San Diego County Arts Writer

The acclaimed, despised, hated and admired Mexican master draftsman Jose Luis Cuevas wanted, for once, to accentuate the positive as he began to speak Wednesday at a press conference.

He would rather focus on the importance of Mexican art, he said at the Centro Cultural, where he will speak Saturday.

Again, on Thursday, at a lecture at the San Diego Central Library, the controversial artist surprisingly backpedaled to clarify some of his past denunciations. Why the flip-flop?

Could this really be the Peck's Bad Boy of the art world--the man who coined the derogatory phrase, "The Cactus Curtain" in knocking the Mexican mural art of Siqueiros and Rivera as nationalistic; the same draftsman who turned around and encouraged young Latin American artists but told them to beware of the influence of New York styles; the internationally recognized contemporary artist who derided much modern art as vacuous?

Yes, it was. And though Cuevas began his remarks in Tijuana benignly enough, he still preferred to court controversy rather than run from it.

Why, he was asked, would his exhibit be in La Jolla (at the Tasende Gallery) and not at the Centro Cultural?

Because Mexico's Academia de las Bellas Artes sponsors the exhibits that travel to the center, he said. Cuevas does not stand so high in the eyes of the academy, which recently refused him membership--by a landslide vote.

Didn't the rejection hurt?

"To be refused is an honor," Cuevas said Wednesday. "I would feel awful if I were accepted.

"To be accepted is the beginning of senility," he added, laughing.

After all, if you are Cuevas, you already are accepted in the places that count. Places like the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris, the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the San Diego Museum of Art, among the three dozen or so museums around the world where his drawings hang in permanent collections.

Co-sponsored by the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, Cuevas is in the area for "Intolerance," an exhibition of his works opening Saturday at the Tasende and running through Aug. 18.

Though "Intolerance" refers to the persecution of Basque "witches" by the Spanish Inquisition, the name might also reflect on the feelings of many people for Cuevas' art as well as contemporary intolerance in the world.

At the library, Cuevas called the folkloric murals he once criticized "very important." He said the problem was that "they became repetitive" and the folkloric style was copied by other artists.

"I attacked the stereotypical artists of Mexico," Cuevas said through an interpreter. His fight was with the "negative image" of Mexicans that art portrayed, which was exported to the United States and Europe.

Like Francis Bacon's tormented figures, Cuevas' art does not go down so easily in a society in which unblemished physical beauty is promoted as the beau ideal.

Cuevas specializes in drawing the insane, prostitutes and grotesques that comprise society's outcasts. In doing so, he aligns himself with contemporary surrealist artists, preferring "to reflect the negative aspects of life."

Not surprisingly, two favorite authors of Cuevas are Dostoevsky, who plumbed the darkest recesses of the heart, and Kafka, who wrote of the alienation of 20th-Century man.

"One of the conditions of 20th-Century artists is to be preoccupied with human conduct," including the "negative aspects" of life, Cuevas said. "Each person must discover his own hell. I discovered mine very early, while a child."

Cuevas was born in a Mexico City paper factory in 1934, in an area he characterizes as "a miserable quarter," full of prostitutes and beggars. "I saw the bad through the window in the streets," he said. "Inside, everything was protected by the love of my mother."

His drawings--an early exhibit focused on the inmates of an insane asylum--distort and often shatter the human form into its various elements, yet do not appear to make unkind judgments of those portrayed. Cuevas often draws himself into a scene as an impassive observer, as did the Spanish Romantic painter Goya, who, with Picasso, is one of the two greatest influences on his work.

Cuevas' troubled drawings of people living at the fringes of society won him almost instant acclaim within a small circle. He did not suffer the years of poverty of the stereotypical starving artist.

Cuevas had his first one-man show in Paris at the tender age of 21. Pablo Picasso attended that 1955 exhibition and promptly bought two of the drawings. Since then his career has never wavered.

Cuevas has never gained the widespread popularity of such Mexican artists as Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros. Instead, Cuevas' drawings, which have won a string of international awards, have drawn violent reactions in Mexico City and other Latin American capitals, including written insults and threats on his life.

Such is the peculiar nature of 20th-Century art.

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