The Art of Sadness
There is a deep sadness and a disquieting peace in the work of Luis González Palma. Many of his images are portraits, close-cropped and large in scale. His subjects are the Mayan Indians of his homeland of Guatemala adorned with symbolic decoration drawn from both indigenous culture and Hispanic Catholicism. Indeed the images are filled with contrasts and contradictions: beauty and sorrow, mysticism and violence, poetry and pain – for paradox is at the heart of the art of sadness.
“Living in Guatemala means living with fear. You live with an attitude that life is unsafe. A country in which there has been thirty years of civil war, followed by maybe another decade postwar, is not the best place for a tranquil life – but at the same time it is a place of great contradictions and, of course, a place that forces you to think. Art is a way of thinking.”
Luis González Palma was born in Guatemala, a small Central American country bordering Mexico and Belize to the north and El Salvador and Honduras to the south. For almost his entire life, a civil war was being waged in that country. It began before he went to school and ended as he was approaching forty. In that time, more than 100,000 people died and a million were made refugees. Hundreds of indigenous Mayan villages were razed to the ground and in the haunting silence that followed, those who survived were too terrified to name their persecutors. They simply called them ‘la mala gente’ (the bad people).
In sharp contrast to this abject violence, Guatemala enjoys some of Central America’s wildest and most beautiful landscape. With its cool pine-clad mountains and warm lowland rainforests, its famous lakes and volcanos, it has been called the country of the eternal spring. It is also the heartland of the Mayan civilisations, the indigenous peoples of Central America, with twenty-two distinct Mayan groups making up about half of the population of Guatemala. This rich indigenous culture along with the great natural beauty of the country has made it a tourist destination, even during the turmoil of civil war.
It is against this background of contrasts and contradictions, of beauty and violence, or terror and silence, of racism and cultural richness that González Palma’s work comes into being. His portraits of Mayan Indians are powerful, melancholy, haunting. Larger than life they look you straight in the eye. Neither submissive nor domineering their gaze becomes the central experience of the work, simultaneously emotive, aesthetic and political. This is never more true than in the work that lends its title to this exhibition: La mirada crítica (The Critical Gaze).
La mirada crítica, is a metaphor for power. A meditation on cataloguing and evaluating. (The text in the left panel is from an old religious book. The page we see speaks about God’s election to allow some people into paradise and not others. A process of a divine selection.) The work is a meditation on the power of the gaze in a political world as well as in an artistic world. This ‘power’ begins with me, as the photographer (not myself an indigenous Maya), with the selection of the models, and continues with an art-world chain of evaluation and selection – art gallery dealers, curators, critics. In the end, showing the face of this or that woman or man is simply the result of a chain of political and aesthetic decisions. This is clear and we understand this process.
But at the same time, with this photograph I try to initiate – with her gaze, her symbols – other levels of interpretation; to suggest a tension between gazes. I am trying to find a more democratic, ‘horizontal’ way of seeing… I come from a very racist country. Usually the Indian people are outsiders who have to look up at the mixed-race Ladinos, who in turn look down on them. For me it is very important to place the portraits at eye level – to create a parity of communication, so that you see the person’s face directly. I think in the beginning it was a little political, but mostly my interest is in bringing people to the same level. I try to balance things.”
The intensity of the gaze is heightened by the way the final prints have been treated. The black and white prints are firstly toned sepia to lend them a warm, period feel. The toned prints are then painted over with a solution of bitumen which gives a dark, varnished finish, after which small key areas, most usually the eyes, are carefully cleaned back to reveal the pure white of the paper. This intensifies the gaze and draws the viewer to make direct eye contact. The bitumen coating also renders the paper hard, with a definite surface texture, turning the flat paper print into a tactile object of apparent antiquity.
A further sense of timelessness (or perhaps more accurately a sense of being out of time) is engendered through the way in which the subjects are adorned with symbols – a liberal mix of Catholic and Mayan signifiers (angel wings, a crown of thorns, a garland of roses and skulls – symbolic of beauty aware of its own demise) and seemingly anachronistic contemporary functional items such as a drapers’ measuring tape. It is a kind of visual pidgin: heterogeneous, demotic, pragmatic, rich and evocative.
“I think that my visual language is a contradiction of symbols. Maybe it is a Catholic point of view… beauty and sadness, pain and splendour. A way to show the impossibility of love – the desire to reach love without pain and loss and the impossibility of so doing. For me, the gaze is a wound, and the photograph the scar. A wound which is at the same time light, desire, a distant and silent caress, a wound that brings the possibility of feeling alive, experiencing with depth. The scar is the possibility of change, of cleansing, of transformation and the reinterpretation of pain and loss.”
González Palma’s portraits are complemented by a small number of images that employ inanimate objects to articulate a more overtly political intent. In Ausencias (Absences) 1997, solid rustic chairs hang randomly across a wall. Overlaying sections of the image are small identity photographs and official documents. There is an image of a single rose, a symbol of beauty doomed to wither. The chairs themselves are maquettes hanging on a joiner’s workshop wall, but translated into the tragi-romantic world of González Palma’s oeuvre they become the vacant seats of the disappeared, lost to the bad people whom no-one dared to name.
Historias parabolas (Parallel Histories) 1995 is an installation that refers back to a famous photograph made in 1867 by François Aubert depicting the recently executed Emperor Maximilian’s bullet-riddled shirt. Maximilian, who was also archduke of Austria, had been something of a naïve liberal. He mistakenly believed that the Mexican people had voted him king, when in fact he was installed by a small group of conservative Mexicans intent on overthrowing the liberal government of Benito Juarez, backed by the forces and expansionist aspirations of Napoleon III. Maximilian, however, alienated both the political right and the Catholic church by upholding many of the reforms instigated by his liberal predecessor. With the end of the American Civil War, the French left the Americas, and the church and political right turned their back on Maximilian. He refused to abdicate (believing he could not betray ‘his people’), made himself head of the army, fought a battle with the popular forces of Juarez which he was destined to lose, was betrayed and finally executed – the photograph of his bullet-holed shirt being evidence of his demise.
For González Palma this image of Maximilian’s shirt has become a metaphor for the violence that reigns not only in Mexico but throughout Latin America, and for the absurdities and tragedies that underlie that violence. For his installation, he photographed the shirts of his friends, printing each on to a transparent substrate through which he then shot bullets. The images originally hung in the former convent of La Merced in Mexico City. Each image was suspended high in a cloister archway so that the sun cast a shadow of the shirt on to those who passed by, implicating them in the cycle of violence and loss.
If his earlier images draw directly on the history of traumatic violence, his more recent work addresses the chronic injustices suffered by the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. In Uniformes (Uniforms) 2001, he presents eleven colour images of maids’ uniforms, reflecting upon the fact that it is the lot of the Mayan Indians who come to the cities to perform the most menial functions of that society.
But it is his portraits which form the core of his oeuvre. In an early body of work, La Loteria (The Lottery) he took the popular symbolism of the Guatemalan lottery, a game that uses iconic imagery (the sun, the devil, the angel, the siren, sex, death and so on) instead of numbers. Each work presented a frontal portrait, tightly cropped and large in scale, the subject decorated with the trappings and symbols of the archetype they depicted. The scale of the work and the care of its crafting, the melancholy dignity of each Mayan face and, above all, the clarity, equanimity and grace of their gaze, elevates the subject matter and confirms the dignity of the individual. The once-potent symbols of fate, which had become popularised, disempowered and debased in a game of chance, are once more elevated to the pantheon of grand imagining. But it is only art, only an imagining. The intense sadness at the heart of González Palma’s work turns in that yearning gulf between the way things should be and they way they are.
“In my work, the aspiration to ‘beauty’ (for which it is impossible to have a definition), is simply a metaphor for desire and impossibility. A way to work within a cultural framework, a way to try to understand a romantic and melancholy way of thinking. My work is a paradox: the frustration of sensing life and being unable to represent the reality.”
“For me, aesthetics are important. Seduction is important in art. If we see an aesthetic object (such as one of my photographs), we perceive it as a kind of visual caress. But for me aesthetics are not everything. The image needs to hold some problematic issues within it, to contain complex information. A paradox of symbols, full of contradiction and tension… but always aesthetic, like a baroque painting.”
It can be difficult to view the work of González Palma from a Western perspective. We live in a world in which happiness is considered a birthright, contentment (as John Kenneth Galbraith has suggested) a prime cultural driver if not an actual commodity.[i] González Palma’s work, which embraces sadness and pain as a part of life, can sit uncomfortably with such values. Meanwhile we have come to mistrust beauty, to consider it only the construct of fashion and advertising. It is this mistrust of beauty and distaste for sadness that lead one critic to label these works “perfect commodities for guilty colonialists”.[ii] But this is to misunderstand the work and its language. González Palma’s concerns with sadness stem neither from a desire to sentimentalise nor to embrace the abject with Gothic relish. For while his images address pain and speak of sadness, they do not counsel despair. Rather they affirm the transcendent nature of the human spirit: for the weakest to be our strength, the most debased signifiers to be our most potent symbols, sadness to be understood as the other face of joy.
“I don’t think I am interested in showing despair; maybe some kind of melancholia, a poetic way of understanding life, a poetic way of transforming reality into an image. I think sadness and happiness are two aspects of the same condition, and both are part of life. I am interested in showing this kind of sadness because, for me, it has a deeper conscience. I would like to make images which work like mirrors, but these ‘mirrors’ have another face… we are not just sad people any more than we are just happy people, we are more complex than that. However, I prefer to work only with the melancholy way of being because it operates for me on a number of different levels, it is as if it is a way to try to understand myself. Happiness, I think, comes with the creative process, and if we think of life as a creative process then we have another approach to it.”
Luis González Palma is a child of Central America and a man of the world. His practice spans the poetic traditions of the Catholic/Mayan cultural admixture (symbolic, magical, spiritual, romantic) and the postmodern culture of the globalised first world. Indeed he describes himself a postmodern romantic, and in this appellation finds no paradox, no irony, just a simple statement of fact.
“When I say that I am a postmodern-romantic it is simply because I live in a postmodern era, travelling, using mix media, employing an eclectic language in my work, mixing computer techniques with craft, using antique processes to make my prints, working in Guatemala, in Argentina, in New York, in Paris… so, I live a postmodern life. At the same time, I have a romantic way of thinking and a romantic approach to life, a melancholy way of perceiving reality with a sense of loss. I believe in beauty as something fundamental to life. I think and perceive of life as a union of beauty and pain, a drama presented in a romantic manner.”
[i] John Kenneth Galbraith The Culture of Contentment, Houghton Mifflin 1992
[ii] Vince Aletti ‘Poems of Sorrow’ (review) Village Voice Literary Supplement April-May 1999
All other quotations are by Luis González Palma from email correspondence with the author
This essay was first published in 2002 in the catalogue to the exhibition La Mirada Crítica.
All images © Luis Gonzalez Palma