Review: Juan Dávila: imagen residual/After Image, curated by Paco Barragán.

12 July – 16 October 2016, Centro Cultural Matucana 100, Santiago, Chile

Thirty years after the publication of Margins and Institutions: Art in Chile Since 1973 as a special issue of Art & Text, Juan Dávila returns to Chile to exhibit some of his latest works at Centro Cultural Matucana 100 in Santiago. Yet what returns is precisely what the text written by critic Nelly Richard rejected: a type of painting centered on the unconscious that delves into pictorial richness and employs a deeply personal iconography to explore what Dávila calls ‘the complex’. Instead of the comeback of the enfant terrible that caused diplomatic outcry in the 1990s among some Latin American countries, this is a Dávila of the new millennium: calm, enigmatic, thriving in poetic color, even mellow, though still critical of persisting forms of oppression and coloniality.(1)

In its attempt to repair the debt that, according to Spanish curator Paco Barragán, Chile owes the painter for not displaying his works in major institutions, the exhibition brings together some representative series and media in which the artist has been working for the past sixteen years. The ensemble consists of works on paper (eight silkscreens, six gouaches, twenty acrylic paintings on paper and eight acrylic interventions on printed posters), oil on canvas, and a mural, offering a glimpse at some of the themes that have appeared in Dávila’s later oeuvre, from refugees to oneiric gender-fluid figures and abstracted landscapes. Most are novel to Chilean audiences, even though some may seem minor (the gouaches in particular appear like decontextualized preparatory sketches for larger paintings) and notorious gaps are present (like the absence of works from 2003 to 2010).

Though connections between Australia and Chile are not explicitly stated, the exhibition offers several points of contact. A case in point is Wallmapu (2016), oil on canvas mounted on a curved wall. Painted en plein air at Phillip Island near Melbourne and echoing in its sweeping environmental embrace Monet’s Water Lilies, the painting employs Gorky-like, calligraphic free-floating marks, swift gestures, and passages of atmospheric brilliance that bring to mind the lavender, pink, and yellow tints of Matisse’s Le Bonheur de vivre. Yet the four purple seed-like forms that forcefully intercept this idyllic landscape act like open wounds, while the work’s title relocates this apparent Arcadia to another end of the world. Wallmapu is a Mapuche word referring to the territory that this indigenous group has inhabited historically in the south of the Americas, and also alludes to everything that surrounds us, including air, soil, water, the earth that sustains us. Wallmapu implies a latent knowledge that needs to be retrieved and reflected on, as Dávila suggests by bringing closer different colonial pasts and current histories of common environmental devastation.

The Australian-Chilean connection is also perceived in the silkscreens next to Wallmapu belonging to the Woomera series of paintings and prints (2001-2002). These provide an imaginary yet graphic representation of the continuum of dehumanization in detention camps like Woomera in Australia with the torture centers set up by the Chilean military dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s. Here we find Dávila at his most incisive, employing a poignant language of elegant calligraphic lines and caricature to present scenes of torture, abandonment, and desperate sexual acts as well as some of the global economic and military actors and prejudices supporting such enclosures.

The ten oil on canvas works from 2014 to 2016 that form the exhibition’s centerpiece, weave instead the personal and the political in luscious displays of color and sensual painterliness. Most of the paintings present a white border that enhances their presence as pictures, perhaps pictures of dreaming states or, as suggested by the exhibition’s title, the residual memories of the unconscious mind. The characters, male, female, and in states of transformation like the graceful youth turned into a geometric bird of Ohhhhhh! (2014) either seem to float in nondescript environments or sit at counters set in horizontal bands of color reminiscent of modernist paintings and flags. The background stripes in mostly pink and light blue tones, the overlaid titles that recall old-fashioned script, and the profusion of built-in pictorial effects (from fumage to drips and feathery strokes), contribute to the creation of an uneasy space where perspectives shift, bodies mutate, and temporalities coexist. Each work seems to present an inner landscape and a riddle, a pictorial attempt to record interrupted memories.

History and the present are never forgotten though. While Entitling (2015) may allude to real estate speculation in Australia comparable to a gold rush, Estar en el mundo (2016) critiques our digitalized present where existence is equal to recording a video on one’s cellphone. Ralco (2016), the only painting of the series bordered in pink, is a reference to the dam and hydroelectric plant in the southern region of Bio Bio in Chile that forcefully displaced indigenous populations in the 1990s (leading them to increased poverty). As if reinterpreting the current table of dialogue set up to mediate the conflicting interests in the region while evincing Chile’s class and ethnic divisions, Dávila presents the encounter at a table of a smiling middle-aged, tanned, Teutonic blond woman in dark glasses drinking a tall glass of frothing beer, with a taciturn indigenous woman wearing a Mapuche-Pehuenche headpiece and the uniform usually given to domestic employees. The flaming dessert plate brought in by a male waiter could be a reminder of the multiple forms of violence perpetrated in the region that are linked to land appropriation, exploitation, and restitution confronting Mapuches, colonizers of European descent, and the Chilean State for nearly two centuries.

Dávila’s historical works can be seen in a projected slide show that functions as a retrospective, while some of the characters that sparked controversies in the 1990s make a phantasmatic appearance in a large mural painted in situ. This parade intersperses large floating geometrical forms (the modernist avant-garde), thick dabs of pink and yellow paint, brief atmospheric passages and loose stripes, with a child’s drawing, 3D renditions of bees, and black and white appropriated characters. The sources include aboriginal artist Tommy McRae’s drawings, the Chilean satirical magazine Topaze, woodcuts published in the Paraguayan war periodical Cabichuí, and colonial archangel paintings. The procession is led by a pale interpretation of the transgender Simón Bolívar of 1994, now riding his horse backwards, a bloodied flame or gas ejected from his index finger, the pubic area that caused so much uproar barely sketched, breasts covered up. Hardcore references to sexuality and gender are mostly glossed over in the exhibition, as well as Dávila’s collaborations in performances, photo-novels, or mail art projects, and some important exhibitions in Chile like the notorious 1979 CAL gallery show or the 1983 Fable of Chilean Painting disappear completely from the chronology.

The exhibition ends with a series of colorful works on paper that imitate or are painted over posters reflecting Dávila’s current concerns regarding Chile, its political, and cultural scenes (including the “Escena de avanzada” canonized by Margins and Institutions).(2) Even though they resort to humor and recall the critiques of Dávila’s 1990s works, these posters are polished, simplified, and playful rather than aggressive. Is this the return of a prodigal son? Dávila has stated that ‘Painting is a mute language, incomplete.’(3) Though Dávila’s colors may have turned Rococo pink, the compositions cleaned up, bodies and desires no longer bare, as this exhibition makes clear, he certainly still has much to speak about.

 

(1) In 1994, Dávila was at the center of a controversy caused by a postcard reproducing his painting The liberator Simón Bolívar, in which the military leader and statesman Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) was depicted as a transsexual sticking out his middle finger to the audience. The original work had been shown that year as part of Dávila’s installation Utopia in the exhibition Unbound: Possibilities in Painting at the Hayward Gallery, London, and was reproduced as a postcard in a mail art project called ‘Escuela de Santiago’ (an association made by Dávila with the Chilean artists Eugenio Dittborn, Gonzalo Díaz, and Arturo Duclos). The polemic began when the Venezuelan ambassador in Chile publically complained about the image of the mail art project arguing that it was an affront and a defamation of a national hero. The controversy escalated when the ambassadors from Colombia and Ecuador added their own complaints and a Chilean flag was burnt in front of the Chilean embassy in Caracas. The media fed the discussion on freedom of expression, government funding for cultural projects, and censorship after Chile’s return to democracy.

(2) ‘Escena de avanzada’ is a term first coined by Richard in 1981 in the self-published text Una mirada sobre el arte en Chile (and later popularized with Margins and Institutions) to refer to artists who produced an oppositional art during the military dictatorship by deconstructing and ‘subverting’ the visual rhetorics of nationalism, authority, and neoliberalism imposed by the regime, while using mostly photography, graphic arts, performance, and video.

(3) Juan Dávila, in Juan Dávila, edited by Guy Brett and Roger Benjamin (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2006), 211.

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Juan Dávila, imagen residual/After Image, Matacuna 100, Santiago, Chile, installation view.

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Juan Dávila, imagen residual/After Image, Matacuna 100, Santiago, Chile, installation view.

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Juan Dávila, Representación performativa 3-D, 2016. Detail of a mural painted in situ as part of imagen residual/After Image.

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Juan Dávila, imagen residual/After Image, Matacuna 100, Santiago, Chile, installation view.

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Juan Dávila, imagen residual/After Image, Matacuna 100, Santiago, Chile, installation view.

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Juan Dávila, Ralco, 2016.

Carla Macchiavello is an art historian who has published on contemporary Chilean and Latin American art with an emphasis in video, performance, and artistic practices aimed at social change. She is Assistant Professor in Art History at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, NY. She has curated exhibitions on recent Latin American art and is co-editor of Más allá del fin/ Beyond the End, a publication of the art and science program Ensayos in Patagonia.

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