru Went Off to War) feature military men dressed up like Prussians or The Little Tin Soldier. Far-off barbed wire delicately bisects the canvas, protecting a tiny state building in a barren field; it's a pretty pathetic outpost. Others feature people in parks or sitting around tables. One has a bunch of red-hatted cardinals; what they're doing is anyone's guess. You see, they're very, very small.

Only a couple of Prez's works depart from the overwhelmingly dun palette. Tres Luces is a panoramic fishing scene. By dark-blue night (the sky scored with textured hatchmarks like in the other paintings), three campfires glow on the banks of a river. People fish; it is happy. Sismo I (Earthquake I)is an abstracted swirl of browns intercut here and there with blotches of blues and reds. It's difficult to tell if it portrays massive destruction or merely upheaval. The chunks of blue and red can be read as bodies in rubble—everything looks like bodies in rubble these days—or merely accents to a kinetic energy that flows like a tsunami, or like lava.

Relief comes in the canvases of Ana Fabry, delightful absurdist narratives that don't seem to have anything in common with Prez's and Esquivel's—beyond the fact that all three painters are from Argentina. That's the first-glance impression, at least. Fabry's colors include gentle greens and soft crimsons and clouded teals. The figures are actually real, rather than merely symbolic or abstracted. They're vulnerable people with goofy, sweet looks on their faces, and those people are set in soothing places:a pretty living room, the top of a wedding cake, or flitting in cool water.

But then you realize that the most charming of Fabry's characters—fairylike, dumpy Thumbelinas in red bathing suits and bathing caps—are as small and faceless as those of the other two. A few raft on a lily leaf (props to Diego Rivera); others work in the shadow of such kitchen tools as cheese graters, forks and pots. And you can read these in all kinds of ways, mostly tyrannous ones: Is this the oppression of domesticity?

What is it about these Latin American artists that they feel so small and oppressed by the size of the world? Here in America, we prize size. We conquered vast forests ruthlessly. Buildings climb more than a hundred stories; our celebrities are superhuman. Advertisements assure us that we are suns around which constellations of service personnel orbit, prepared to interpret each syllable of our body's language. We should have been the ones who built the Pyramids—and the Sphinx, which may now come under attack by hard-line Muslims.

In the U.S., we never get a feeling of our own personal smallness in comparison with the universe—at least until a few weeks ago. Now, for the first time, we have seen our vulnerability. We have seen that each of us is as small as the tiny ovoids peopling the vast tracts of dirt created by Esquivel and Prez. Hopefully, while recognizing our teeny place in the cosmos, we will still keep the joy of Fabry's flitting red fairies.

"Painted Worlds: Argentina" at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689; www.molaa.com. Through Dec. 1. Open Tues.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $7; students/seniors, $5; children under 12/members, free.


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