6 October 2013

Paging Dr. Freud

© Brandon Queen, 2013
The current exhibition of Elizam Escobar's work at the Puerto Rico Museum of Art is thematically organised, with the resulting theme being general stylistic confusion. With the English title of "A Symbolic Introspective," the viewer can only expect the slightly surreal scenes that they are actually confronted with in each of the paintings. And it is precisely the narrative content of the works that takes precedence. However, relating the very personal scenes with those making social and political commentaries requires a mental stretch that is completely unnecessary.

Escobar is an established artist whose work goes at least as far back as the seventies. The pieces in "A Symbolic Introspective" cover this entire period, with the bulk of them being from the eighties and many from the past decade. The resulting retrospective (which seems like what this show is in some sense meant to be, which would explain the odd translation of the title) draws attention to some amazing work, but overall one wonders where exactly to situate the message and if a different theoretical framework might have clarified certain compositional decisions. Although the introductory text mentions Realism and Impressionism, most of the paintings could easily be described as Outsider art in style if not in substance. A more serious curatorial misstep occurs near the end of the exhibit, where a work from Carlos Raquel Rivera is placed next to a series of Escobar's paintings for an illustration of comparisons made in the informational panels; for me this makes Escobar look like an imitator and breaks the rhythm of the exhibit, especially since it's the only non-Escobar work presented.

There were four paintings that not only stood out, but completely saved this show. Toward the middle of the exhibit hope is offered in the form of La imaga (2005), where the abstraction Escobar seems to be most comfortable with comes to the fore. In this painting he mixes textures and shades, using each to highlight just the right parts of the composition. Another high point comes toward the end with the painting La nube (The Cloud) (2003); this is a large-scale painting (167.64 x 243.84 cm) and the simplicity of the image, with its duotone colour scheme, pulls the viewer into the very cloud depicted. A piece both well conceived and well executed.

By far the two most impressive works were the abstract ones, also on large canvases. El rinocerante (The Rhinoceros) (1988) is masterful, painterly work that shows that Escobar is far more at home when he thinks big. Even better than this painting was La maga y el vejigante (The Wise Woman and the Mummer) (1985). Measuring 127 x 247.65 cm, this painting shows that Escobar is a master at his craft and can create visual narratives that delight and intrigue. Free from any kind of ideology or psychoanalytic pretensions, this is is an exhaustive exploration of the possibilities of colour, shape, and saturation. Because of the topic (vejigantes are the traditional masks worn during carnival season) and its treatment, this painting is far more complex and interesting than the others for the simple fact that it does not feel forced.

"A Symbolic Introspective" runs until 1 December.