Roots of Time
Essay by Julio Rangel
Mexican printmaking with social themes is an artistic current sui generis. It differs from other artistic expresions which are confined to limited circles. Since the beginning of the 20th Century it has become part of public life like a decisive epigram, a sharp social commentary and a syntesis of the ancestral Mexican iconographic force.
It is the artistic vigor of this genre what has made it last beyond the journalistic inmediacy. Let us remember the prints that Jose Guadalupe Posada published in the print media during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. These prints were harsh political and social commentaries which today remain timeless works of art.
The prints presented in this exhibition by Rene Arceo have the double social–aesthetic perpective in which several currents converge. First the combative Mexican prints from the beginning of the 20th Century, like Jose Guadalupe Posada and Leopoldo Mendez. Second the postrevolutionary artistic discourse of the muralists –mainly the three great muralists: Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco. And thirly, the artistic European currents that have nourished his artwork.
Just like in the currents mentioned, his works full dynamic compositions, synthesize narratives that resolve themselves within –sometimes telurgic, and at times contained. They are social and cultural commentaries which transmit a sense of urgency. They are at the same time ellaborate artistic creations that ask for the attention of the expectator.
It is not free that his work is inpregnated with social themes; the history of Latino inmigranst in the United States is a continous struggle for justice and respect. Often times the political reality faces us and takes us from the lapels, even when we may not want to see it.
It is not a pure didactism what encourages his prints, since the iconic force of his images ask of us to look in a slow pace to reveal its lirical current, its deep layers.
The “muchacha con rebozo” (p. 17) that directs us an intense look, the woman in “meditacion” (p. 17) that reposes, refolded in an interior world or the indigenous “Tarahumara” that shows his knotty hands between the nervous flow of lines on his clothes, are all figures with concentrated expressivenes that appear over a flat background, wihtout elements. The emptyness from which the the lacandon boy sees us accentuates his figure and echoes the precarious conditions in which indigenous and farmworkers live in Mexico and South America.
In contrast in other prints, and thanks to the skillful handling of the line, forms transform and co-exist in space generating intricate constructions with rich detailed backgrounds that suggest new figures, delayed curves that form human profiles and recognizable objects, animal and vegetable forms. The musicality and the ludic sense that those lines transmit, the impresion of almost instinctive loseness of “Spiritual Dance” and “Central America” contrast with the gravity of “Guatemalan Women” and the indignant rage of “Madre con rebozo.”
It is imposible to avoid the underlying presence of Pre-hispanic elements in the shape of masks or sculptures (the parallel faces in “Bolivian Woman”) the omnipotent Mexican skeletons that Posada inmortalized, and the Aztec gliphs in the splendid “Alacran.” The rich artistic tradition of the codex and the low-reliefs sculpted in stone by the ancient settlelers of our American Continent are a source from which Arceo has known how to successfully drench, without folkoric fuss.
This show of prints testifies to the vigor of this genre among the Latino visual artists in the United States. These artists are continually exploring their cultural roots and inmerse themselves in the convulsive present. Particularly. The works of Arceo stand out because the assimilation and knowledge of the printmaking tradition, but also because the freshness and creativity with which he creates his own language.
Rene Hugo Arceo in Poland
Essay by Jose Agustin Andreu
A printmaker and painter, educator and curator, community activist and cultural ambassador, Rene Arceo was born in Cojumatlan, Michoacan, Mexico in 1959. He completed high school after relocating to the United States in 1979 and soon thereafter attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1985 he earned a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in printmaking as well as a teaching certificate. From 1986 to 1999, Rene worked for the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago, helping it become the largest Mexican Fine Arts institution in the nation. Now, he’s the Visual Arts Coordinator for the Office of Language and Cultural Education at the Chicago Public Schools. He has continued to exhibit across the city, state, and nation as well as in Mexico and Canada.
Rene Arceo has curated dozens of exhibitions for galleries, universities, and museums and has helped found exhibition spaces such as Galeria Ink Works. In 1990 he was the co-founder of Chicago's Mexican Printmaking Workshop. Among many of its projects was the printing of a 200 foot long woodblock print with a steamroller on a street in downtown Chicago. The print’s theme, the history of migration to Chicago, connected to the important role printmaking has had in Mexico’s cultural and political history; an aesthetic tradition that bridges the fine and popular arts.
Rene Arceo’s work has been influenced by an awareness of the populist traditions of Mexican printmaking and by his regard for the work of Mexican artists such as Alfredo Zalce and Leopoldo Mendez. It recalls important artistic movements of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the uniqueness of the modernist movement in Mexico and its dialogue with European traditions. While references to the Mexican muralist movement are typical, specially Siqueiros and Orozco, Rene’s rejection of political dogma in his work recalls the countermovement, “La Contracorriente”, of Rufino Tamayo and Jose Luis Cuevas in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Like them he uses the personal to confront the political, historical and cultural and to illuminate his indigenous roots and mestizo reality.
There has always been an inherent dualism in Mexican cultural history. This dualism can be traced to indigenous cosmological ideas as seen in the Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital with its dual shrines. More recently, however, the development of Modernism in the 20th Century brought about a reflexive dichotomy in the Mexican modernist movement. On the one hand you have nationalism, political content, regional tendencies and collective works, on the other you have internationalism, personal expression, cosmopolitan tendencies and individual experimentation. Much contemporary Mexican and Chicano art has dealt with this tension between place and displacement, a dichotomy between the faith and vision of eternity found in the land and the spectacle of the instant found in the city and mass culture. As with many participants in the Mexican Diaspora, Rene Arceo’s work can be seen as an attempt to reconcile this polemic.
Two distinct veins of the Mexican pictorial tradition can be seen in Rene’s work. One tendency, revealed through images of masks, spirits, and swirling currents of color, is deeply rooted in a pre-Columbian belief of the soul’s magical existence. An indigenous faith in the mystical that transformed European Catholicism into an uniquely Mexican vision of the soul in a fantastic world of forces, destinies, and illusionary appearances. The other tendency is indicated by the images of peasants, women and the populist political imagery of workers and social reformers. Interweaving both traditions are the images of “calaveras” and a struggle with personal self-realization. Many prints have the look of folk art combined with the modernist influences of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism.
The present exhibition is a collection of images in a variety of media. Works are executed in xylography, linocut, woodcut, and serigraphy as well as in mixed-media collage, watercolors and acrylics. The pictures present a combination of gestural abstraction and figurative fantasy. They have a stylized figuration emphasizing pattern and color. The forms are created spontaneously with structures of marks, colors and patterns evolving into dynamic narratives full of rhythm and movement. These personal images emphasize graphic qualities and the interaction of the figure with its magical space. The working process is compelled by conscious and subconscious experiences. It is a unique expression of mystical narrative and gestural abstraction that relates the spiritual to the earth and to the transcendental.
These images attest that the two distinct themes permeating Rene’s art and Mexican pictorial tradition are but different expressions of a consistent viewpoint, a dichotomy of instinct and realism encompassing the mystical and the mundane, of suffering the here and now yet seeing the world as a reflection of the extraordinary. A dichotomy in Mexican culture resolved in the lives and faith of its people and revealed and bearing fruit in the work of artists such as Rene Arceo. He has depicted, in his own personal manner, the convergence of the mystical and the real.
Jose Agustin Andreu, June 2002
©All images copyright of Rene Hugo Arceo