Roberto Salas’ display at PGAC rivets the viewer with its symbolism and thought.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
The walls of the Gil Gallery at Pacific Grove Art Center rang with a Gershwin rag played by an accidental musician grooving on solitude and a grand piano on a quiet Sunday afternoon during The Big Storm.
No wonder a lone pianist would be moved to play in this room. On the walls hang a fugue, a story told in point and counterpoint, a powerful theme interpreted and reinterpreted in a rhythmic installation of warm and cool, calm and frenzy, harmony and dissonance in a body of work by Roberto Salas: Beneath the Mask of Cultural Identity.
A dozen huge paintings on canvas are stretched taut and heavy between wrought-iron rods mounted on the walls. Between these bold, fat, warm statements glistening with details in gold, hang long cool drawings – slender eight-foot banners of pearly vellum capped with heads and tails of copper.
The installation teems with message: each painting packs dense with imagery and symbolism, each drawing a quiet rumination on a single idea – the meeting between indigenous America and European explorers, conquistadores and missionaries. Ships, canoes, Inca and Aztec, embellished Spanish helmets and elaborate headdresses burnished with gold, the gods, the masks spill out of the frameless pictures, sometimes speaking eloquently and sometimes stammering.
It’s the crucible that creates the mestizo, the alloy of all these peoples, forged on the shores and in the jungles of the Americas. The Indo-Hispanic artist Salas is also a musician and a muralist. Perhaps that’s why his works sing out, un-cinched into frames, his ideas flow liberally from one work to another.
There are several muddy and confusing pieces drawn clumsily, but most of the works shout at the viewer from a distance, then continue the conversation in an intimate whisper up close as the subtle and satisfying layers are revealed. One drawing, the most abstract, is a masterful use of the long, narrow format and the amalgam of the sensuous pearly vellum and glistening silver-black graphite.
Waves of motion pattern the surface throughout, over and under the long, narrow outline of a canoe seen from above. The undulating waves succeed in indicating both ferocious ocean swells and the motion of unseen paddlers. Strong, rigid horizontal lines overlay the canoe shape, acting as counterpoint to the roiling rhythm of the waves, indicating boat ribs or perhaps paddles, serving as an indicator of human energy versus the heaving power of nature. Atop the long rectangle is the outline of a canoe; at the bottom, two sailing ships are rendered realistically. From the copper-sheathed bottom of each vellum panel, the artist has suspended objects: This drawing is weighted by a crude heavy wooden boat with a small globe inside.
One of several memorable paintings is “Los Obieros del Barcos/The Ship Builders.” A pattern of paddles and ships floats against a background of cerulean sky and a towering mass of clouds. The paddles contain portraits of indigenous people rendered in earth colors in a style reminiscent of Aztec temple carvings. The ships are flatly drawn Spanish vessels mounted on tall posts. In the bottom third of the painting is an interlocking pattern created by boat-building tools set against a splattery clay-colored background, creating an overall composition of earth, sea and sky. In this and other works, the artist has borrowed from the symbolic and hierarchical structure and imagery of ancient America and fused it with naturalistic renderings of the West.
Many of the individual works, and the exhibition as a whole, mark Salas as an artist with his own voice, multicultural vocabulary and a profound idea.
BENEATH THE MASK OF CULTURAL IDENTITY continues through Feb. 14 at Pacific Grove Art Center, 568 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove. 375-2208 or pgartcenter.org.