Jose Luis Cuevas is prone to exaggeration. In fact, he’s a slave to its power to catch a jaded eye, drill home a point and fix a viewer’s attention.
In his drawings, a large selection of which goes on view today at the Tasende Gallery (820 Prospect St., through March 2), he makes knotted, lumpy figures with expressions as freakish as they are frank.
In his writings, he dwells on the extreme, the theatrical, relishing the crudest of impressions and showing only contempt for the refined.
In his life, he has pursued the polemical with uncanny delight, securing for himself a reputation as a sensationalist, a showman, the bad boy of Mexico’s art scene.
Does he deserve it?
“Yes,” he answered with a laugh, in a recent phone interview from his home in Mexico City. “I am an enfant terrible --and an homme terrible . It’s necessary for the artist of this century not only to paint, but to talk and to write.”
In both talking and writing, Cuevas, 54, has always assumed the same sharp, challenging tone that he brings to his drawings. Early in his career, he launched a scathing attack, through articles and manifestoes, on Mexico’s hallowed muralists--Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros--who often have been referred to as los tres grandes (the three great ones).
The muralists, Cuevas wrote, resorted to “cheap journalism and harangue” in their monumental images of nationalism, heroism and revolution. Such aggrandizement of the common man was anathema to Cuevas, who has always professed a fascination with the lowly, debased core of humanity.
“What I see is a sweat-stained mass of businessmen, priests, clerks, prostitutes, bank cashiers and pregnant women who go their way without realizing what they are, seeking oblivion,” he wrote in a 1960 gallery statement.
“I make symbols of them, stripping them of all that is transient. . . . I seek to render them universal in their repulsiveness. It is for this reason that I draw zoomorphic monsters, gluttonously obese, obscene with lust. . . . It is not my intention either to condemn or justify (the world). I seek merely to describe it in terms of my own sensibility.”
Cuevas, who was born in Mexico City, was exposed immediately to both the materials and subject matter that would later define his career. He was born upstairs from a paper and pencil factory where his grandfather worked, and where paper trimmings always covered the floor like confetti. The alley on which the factory was located was a “human sewer,” he wrote in recollection. Through it flowed an endless parade of poor people, prostitutes, the sick and degraded, who fascinated the young Cuevas and soon made their way into his drawings.
Since his youth, the artist has continued to observe and record the grittier facets of life with obsessive intensity. Prominent themes in his work include suffering, death, insanity, persecution and decay, subjects also explored in the works of his literary mentors, Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
“My work is not about the joie de vivre ,” he said, referring to the lush visions of Henri Matisse. “It’s about the other side of life, the dolor de vivir . It’s very natural in Mexican and Spanish art. It’s always very sad and aggressive.”
But in Cuevas’ case, it has also proved very popular. He had his first one-man show while still a teen-ager and has exhibited internationally since the mid-1950s. Pablo Picasso attended Cuevas’ first solo show in Paris in 1955 and bought two drawings. In addition to his home in Mexico City, Cuevas maintains studios in Cuernavaca, New York and Paris.
Following the lead of Mexican painter and printmaker Rufino Tamayo, Cuevas helped bring an international context to the Mexican art world, which for decades had focused on the nationalistic concerns of the muralists. Although Cuevas concentrates more on the universal than on the national, in his assessments of humanity’s sorry state he brings together aspects of Mexico’s indigenous art with more modern influences of Picasso and Francisco Goya.
“Pre-Columbian art is my tradition, and that has very complex figures,” he said. “Also, the art of the 20th Century is very Expressionist. To talk in my work about the human condition, I need to exaggerate the figures, the human body.”
Through thick, choppy strokes and slow, fat lines, Cuevas describes a disturbing world, populated by glaring, offensive characters. One critic has labeled his art “one of almost total negation,” but Cuevas feels justified in painting such a bleak picture.
“It’s negation, but it’s not pessimistic,” he said. “Many times you want to change the world--for it’s not very good--but always for a better world.”
As if to figure out where he stands in this often grotesque, haunting scenario, Cuevas frequently plants self-portraits in his drawings. The artist appears with models, aged prostitutes, accused witches or simply with an avaricious glare, as witness to a sorrowful time.
“The self-portrait is another one of my obsessions. I made my first one when I was a child, about 7 years old. And, for the last 40 years, I have made one every day. I start working at 6 in the morning, and I begin the day by making a self-portrait.”
Cuevas’ recording of images and imaginings then continues, throughout the day, through meals, conversations, telephone calls. He is known to draw constantly, to be forever fueling a relationship to paper that ranges, by his own description, from sensuous to violent, from “rapture” to “rape.”
The show at Tasende Gallery features nearly 150 drawings in ink, wash and watercolor from 1963 to 1988. In addition to being a broad revelation of Cuevas’ disarming vision, the show also celebrates the 25-year relationship between the artist and his dealer.