Art Review: Rafael Cauduro, “Sin Fronteras (No Borders),” paintings. Helen Day Art Center, Stowe. Through August 30.
Vengeful angels, decadently grand architecture, masks and skulls are well ensconced in the iconography of Mexican painter Rafael Cauduro. In what is clearly a coup for Stowe’s Helen Day Art Center, the exhibition “Sin Fronteras (No Borders)” has brought work by a major international artist to northern Vermont. Cauduro’s unique vision encompasses both universal themes and Mexican cultural issues in the tradition of the great “Mexican Renaissance” muralists Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Cauduro is also a muralist who has produced works in the London and Paris subways, as well as in the U.S. and Mexico. The large-scale acrylic paintings at the HDAC have the presence of murals and integrate 3-D assemblage elements and intense textures. Cauduro has mastered the look and feel of decay.
In Mesoamerican cultures, tzompantli were racks of pierced skulls thought to have been taken from war captives. As in tzompantli, the skulls in Cauduro’s images are never from a single beheading. “Tzompantli With Angel and Girls,” a multilayered 78-by-48-inch mixed-media acrylic, combines youth and death into a striking allegory for the transience of life. While Cauduro’s figuration is often exquisite, there’s nothing beautiful about the story it conveys. Instead, transience appears to be a cruel trick orchestrated by the deceptively lovely young angel at the top of the composition. Her face has a strangely iron-willed look, and her gray wings sport dense, disheveled feathers. The angel’s hand seems to be both protecting and clutching a partly decomposed child, surrounded by the decaying skulls of a tzompantli wall. Given the plural “girls” in the title, perhaps the surrounding skulls are not those of warriors.
Orozco, perhaps the most eloquent of the Mexican Renaissance muralists, wrote in 1923, “A painting should not be a commentary but the fact itself; not a reflection but light itself; not an interpretation but the thing to be interpreted.” Cauduro’s 70-by-48-inch “Washbasin with Tzompantli” is just that concrete. The trompe l’oeil white bathroom sink is tucked into a classical niche, overlooked by four skulls reflected in a mirror. Tiles and grout that seem real make up the somewhat squalid bathroom interior.
“The Terrible Angel of Freedom” is a 48-by-60-inch painting based on Eugene Delacroix’s 1830 “Liberty Leading the People.” The epic Delacroix image of a bare-breasted Liberty leading revolutionaries through barricades is here translucently superimposed on a decrepit Spanish colonial building. Its porch is supported by two pillars that bear small posters reading “PRE” and “PAN” the acronyms of Mexico’s two entrenched political parties. Cauduro replaced Delacroix’s French tricolor with the red, white and green flag of Mexico.
A red BMW convertible and a beardless, balding Christ are juxtaposed in the 34-by-67-inch “Cristo 23.” The sports car runs along the top three-quarters of the long horizontal piece, while the emaciated male figure, a white cloth draped around his waist, reposes inside a narrow catacomb vault. The automobile is cracked and broken down. The empty, neutral background is also crumbling. A picture of Cauduro on his website suggests that the Christ could be a self-portrait (he and his wife were, in fact, in a serious automobile accident), but either way, the figure conveys a sly humor. Three of the left hand’s fingers are curled, the middle finger slightly extended in a subtly expressive, profane gesture.
In an interview with Manelick de la Parra, the filmmaker and Stowe resident who made the exhibition possible, Cauduro said, “My fascination for ruins, for deterioration, is simply to recognize the complex evidence left by the passage of time. In ruins you can find hidden facts, unexpected richness, stories never told. In a word: You find narrative in the decline.” Cauduro’s mysterious narratives may trace that decline, but his star is on the rise.