Political critique, social commentary and the anti-establishment have long wound their way into the canvases of art history’s greatest painters. Picasso’s Guernica, Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, Diego Rivera’s Marxist murals of the Mexican revolution, amid innumerable others, recall the heyday of painting as an influential vehicle of political action.
Contemporary painting, however, can appear lost among the litany of art’s innovative forms. In an age where anyone can be an artist — or painter even — and make work about any and every conceivable whim of an idea, painting as a political platform has somehow managed to become admirably democratic yet watered down by the numbers to near invisibility.
Patterns of Protest, recent works on view at Saltworks by Cuban-born artist Alejandro Aguilera, conjures this earlier age of painting in both style and political spirit. Referencing painting’s early-20th-century socialist movements — namely Cubism’s influence on Italian Futurism and muralists of the Mexican revolution — Patterns of Protest exudes a prewar attitude toward painting and walks a fine line between influence and derivativeness.
Patterns of Protest, on view through July 26, presents 18 works on paper, each a result of Aguilera’s interest in political uprising across the globe since 2008, garnered mostly from watching the news. Many of the works are hybrid, representational abstractions, combining a personal language of frenzied mark-making and nebulous shapes with politically charged signs, symbols and cartoonish illustrative elements. Each work, large or small, seems to be a response to a distinct global event. An ambitious task, to say the least.
Central to the exhibition are five vigorously charged paintings, offering similar abstract dynamism to the likes of artists like Julie Mehretu, Matthew Ritchie or Wassily Kandinsky. Harnessing the energy of public spectacle, these works speak to the power of numbers without actually depicting people. The occasional human element — banners of flags, a broken vase — inject just enough reference material to humanize the chaos.
The remaining works consist of small drawings, seemingly torn from the artist’s sketchbook. Resembling political cartoons, they offer simple but potent visual metaphors of power and control. In The Leader, for example, a crowd of Diego Rivera–style figures congregate at the edge of a cliff and simply face toward an empty lectern.
Aguilera’s manner is characteristically coded, and while the message of his smaller drawings is quite obvious, larger works, including his titles, can be cryptic. The challenge to decipher makes many of his works in Patterns of Protest endlessly compelling, but it can also prevent access to an anchoring framework that helps the viewer make some sense of what she’s looking at, especially given the extremely broad overarching theme of global protest. This elusiveness is also an unusual contrast to the content of the work, which is so socially themed, and makes Aguilera’s role as artistic “journalist” — as indicated in the press release — an ultimately private affair.
This ironic tension is actually what makes the show compelling, however. W. River, for example, is a tightly illustrated, steampunkish portrait of an unknown character. Clad in an exquisite robot-like mechanical suit of armor, the figure could easily read as the Futurist’s “new man,” exemplary of unprecedented technologies of a new world order. Upon closer inspection, the composition is also an aerial map, the figure a plot of land contoured by a circuitous river.
While Aguilera’s references can appear derivative, they somehow manage to hold your attention because their contemporary use is not entirely clear. But the mystery, though captivating, is also frustrating.
Were the scope of the exhibition not so broad — international protest since 2008 — the need to know what the W in W. River stands for, for example, would not seem so essential. But enigmas like these permeate the exhibition, and leave the viewer with little tread to build traction in moving through the show. Despite many exquisite compositions, the content simply reads as the generic stuff of protest.
In About the Modern Spirit, his 2012 solo exhibition at the High Museum, Aguilera anchored a series about the broad-ranging artists and historical figures who influenced him by presenting them all in the same portrait format.
A topic as mammoth as economic crises, political protests, international politics, etc., is a wilder beast to tame because it has no boundaries or edges to work against. It is possible, however, to create visual and or conceptual parameters that bring focus to broad themes.
Take Julie Mehretu, whose work and themes parallel Aguilera’s current exhibition, especially Black Drawing (Blue and Red Convention), the central work of Patterns of Protest. Like Aguilera, Mehretu seeks to make sense of 21st-century chaos, to draw lines around the modern maelstrom, and she does so by giving the chaos form. As is evident in Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) Part II, a recent acquisition on view at the High Museum, she utilizes architecture as the anchoring framework that binds and coheres the formless.
A number of Aguilera’s pieces have greater impact and resonance when considered without reference to the show’s theme. It seems Patterns of Protest may simply be a premature exhibition of a strong body of work to come.