Fusing politics and religion Review: Artist Santiago has much to tell, and he can really paint.

September 16, 1996|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Many people have contemplated the crucifixion of Christ, but there's a young painter in Baltimore who goes further and thinks of himself as an eyewitness to the somber events atop Calvary.

Considering this artist only uses his last name in exhibiting his work, it's clear that the artist simply billed as Santiago charts his own way when it comes to matters of religion and personal identity.

It's also obvious that Santiago, 24, and a recent MFA graduate of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, will be going a long way in the art world. Santiago can paint, he has much to say, and he frequently does so on such a large scale that you can't help taking notice.

That Crucifixion scene, for instance, is a big painting merging elements from the traditional New Testament account, the artist's Puerto Rican heritage, Old Master artistic treatments of this venerable subject, and 20th-century politics.

"La Mano Poderosa" ("God's Hand") is such a surreal Caravaggio-meets-Dali synthesis that we simply take it for granted that the witnesses include the artist wearing casual clothing, other spectators wearing robes more in keeping with the biblical setting, and a couple of businessmen dressed more appropriately for Wall Street than Golgotha.

Additional strange touches include a vacant central cross whose horizontal wood bar is transformed at both ends so that it seems to be growing human hands there. This cross also is inscribed with such politically charged names as "Che" and "Romero." The parallel drawn between the execution of Christ and contemporary figures who have been martyrs to their causes is typical of how Santiago incorporates past and present, the religious and the political.

If the liberation theology movement is looking for an artist to illustrate its faith-fueled social advocacy, here's the guy. Santiago underscores the modern ramifications of the Crucifixion scene with silhouetted figures of gun-toting soldiers and a distant landscape punctuated by belching factory smokestacks.

Another painting fusing politics and religion is "Odeto 'Elmozote,' " in which a ghostly figure of Christ and a skull-topped figure representing death hover above a field populated by decomposing bodies. Again, extremes of violence and of spirituality are found side by side in Santiago's work.

This painting also suggests a potential concern as the artist's career evolves. His imagistic juxtapositions and polemical messages sometimes verge on being overly obvious. Also, piling on the pictorial references may lead to paintings that aim for provocation and instead wind up filled with kitsch.

An encouraging sign that the artist knows how to channel his ambition and his talent is that he's able to go from the macrocosm of grandly scaled political paintings to the microcosm of more intimately scaled paintings directly based on his own family life.

In "La Pieta," Santiago's disconsolate grandfather slumps in a chair next to the death-bed of the artist's grandmother. A turned-off TV set at the back of the room serves as a reminder that this is a contemporary event, but it also seems like a timeless scene of grieving for a deceased loved one.

A related painting, "Llanto" ("A Cry"), is a tightly cropped view of the grandfather's wrinkled, grief-stricken face. Not only are the old man's eyes red-rimmed from weeping, but he sheds a red tear as if crying blood. It's a small, personal moment with the largest implications.

Also on display at Grimaldis is a group exhibit, "The Dialectic of Line," featuring work by Grace Hartigan, Willem de Kooning, Gunther Forg, Trace Miller, Steve Reber, Elaine de Kooning, Ellen Burchenal, Keith Martin and Joel Fisher.

Santiago and 'The Dialectic of Line'

Where: C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m.-5: 30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; through Sept. 28

Call: (410) 539-1080

Pub Date: 9/16/96

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