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A study for Wifredo Lam’s painting “The Jungle” makes it clear why it has often been compared to Picasso’s “Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon.” Figures, abstracted but still recognizable as such, bear the stylized facial features found in African masks while its asymmetrical composition adds further intrigue. However, while Picasso found inspiration and borrowed heavily from the artifacts, made by nameless African artisans, Lam (1902-1982) drew from his life as the Cuban-born, eighth son of an African-Spanish mother and a Chinese father. As many of the drawings, prints and paintings corroborate, he also drew from the extended spiritual influence of a godmother who was an influential priestess in the Santeria religion.
How far exactly his and Picasso’s work resemble each other’s can be seen while going through “Wifredo Lam in North America,” a relatively small but very illuminating exhibition.
Curated by Curtis L. Carter for the Haggerty Museum of Art, it illustrates how Lam, while well acquainted with Picasso and many other Parisian mid-century modernists, absorbed their influences while steadfastly remaining his own man. For example, one will be tempted to mistake his “Portrait of Sra. Garcia de Castro” (1937) for a Matisse. However, rather than seeing it as an overt homage to another master, one should regard it as a rarity that illustrates Lam’s wide-ranging skill.
Andre Breton led Lam to Surrealism, which provides a sort of leitmotif throughout his body of work. Aside from his clearly Afro-centric motifs, nothing in Lam’s paintings is ever what it seems: Just when one surmises the shape of a woman, the outline of a horse will assert itself, often accompanied by birds or horned hybrid creatures. A stylized hand holding up yet another depiction of mythical symbols may appear, leading one into yet another direction of thought (“Untitled,” 1947).
Conversely, “The Dream III” (1947) straddles the line between remembered reality and nightmare. There are several drawings and paintings of that vintage which, given that this was two years after the end of World War II, recall the horrors and also small triumphs of a world in transition. Lam had fled Vichy France accompanied by Max Ernst, Oscar Dominguez and Victor Brauner. During this flight in 1940, he developed his flowing pen and ink drawing style.
He also found his way to New York where he met Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. However nothing in this show overtly suggests that the above group had much influence on him.
Carter says that he spent roughly five years assembling 75 works from museums and private collections in the United States, hence the title. His choices deftly illustrate Lam’s creative journey, which began in 1923 when, judging by a 1931 formal portrait of a young woman, he began to study art and subsequently proved himself a classical painter of some ability. During the ensuing years, he shifted styles at will. One fortuitous result is “Cliff Houses, III" (1927). The painting shows faint traces of El Greco and yet also presages contemporary paintings of such subjects. During that time he also established a signature earth-toned palette that he only abandoned rarely while young (as in “Dark Mambo, God of the Crossroads,” 1943).
Overall, he keeps his colors muted or earthy, relying instead on virtuoso line work (reminiscent of his Spanish mentor) to give his mixed media paintings their spectacular impact. “The Oracle and the Green Bird” (1947) comes to mind, as well as several airy charcoal drawings that strongly suggest their subjects, yet leave plenty to the imagination.
As he entered his seventies, he began to embrace printmaking, where his lines became less dense and dramatic and, perhaps to compensate, his palette brighter.
What sets this exhibit apart from many such retrospectives that are often too large, too cumbersome and too exhausting is that Carter chose just enough material, including photographs of Lam, his family and friends, to reveal a complex soul and the oeuvre of a man who had, until just recently, not received the recognition due him. One should also mention that, as the equally enlightening catalogue illustrates, Lam not only used his “otherness” (European and American contemporaries classified him as a Cuban artist, while his compatriots thought of him as a European) to build a social consciousness and further social causes such as the brutality of the Spanish Civil War (“Composition III,” 1931) and the physical exploitation of women of color (The Siren of the Niger,” 1950, and “Moonflower,” 1950).
Perhaps one should take Lam’s pronouncement that “popular culture is the backbone of all expression” as a guide to work that, if anything, has gained in relevance in the decades following his death in 1982.
Younger artists such as Carlos Luna, whose work is shown here under the title “El Gran Mambo,” appear to have taken similar pronouncements to heart. Luna’s series of paintings show how he also straddles cultures--Cuban, Mexican and North American--and incorporates his impressions into color and image saturated paintings that recall early 1960s popular art, the kind found in posters, brochures and record covers. Eschewing perspective and visual directive, Luna allows many of his paintings to be read in any direction but upside down. There’s been much discussion of how painting and design are becoming harder to classify. If in fact there were such a group as “painters without borders,” Luna could well lead the group--if only the titles were translated into English.