Spending the summer in Quito, Ecuador, I found scarce evidence of contemporary art. The few galleries I visited were still basking in the light of mid-century painters like Oswaldo Guayasamín and Eduardo Kingman. Like the Mexican muralists, their Indigenist work assimilated principles of modernism to serve political ends. But where had Ecuadorian art gone since the 1960’s? Were it not for my chance happening upon a temporary exhibition at the Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador, the country’s largest art institution, I might never have known.
The show, called Realismos Radicales, or Radical Realisms, collects work made over the last 20 years by 38 contemporary Ecuadorian artists. In an interesting twist, Susan Rocha, the curator, conceived of the show’s title before she had any real idea what it would be about or who would be in it. Over two years, artists were selected, ideas developed, and the show’s growth was thus guided organically by the question: “What would a realism of today look like?”
That process was fruitful—instead of providing a monolithic answer to the question, the show presents a collection of approaches so diverse I had trouble figuring out at first what made them so cohesive.
Though rarely overtly political, social unease is a common undertone in the show. One piece by Edison Vaca, “Ven para cagarte y mearte,” meaning “Come shit and piss yourself,” is a lifelike sculpture of a man with indigenous features in a business suit, his pants at his ankles, hunched over and holding his penis. The piece reflects the racial anxiety of a country whose history since colonialism has been something of an extended identity crisis. The indígenas, or native Ecuadorians, have only recently gained political representation, and the Ecuadorian majority, individuals of mixed indigenous and European ancestry (or mestizos), often consider themselves blancos, refusing to accept their heritage.
A group of photos by Frank Johnson from his “Alter Ego” series imagines a narrative that opens in a dimly lit bedroom, with the artist injecting drugs as his girlfriend irons and gloomily looks out at the viewer. In the next photos, a verbal argument precipitates the girlfriend exiting and subsequently kissing another man at a seedy diner. Enter the artist again, knife in hand. The final panel has the artist running down the street with a bloody shirt and a crazed look on his face. These cinematic photos share common ground with Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero, whose schizophrenic tone and gritty subject matter have won him recognition as the country’s most important filmmaker. Like his debut film, Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (Rodents), these photos revel in the fantasy and paranoia of the artist living in the underworld of Ecuador. And in spite of—or perhaps because of—their exuberant overstatement, they are poignant.
Other pieces use pop culture to express the personal. A sculpture by Wilson Paccha depicts a larger than life, mutant Bart Simpson, with an extra nipple, a misplaced arm, and a camera lens embedded in the forehead. Paintbrushes loaded with paint perforate the body like arrows. The sculpture takes an icon of childhood innocence and individualism, the perfect substitute for the artist, and transforms it into something futuristic and hardly human. Paccha’s Bart is like a Saint Sebastian, martyred by the artist’s brushes instead of the king’s arrows. Bart’s third eye, the camera, symbolizes surveillance tied to authority. Even the choice of a cartoon character suits a statement about mechanization—the cartoon, drawn frame by frame, is the ultimate medium of repetition. Like this nightmare about the loss of humanity, the majority of pieces in the show demonstrate that the realistic need not be literal.
But do the pieces hold up to the claim of “Realism?” To answer the question, it helps to trace the notion of Realism back to mid-19th century France and the work of Gustave Courbet. The prevailing movement of Romanticism, embodied by the works of painters like Delacroix, dealt in high notions, ideal sentiment, mythology, and the eternal. But Courbet chose to put at the center of his work something much more personal and shocking to the public—himself. Courbet’s own life, experience, and identity, whether explicitly or implicitly, infiltrate every inch of his paintings, from his unflinching early portraits to his later allegorical hunting paintings. Despite the egocentric nature of his work and its deadpan literalism, Courbet subtly but brutally revealed hidden truths about society and the human condition. Realism was, from the very beginning, radical. It was only in subsequent times that the concept lost its sharp edges.
Though often intensely personal, the work in Radical Realisms reveals much about the history of Ecuador and its colonial legacy. For some time, Ecuadorian artists have resisted the topical and the representational. Guayasamín and Ecuador’s other modern artists strove to break with realistic painting, which was associated with colonialism. And while the later Informalist artists of the 1960’s rejected Guayasamín’s sentimentalism for the starkness of Constructivist abstraction, they remained adverse to realism. Hundreds of years after colonialism, Ecuadorian artists are ready to move on and reclaim representation.
The realities revealed tend to be violent and corporeal. The show abounds with the grotesque—paintings of a man wearing a mask of meat and of open-heart surgery, a video of a Frankenstein-like chicken being reconstructed from individual pieces, and a murky red-hued digital photo of a man clenching his chest. Strangely, these pieces are reminiscent of Ecuador’s colonial artwork, produced by a group of artists known as “The School of Quito.” They are famous for crucifixion scenes bloodier than the average Mel Gibson movie. The artists were by and large of indigenous and mestizo descent, apprenticed by imported Franciscan monks to learn to paint like Europeans. They poured the violence and anguish of their history into religious paintings and wooden sculptures, while scaring their viewers into conversion. They gave Christ gaping wounds, and parted his flesh to fearlessly expose the bones and organs that made him human. Even the more tranquil pieces in Radical Realisms, such as two eerie seascapes by Pablo Cardoso, possess a distinct, underlying sadness. They too, in their avoidance, seem a product of this violent legacy.
On the surface, the work in Radical Realisms seems modeled after North-American Pop and Performance Art and European Surrealism. Yet this work’s consistently direct dealing with the lives of individuals in specific places sets it apart. With certain notable exceptions, the ability of contemporary artists to speak in no uncertain terms about lived experience has been circumscribed. Radical Realisms has little irony, not much clever institutional critique, no serious attempts to address the history of Western painting. Though the absence of such agendas would typically be a shortcoming, here it clears the field for an honest pursuit of expression, lending the work a genuine urgency that makes it feel new.
Josh Morgenthau is an artist and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.