Latin American artists depict native oppression

January 25, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

At Halcyon, two artists who live in this country exhibit paintings that reflect the oppressive conditions in their native Latin America.

Santiago Vaca, from Ecuador and now living in Chicago, creates big, dark, crowded, ominous canvases that grab you and won't let go. They're not pretty, but they're effective.

The best of them here, "The Great Discovery," looks more than figuratively visceral; it looks like somebody's innards. It's a big, organic-looking machine, presumably the machine of the militaristic state, engulfing people who appear as bodiless heads. They are being force-fed whatever the machine wants them to have (that is, to know). It's a not-very-well-put-together machine -- it looks on the point of breakdown -- but it's still functioning and leaves the impression that there's nothing much anybody can do about it.

"The Hummingbird" centers on a figure that, I'm told, looks much like the artist and thus suggests the painting is autobiographical. The figure is surrounded by images, some painted and some collaged photographs, that appear to refer to his heritage and life: a gas mask that implies danger and death, the beauty of a hummingbird, a view of mountains, a reproduction of a Baroque painting.

As in Vaca's other paintings, the tones here are dark. In a corner, part of a checkerboard appears, as if to say that the individual's life is not really his own -- he's a pawn in somebody else's game.

Antonio Rodriguez, born in Puerto Rico and now living in Baltimore, creates paintings that are equally large but brighter in palette and therefore less menacing than Vaca's, despite their grim subject matter.

"The Red Scorpion" has three sets of figures. In the foreground, a uniform-clad man points a gun at a child clutching a doll -- the price of revolution is the death of innocents. In the middle ground, a pair of skeletons arm wrestle -- a symbolic conflict by two figures apparently unaware that, being dead, they can have no effect on what's going on around them. In the background, a well-dressed couple dances -- the rich, oblivious to the miseries of their countrymen. This is a much more effective work than the even larger "We Must Build a Wall," which lacks the clarity and punch of "Scorpion."

Both artists contribute drawings as well as paintings; they're good draftsmen, especially Vaca. You won't necessarily enjoy this show, but you'll know you've been to it.

ART REVIEW

What: Paintings and drawings by Santiago Vaca and Antonio Rodriguez

Where: Halcyon Gallery, 909 Fell St., Fells Point

When: 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, through Feb. 26

Call: (410) 276-5605

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