Behind the Curtain: Beatriz González’s Political-Decorative Art

Beatriz González, "Zócalo de la comedia," 1983. Image Courtesy: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
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A familiar scene: two dandies basking in a casual lunch on the grass, immersed in delightful parlay, accompanied by a completely naked woman in a statuesque pose. Before them, an overturned basket spills the bread and cherries intended for lunch. This iconic picnic was the motif for a painting by Edouard Manet in 1863, and although it was derided by a critic of its time as “fairly scabrous,” the artwork gained fame, little by little, until it became one of the most reproduced images in global art history. But how did these European icons translate across the pond, in colonial regimes? How could a South American family of humble origins empathize with those utterly indifferent patricians? Would they find it fairly scabrous as well? Occupied by such questions, Colombian artist Beatriz González subversively amplified domestic echoes of imperialist culture.

First presented in the 1978 Venice Biennale – along with a projection of canonized “universal” works of art found by the artist at local street markets – González’s “Telón de la móvil y cambiante naturaleza” (“Backdrop of a Mobile and Changing Nature,” 1978) transformed Manet’s canvas into an enormous pair of curtains. She reduced its rich palette to four greens, and the details of all its figures to two dimensions. Much of the original information is lost in translation: the imagery pared down and now designed to appeal to a proletarian family who works in the field where others picnic and daydream.

Manet composed his scene with a void in the foreground, introducing the viewer into the painting. González literally cuts the composition into two halves, transforming the canvas into a theatrical curtain. Her invitation is not for the spectator to sit together with the three bourgeois figures, rather it is for the public to pass through the work of art: to see what lies behind the curtain.

Beatriz González, Exhibition View, 2018. Image Courtesy: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

This work – included in the Museo Reina Sofia’s retrospective of Beatriz González curated by María Inés Rodríguez, on until September 22nd – hangs as a backdrop to a collection that, at first glance, could be a furniture store. Luxurious wooden tables, cabinets, beds, shelves, trays, and tapestries profusely colored with figurative scenes: an exhibition of objets and interior decoration covered by a varnish as bright as it is deceptive. Beneath the sheen and polish runs a criticism of everyday colonial assimilation. The objects are adorned with reimaginings of well-known European works of art: the Mona Lisa, Millet’s Angelus, Velázquez’s Needlewoman, Manet’s Flutist, Vermeer’s Lacemaker; famous people like the Pope or Robert F. Kennedy; and universal scenes like The Last Supper. She desacralizes the aura of Great European Art: flattening perspective, scaling back chromatic range, converting iconic images into kitschy ornaments for home furnishings. As inspiration, Beatriz González mimicked the aesthetic of Cali Gráficas Molinari, a distributor of religious prints in bright, flat colors. By way of rough analogy, Gráficas Molinari is to González what Campbell’s soups and Brillo boxes were to Warhol.

It may be easy to read all of this as a translation of Pop Art a la colombiana, but there are crucial differences. While Andy Warhol’s experiments with large-scale image reproduction exuded a practiced cool, González emphasized similar systems in a warm and provincial way. Warhol replicated massively repeated images in a neutral and impersonal fashion, fascinated by the possibilities of mass media. González, by contrast, turns heavily reproduced imagery into unique and intimate, personal and domestic objects. González’s Warm Pop Art (I’m using this term as an adaptation of the “Warm Conceptualism” coined by Marcelo Pacheco, an Argentine variant of European Conceptualism, wherein artwork is “hot” in its meanings because of its political and social implications) is characterized by an ideological reading of the influence of art filtering from hegemonic centers toward the colonized, or otherwise marginalized periphery. The colonial lingua franca warps and bends until a new and local dialect emerges, where regional political readings provide a South American accent.

In its first presentation, Backdrop of a Mobile and Changing Nature was set on a zigzag path: a work of art created in Europe established as a universal model, then printed on a sheet sold in a street market in Colombia. It was then copied by a Colombian artist, who later delivered the final product to the heart of the mother culture: the Venice Biennale. González is possessed by the “parodic trance of the copy,” as Nelly Richard put it, and regurgitates assimilating culture. And she does it in a big way: “The complex of ‘derivativism’ has transformed into being proud of one’s ability to appropriate and transform for self-benefit, in the heat of […] de-hierarchization between originality and copy” to quote Gerardo Mosquera. In her productive echoes, we find not simply re-adaptation, but something fresh. “Cultural appropriation” is an ugly term, one incapable of capturing the nuances of her aesthetic or her critique.

The Reina Sofia exhibition also weaves through themes of politics and mourning. In 1978, Julio César Turbay became the president of Colombia. During his mandate, armed conflict intensified and his administration was accused of torture, forced disappearances, and other human rights violations. In an infamously flimsy rhetorical posture, he was quoted as saying “we have to reduce corruption to its just proportions.” González portrayed Turbay’s dishonesty with Decoración de interiores (Interior Decoration, 1981). The work features a silkscreened photograph of the president singing couplets with friends. González doesn’t caricature the happy celebrants, but simply translates the photo into painting, in her Pop style. The decisive moment is in the presentation: the fabric, rolled and held by a horizontal rod that runs through its upper end, is shown as a curtain. González calls herself a “court painter” (perhaps in the uncomfortable way that Goya belonged to the court of Carlos IV), and nods to the politics of the salon with a simple and effective gesture of reification.

Another literary device that González uses to great effect is juxtaposition. In Foundation of Comedy and Foundation of Tragedy (both 1983), she counterpoises two images: one of Julio César Turbay with his hands awkwardly around a man’s neck, in the act of bestowing a decoration; the other of a dead couple, drawn from a press clipping, with the caption: “Former soldier kills friend’s wife and commits suicide.” The work is fairly direct in its criticism of President Turbay, but it also refers to the ever-present culture of violence in Colombia. For González, her country is a site of tragedy and comedy. The impact of violent death has been noticeable in her work since the eighties, and her focus has been on trying to capture pain and mourning after the fact: not portraying violence directly, but its victims. She is especially interested in newspaper printing errors that echo the erasure of the act of murder. In this obsession with errata, she makes manifest the media’s inability to reflect suffering. “Art tells what history cannot,” González repeats in each interview.

Like González’s images, the structural violence of corruption, of colonialism, reproduce effortlessly and diffuse widely. This violence becomes like furniture: a fixture in domestic daily life. Warmly, with humor, González denaturalizes these emblems, their legacies of power and abuse.

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