On ViewAlexander Berggruen
October 23–December 19, 2020
At the 58th Venice Biennale, in 2019, the Dominican Republic—ranked the 11th most vulnerable country to climate change—presented a number of ecologically minded artists, including the extraordinary painter Hulda Guzmán. Her technicolor junglescapes and studio scenes reflected a protean, almost mythical world where humankind was not presented as some amoral evil force, but rather an intrinsic and natural part of the ecosystem—one with the flora and fauna. These images were some of the most memorable and affecting works I saw in Venice.
Guzmán’s solo exhibition at Alexander Berggruen is her first in the United States since then, and it finds her turning, mostly, to views around her studio, where she was confined during COVID quarantine. It’s a breathtaking retreat. From the artist’s window, palm trees spread out over lush tropical hills. Garden pathways wind through forests where children, birds, and animals peer through thick trees. Guzmán’s work recalls Henri Rousseau’s in its naïve, mystical depictions of forest creatures and foliage. But her most exhilarating landscapes also make me think of Lucas Arruda, who inexplicably transforms the unyielding Brazilian Amazon into placid fields like Mark Rothko paintings. As does Arruda, Guzmán deftly invites a kind spiritual awakening in her vibrant forest scenes.
Guzmán is most winsome at the fringes of her fever dream. In one stunning painting, Pintando la Almendra [Painting the Almond Tree] (2020), Guzmán paints herself painting in a mise en abyme. She cackles as her self-depiction cascades, tessellating into infinity. In The mischievous (2020), she chases four red devils who’ve hijacked her cat, and in Cheers (2020) a fifth toasts Guzmán from the terrace. Camouflaged throughout several jungle paintings dominated by sprawling trees, animal-faced figures, and long-tongued demons peer between the branches. It’s startling when you catch them, but their presence feels entirely at peace.
Here, Guzmán’s hallucination retains the disconcerting but frankly appealing vibe of boho-chic demonology. She understands that Boschian supernatural terror is most mesmerizing when it retains some tether to normalcy. But when Guzmán wrestles the pure horror of what her jungle-induced ego death has unleashed, she doesn’t always win out so cleanly. In Under the Flamboyan (2020)—an otherwise astonishing painting—a huge chunk of the sky is blocked out in discordant orange blotching. It neither complements nor productively contrasts with the artist’s subtle pointillist pebbling. Likewise, Under the bitter Orange tree (2020) loses the overgrowth’s delicate balance between impression and hyper-clarity. There’s an argument to be made that such moments suggest the breakdown of distinction between human and animal, a dichotomy Guzmán is clearly interested in dissecting. But if that’s the case, then why does she never fully release her painterly sensibility? The deeper into the abyss we go, the more tedious her vision grows, until eventually the yagé-trip vibe becomes its dominant quality. The works’ charm fades like a hangover. It’s one thing to comprehend how significantly a vision quest affects your perception of a mundane house cat. It’s quite another to recall it soberly through such awkward and unpleasant paintings.
Part of the issue may have to do with the exhibition’s organization, which places the most feral paintings pell-mell among less enigmatic scenes. Linear display isn’t necessarily unoriginal, and it wouldn’t negate the hierarchical flattening Guzmán is after. This show in particular would benefit from a more straightforward, Dantean descent. The narrative would be more compelling if it began in the artist’s studio and followed her through the jungle and then into the rift. As it is, the chaotic arrangement may represent an attempt to paper over the work’s occasional silliness and clumsy moments, but such a struggle to find footing does the paintings no favors. When she’s at her best, Guzmán flaunts a singular lucidity that cuts right through the world’s vertiginous, maddening disarray. She doesn’t need a crutch.