Guillermo Kuitca: Everything—Paintings and Works on Paper,
An Artist’s Quiet Take on Mass Murder
As the title of this exhibition implies, “Everything,” presented Guillermo Kuitca’s expansive and ambitious oeuvre over a 30-year period. Masterfully installed on one full floor of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, this mid-life career retrospective for the Argentine artist, recently completed its United States tour on January 16th, with simultaneous presentations of the artist’s work internationally.
Kuitca, a painter, takes on the daunting task of shedding light on global holocausts. His early works deal directly with the AIDS epidemic at its beginnings. Later works relate to his own roots as a Russian Jew and the persecution his grandparents escaped. Simultaneously the artist created works that make reference to and in some cases memorialize The Disappeared of Argentina’s “Dirty Little War.” Using iconic references, a personal symbolism, as well as a variety of media and approaches, Kuitca takes on these difficult topics with a poetic restraint. Often, what is not stated visually is implied in these poetic spaces, with the content filled in by the viewer. Voids and omissions on the canvas become the point. Conversely, erasures, impressions and imprints leave a strong mark and pack a psychological wallop.
The artist creates works that range from intimate, simple drawings on paper, to large-scale wall pieces in acrylic and others in mixed media that spill over into installation. As ambitious as his explorations of media have been (including the development of a new process in his deconstructed “floater” works on paper), his content-driven themes afford the viewer numerous points of entry into his oeuvre. His use of materials underscores these themes.
Kuitca’s first working experiences in the theater influence his approaches to his work and the way themes are conveyed. He is an artist concerned with contemporary and historical tragedy, genocide in fact, augmented by his allusion to and inspiration taken from films, plays, and opera.
Terminal (2000), at the entrance to the exhibition, is a wall-sized, grey-scale acrylic reproduction of an airport baggage claim luggage belt with entrance and exit for luggage blocked off. The belt is void of bags and the space around it is empty of arriving passengers. We have entered the exhibition at a significant point to the artist—the intersection of the public and the private. By contrast, on an adjacent wall, a small more intimate acrylic painting on cardboard presented us with an image of a single bed. Nadie Olvida Nada (Nobody Forgets Nothing (1982). This piece also commands an entire museum wall in its simplicity, and the intimate associations with the image of a bed provide a perfect contrapuntal balance to the image of the very public luggage belt. The empty bed is depicted on a jaundiced, yellow background with a skewed perspective that evoked a coffin-shaped form.
Kuitca’s concerns regarding the AIDS epidemic, and for the genocide that occurred under Argentina’s dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, appear at regular intervals in his work from the 1980s. Like his fellow countrymen and artist Doris Salcedo, who also memorialized “Los Despardes” in her sculptures, Kuitca, meticulously enumerates the 30,000 abducted persons during this period in Del al 30,000. This subtle numbering motif recurs in his later works, that are based on public architectural plans. These introductory works resonate with more than a sense of melancholy, but with a sense of tragedy that carries through the exhibition.
In the late ‘80’s, Kuitca painted large dramatic canvases evoking his Russian, Jewish roots. The Russian Jewish flight at the turn of the twentieth century is reveled in his work Odessa. An early, mixed media “map painting”, this monochromatic work traces the main flight route Russian Jews took out of Odessa. The artist’s grandparents were part of that exodus.
His large red acrylic paintings from the mid-eighties both titled El Mar Dulce (The Sweet Sea), are heavily worked canvases. Scraped, manipulated amorphous surfaces depict enormous and dramatically ambiguous interior spaces, with scenes that include naked figures staring in a mirror, two figures copulating in a small claustrophobic space, and a female sleeping in the foreground. Stairs that lead to nowhere with rooms as cul de sacs, and no exits, evoke Kafka and Beckett, both documented sources for the artist. The iconographic image of the tumbling baby carriage from the famous film Battleship Potempkin is sketchily represented as a projection, with deconstructed stairs and trampled bodies.
A later version, gives way to a space void of human figures, only vestiges of human activity remain—toppled chairs and lamps, and empty beds remain in the foreground. The projected image of the baby carriage and stairs fades from view, never to reappear in the exhibition. Kuitca’s treatment of interior space includes blackened exit doors and doorways. Like Sartre’s play, there is no exit.
Kuitca, became unsatisfied with the canvas, and like many artists turned to non-traditional materials. The artist jumps off the canvas and unto mattresses as a ground. As his annihilation of the figure becomes complete, he paradoxically employs a medium that is an intimate and daily space of human beings with their imprints. Here, he creates works by superimposing maps (those public indicators of space) onto them. These maps are often convoluted, with routes based in reality but sometimes not. They often return to their starting points creating an endless loop of absurd geography. The viewer when caught in this cycle of searching for a point of reference never really finds one. The experience is not dissimilar to viewing Ionesco’s Bald Sorprano where the audience is destined to view the play over and over.
These works capture our need to orient ourselves, but the routes are skewed. Kuitca plays with his audience, while collapsing standard geographic boundaries. He has an interest in fluid notions of space, while grounding us on an everyday familiar object imprinted with the ethereal dents of the human form. We are here today, gone tomorrow.
“Everything” from which the exhibition takes its name, is a massive, repetitive work of four panels that seems best viewed up close and far away. The artist states that in the mapping schema presented, the roads lead from Dallas, TX to Dallas, TX. You can get lost in the routes. Stepping back, outlines of a blindfolded figure appear with arms behind its back. This large form repeats four times across each panel towards the bottom. This amorphous image underscores the notion of the disappeared, or ghostly.
In a later series of works, Kuitca riffs on Diderot’s “Encyclopedie,” but replaces definition and categorization with his fusion of world maps and melting of geographical borders. The artist is no stranger to finding inspiration in cultural icons and heavy hitters like Wagner. Still, these huge ambitious pieces are not his best. and mattresses as “new” media aside, it is in his Tablada Suite from 1991 and 1992 where the artist evokes the most humanity and is at his most poetic. In these four gallery-sized works, one on each wall, the artist subtlety, yet in great detail, depicts in graphite and acrylic the architectural plans of large public spaces—a Jewish cemetery in Buenos Aires, a prison, a hospital, and a stadium. Drawn with clinical and technical precisio, these works reference public institutions down to the institutional-colored paints he uses in the compositions.
Every prison cell, cemetery plot, seat, bed and chair is referenced. Again, figures are conspicuously absent, but their presence or existences are most clearly implied by these public plans, and designs for their anticipated lives, exits, and deaths. An overwhelming sense of melancholy for humanity is present in these poetic and obsessively drawn works.
In his Teatro Rojo works on paper and paintings that use theater seating charts, the artist developed a unique process of deconstructing interior architectural plans, creating forms that melt before our eyes. Here the viewer also has a new perspective. We look out from the stage instead of at it and the theaters are empty. In this purposeful reversal of perspective by the artist, we are implied, and unseen.
The artist continually plays quietly, yet dramatically with our location and our perspectives, inside and outside of the artworks before us. We are disoriented. Figures appear and disappear, humanity is implied, sometimes memorialized, and other times annihilated. We the viewers are part of the drama and witness to it. How easily we can be removed from the picture of humanity, how easily persons are removed by societal and political atrocities that come in a variety of forms—sometimes quietly in the night and most often at the onset, unreported. Kuitca’s works help us to remember.