By Wayne Baerwaldt
“In terms of Uruguayan art, the artist [Ignacio Iturria] achieves what Pedro Figari achieved previously: to develop the creative act into a solid identity without neglecting common essentialities, at least as defined by western parameters for a majority of the human race. This double functionality is indispensable. Were it not dressed in the lovely clothing which a state of restorative nostalgia can offer us or the consecration of the everyday, these essences would be shipwrecked in rhetorical asepsis. That costume is not just ornamental. Within that area which is so distinctly Latin America, so inevitably Latin American, constituted by the flow back and forth between the capital cities of the River Plate, there is a recognizable physiognomy; within the more introspective, cautious region of Montevideo, it is almost the fingerprint providing its identity. In the analysis of the causalities that stimulate Iturria’s diffusion, I have preferred to leave a considerable space for the wise texture of the inexplicable. On considering artistic creativity, and its phenomenons and epiphenomenons, it is convenient to come to a stop in time, before unravelling the magic, dissecting the mystery. Because there is so much magic, so much mystery behind Iturria’s growing relevance, just as there is in the work itself” Alfredo Torres, Remembrance As Distance (Lima, Peru: Lima Plaza Mayor da la Cultura Iberoamericana), 1998, np.
My first encounter with the work of the enigmatic and prolific painter, Iturria, was in 1996 at Plug In Gallery, the artist-run centre in Winnipeg, Canada. I had previously heard of his textured or “sculpted paintings” from the American curator Laurel Reuter. Iturria’s quirky figurative-abstract style and humanist subject matter identify him as a Latin American painter. The tragicomic conceptual landscape that informs Iturria’s magical and nostalgic canvasses is intimately linked with a region in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes. Brown, black and sepia colored paint squeezed directly onto a variety of surfaces, from stretched canvas to corrugated cardboard, give Iturria’s abstracted ‘every man’ figures material mass while details in white are dramatically sculpted with a brush or spatula. The resulting three-dimensional paintings are surreal portraits of intense absurdity. Iturria imbues his Neolithic stick figures with a deliberate simplicity that lurches towards kitsch as it engages social commentary through the perverse form of cartoon sequences.
Iturria’s world-view presents humanity as a house of many characters. Employing both kitsch impulse and artist’s moral rudder, Iturria’s paintings invariably reveal through their conceptual patterning a human iconography of the Americas. Quotidian rituals of everyday performance and domestic space are examined in painting after painting to weave a universal view of the human condition. Lilliputian figures inhabit segregated sparsely furnished rooms, illuminated by dangling bare light bulbs — a simple table and chair or single bed in the foreground, it’s occupant(s) either frozen in limbo, busy with daily tasks or in the thrall of an embrace. Iturria’s innocuous apartments are human containers with expansive windows, portals to the larger world of shared human experience, symbolic of the psychic, surreal turmoil endemic to urban dwelling.
As depicted through Iturria’s microscope, dwelling space is at once a shared monument to the banal modernity of contemporary living and the private hell of solitary compartments in the mental health ward ( “Stanno tutti bene”, 2nd version). Iturria’s stick figures inhabit basic urban high-rise shelters, the brutal Modernist concrete architecture common to the Americas. They form something of a genealogical tree, acting as a reminder of population and social security concerns evident world-wide in the intense proliferation of jails and elimination of long-term mental health facilities. The theme of the “contained human” is one that Iturria returns to over and over. He often renders the human figure pictographically, stripped to its bare essentials, just as he strips living spaces to their essential form like cell blocks or theatre sets with a distant window or skylight or occasional barren doorway in the background. The dramatic skylight and doorway in “Apuntalar I” or “Rosario Oriental” seems just out of reach although invariably it is a dramatic relief to recognize an unexpected exit.
As bleak as Iturria’s chosen settings seem to be, his wiry figures often dwell in a zany world of children’s play composed from personal childhood memories. The paintings as myriad portraits from the artist’s imagination continue to cement his strong familial bonds. He readily discusses the influence of his cultured father, an immigrant from Basque Spain whose goal was to be an artist in his adopted Uruguay, and Iturria’s mother who encouraged him to become the artist his father failed to become. Iturria paints to “honor his father’s ethics, compassion and humor.” Iturria’s parents encouraged his artistic inclinations to draw and paint, to see and experience the world with an understanding of the epistemology of the Uruguayan land. His most vivid memories are of a Montevideo childhood playing with small toys on the make-shift faux ‘urban landscapes’ of household furniture in his parents’ home. The expansive Uruguayan landscape and Rio de la Plata River are a universe parallel to his miniature living-room playground that Iturria likens to the remoteness of living on an island. The island life of Montevideo in the turbulent political realm of the 1960s and 70s became Iturria’s eternity, the artist’s place in this eternity with suburbs and a river became more absolute with faith. In his studio the miniature world he paints is in constant psychological birth through associative mechanisms of recollection. Invigorating both the real and imaginary landscape, Iturria recalls in his paintings the vast surface of a family sofa that becomes an elephantine hulking mass foregrounding a plethora of active and passive painted figures. Through this regenerative process of animation Iturria has not only expelled his parents from the canvas but reality as well — not necessarily the outer world, but the penetrating “ways of the world” — reality at its deepest level is abstracted and repopulated with the artist’s own. From Iturria’s august solitude as an adult, the field of vision for his “inner child” is without limit and the portrait of its inhabitants as innumerable as memory permits.
Iturria adopts the grid format reminiscent of abstract art of the 1950s and 60s as an expression of conventional ideas that become a form of languaging. The grids of portraits connected with basic lines of wire are provoking in their display of unity in diversity, while also embodying a bleakness carved by memory that suggests a fear of death, a fear of extinction of earthly body and memory alike. Among the portraits, a recurring schematic elephant takes on monumental proportions and significance. The portrait of human solitude (interchangeable with elephantine solitude and memory) is a way of giving form to modern civilization’s spiritual values largely presented outside the traditional gallery, that of the religious cathedral. Iturria offers glimpses of the religious edifice in Christ’s absence and graffiti stamped replacement: that of Goofy, the Disney character. The cathedral’s high realist portraits of the ecstatic human subject in the thrall of the spirit of the Holy Ghost are notably absent. The cathedral having been replaced by the high-rise condominium, a commercial cathedral whose sales showrooms depict the new ecstasy of ownership in a fabulous place on earth, rather than in heaven.
Iturria’s portraits, in all their abstract qualities, are very much of this earth, where the innocence and dementia of childhood are played out. The portraits of family, friends and anonymous others from childhood are primarily pictures and only secondarily the likeness (or analysis) of a face. The quirky caricatures insinuate themselves on window sills, in and around wash basins and even emerge from a water tap’s geyser, faces riding hairpin-like lines of paint that resemble wavering blood trails of human migration. By any measure Iturria’s figures are absurd characterizations of the human form peering foolishly out the windows of serial urban high-rises or from common domestic furnishings. Yet his surfaces, whether festooned with sub-angular figures or starkly devoid of traces of human contact, present something much more complex. They achieve abstraction by the most radical means, by subterfuge and distraction, and in their depiction of common life. Iturria’s queer paintings are striking not only for the disarmingly kitsch human forms that dominate many of the paintings but also by their construction. The ‘gullible clown’ playfulness in Iturria’s broken narratives underscore something about the painting process that is much more salient. Their construction has become increasingly sophisticated and deserves critical attention for the incorporation of writing, drawing, carving and even quasi-embroidery in the ink stamping of the graffiti-like cartoon images. A transcendent form of painting is engaged by Iturria. Ritual application of color may be recognized as the primary building block in Iturria’s painting process and his approach to appearance. The continuity of Iturria’s often limited palette is derived from the range of deep auburn browns reminiscent of the naturally silt and visually dominant Rio de la Plata separating Montevideo from Buenos Aires. The relatively narrow range of color can be understood as a form of identity. Invariably this mischievous artist uses the basic building blocks of tones to challenge himself, maintaining a limited range of colors to illustrate the rich of character of the painting process. Iturria’s process of structuring appearance pays homage to a long-standing neo-magical tradition in Latin American painting. His creative output as a transgressor of painting’s traditional support surface insists the work wants to be more than painting. Iturria’s art reflects a recurrent impulse to sculpt, certainly in the form and scale of his intimate as well as large scale paintings (see “Stanno tutti bene II”) but particularily in the awkward, often totemic furniture pieces when he most successfully melds painting and sculpture. Using cardboard and paper mache as both recognizable form and makeshift support surface, Iturria paints over abstracted “household furniture” — cupboards, writing stanzas, bookcases and overstuffed furniture. As support structures for painting, the furnishings have an elegance that commands attention but ultimately Iturria’s aim is to make the painting self-sustaining, obliterating the support surface in the process. The painted surfaces contain and embolden the quirky, handcrafted qualities of the forms in their gross abundance. His cupboards have a stately bearing (ranging in height to six feet) but on closer inspection their temporary, fragile nature is revealed in warped surfaces of thin layers of paper, cardboard and paint. They wallow and roll in elements that are never quiescent. His largely barren cupboards and more recent eviscerated pop-up picture coffee tables are sentries that mimic the stark abstract high-rises or human containers depicted in his paintings. Some work may recall the cement encased wooden furniture sculpture of the Columbian artist Doris Salcedo. However, Iturria’s forms are more whimsical than the haunted sentinels of Salcedo. If nothing else the vacuity of their sculptures respectively mirror the artists’ collective memory of repressive political systems— right-wing military juntas common in the histories of South American countries. Iturria’s metaphorical language nevertheless remains historically and regionally disparate, linked to traces of Salvador Dali’s Cadaques-inspired surrealism (from the countryside that featured wildly evocative winds — which Iturria experienced during a seven year residence in Basque Spain) or the grotesque forms of the American painter George Condo. Each is evidence of traditions in academic Euro-Americas abstract art whose true roots are firmly entrenched elsewhere, in authentic forms of Pre-Columbian art and Peruvian weavings, virtually on the doorstep of Iturria’s birthplace. Iturria’s totemic furniture sculptures and free-standing mixed media assemblages (i.e., Homenaje a Morandi) move back and forth in time as easily as he abandons physical laws and laws of perception. The sculptural furnishings may appear as apt metaphors for sprawling high-rise residential developments in Miami, New York, Toronto and elsewhere in the Americas. Iturria’s sculptures are geometric reductions of the urban built environment, playfully arranged as floor models at a contemporary furniture exposition. However, Iturria’s stylistic and esthetic roots owe a primary and more significant debt to the rise of the hybrid abstract art forms of the 20th century, made familiar to the artist from museum holdings in Uruguay and neighboring Argentina. Beginning in 1920s and 30s, artists from Europe and the Americas derived inspiration from the religious and mythical symbolism in the weavings and sculpture of their Amerindian predecessors. For Euro-Americas artists Montevideo was an important magnet for the cultural investigation of Amerindian tribes and their two millennia-old textile grids and patttern making. (1) European and Americas artists such as Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Horacio Torres, Gonzalo Fonseca, Louise Nevelson, Josef Albers, Anni Albers, Francisco Matto, Libero Badii and others traveled to the Andean region to study Pre-Columbian sculpture and architecture as well as Aboriginal art. Others, like Paul Klee, who, early in his career witnessed significant and influential Amerindian collections in Swiss museums, found a kinship in the wrinkled grid forms of weavings, the intimate human scale and language of patterns that later spawned breakthroughs in the development of Western abstract painting and sculpture. Iturria, as well, was naturally influenced by the permanent collections of Andean textiles and other art forms at such institutions as the Museum of Natural Sciences (La Plata, Argentina) and Fundacion Banco Frances (Buenos Aires). For example, ethnographic art and architecture most certainly inform Iturria’s depiction of space. An ambitious 1965 brick mural by Horacio Torres forms the walls of the Church of the Archdiocesan Seminary in Montevideo and closely resembles the stonework of Inca pyramidal structures. This interior wall composed of rectangular brick forms has a strange resemblance to the proportions of Iturria’s recurring rooms as stark human containers that appear in his paintings. Joaquin Torres-Garcia painted similar ‘abstract compositions’ of monochrome rectangles in the 1940s. Other precedents are less focused but their association and impact is clearly linked to Andean Uruguay. The totems of Francisco Matto, the ancient altars of Mapuche civilization, the symbolism of Gonzalo Fonseca, Paul Klee’s compartmentalized blocks of colour and tones (especially his “geometric color patches”) and generic architectural forms derived from Peruvian weaving. These are also the contentious ancient roots of visual representation in Western civilization. In Western visual art movements these roots of abstraction have entered the lexicon very late and not without challenges from the Academy that dictated another art history enlightened only by the Euro-centric vision that guides colonialism. Iturria’s ongoing investigation of memory’s reapplication of the human form on various surfaces inquires into the very reconstruction of objects, daily events, human consciousness, ideological propositions and social facts. When research into the construction of appearance converges in a single act and on a single surface such as a painting, concerns with culture, tradition and fact are all the more pronounced through their contiguity. By drawing from childhood memory and pre-technological production (i.e., Andean weaving) as non-alienated labor and exemplary of fundamental human values (bound to ritual art making, family), they link the present to a mythical and natural past. Although kitsch is Iturria’s primary form of resistance to a conflation of past and present his field of research also engages the problems of resistance. The problem of temporal, material and cultural distance is explored in what Iturria suggests as the process of “painting psychological time,” a weaving of the components of human behavior and production that might just suggest a possible existential reality. As allusive as Iturria’s paintings seem, his art wrestles with meaning and gesture, from the bottom of the primordial abyss where the most distant past merges with the living present.
Notes 1. Please refer to the fascinating and conceptually ground-breaking catalog Abstraction, The Amerindian Paradigm (Brugge, Belgium: the Societe des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles / Vereniging voor Tentoonstellingen van het Paleis voor Schone Kunsten Brussel in association with IVAM Institut Valencia d’Art Modern), 2001. See Expopba@netpoint.be www.expo-psk.be