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Early Years Missing in Szyszlo’s Visual Poetry

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Museum of Latin American Art is out to educate its audience about modern art in the Southern Hemisphere. An entirely praiseworthy crusade, it does have some curious side effects. Take this latest exhibition.

“Szyszlo: In His Labyrinth” represents the California museum debut of a Peruvian artist the Encyclopedia Britannica counts among that country’s leading lights. Fernando de Szyszlo was born in Lima in 1925; his father was a Polish scientist, his mother a Peruvian national. Since his first show in 1947, he has participated in some 160 exhibitions--a couple of dozen in the U.S., the rest in Europe and South America.

The Museum of Latin American Art show--organized by curator Cynthia MacMullin--includes about 40 physically impressive paintings and one appetite-whetting metal sculpture. The full-dress retrospective seemingly promised by such a sizable selection isn’t forthcoming. In fact, images date just from 1977 to the present, omitting almost 20 years of Szyszlo’s development. A missed opportunity under any circumstances, here the gap exacerbates a kind of built-in perceptual red herring. Encountering a senior artist for the first time in such truncated circumstances invites serious misreading of the work.

These images paint mental pictures of a bygone era. Echoing Rufino Tamayo and Roberto Matta, they’re also resonant of American Abstract Expressionism. In short, we find ourselves in the international art sphere just after World War II. Szyszlo looks dated and old hat until we’re reminded he was there. In Paris he frequented the Cafe Flore, basking in Jean-Paul Satre’s lingering aura and hanging on the pronouncements of Surrealist guru Andre Breton. Octavio Paz provided the flavor of Latin America’s cultivated international intelligentsia.

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Szyszlo’s Peruvian admirers include the country’s best-known writer, Mario Vargas Llosa. Llosa’s catalog essay says Szyszlo expresses the essence of the Latin American spirit. Reassured of the artists bona fides, North American viewers still have to overcome a diet of fast-food art to savor his work.

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Szyszlo, and the version of Latin American art thus far championed by the Museum of Latin American Art, takes a slow pace and a long view. His compositions border on rectilinear abstraction while retaining references to landscape. Staircases lead nowhere. The world is largely dark. Chimerical figures simultaneously suggest Inca totems and nuclear mutants. Everything bespeaks Existential angst expressed with decorative motifs. By reconfiguring his elements, Szyszlo intends, and not uncommonly achieves, visual poetry.

The artist works in thematic series. “Camino a Mendieta” (Route to Mendieta), for example, consists mainly of desolate landscapes marked by vertical monoliths and grave-shaped depressions. “Mar de Lurin” (Sea of Lurin) is dominated by near-mural-size horizontal canvases with an undulating line that forms into patterns of red-to-purple-to-black. The “Sol Negro” (Black Sun) series is a radically schematized landscape whose main motif is a dark orb. Much of what he does allows for multiple readings. Stand farther off from the grave-pocked painting and it becomes a panoramic view of a fantastic city. The ocean-series pictures suggest figures inundated in the waves. The black sun changes to a monstrous head that takes a mountain for a body to become the Minotaur. More like hallucinations than optical tricks, these effects will probably vary from viewer to viewer.

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Spending some extra time with this (or any other) art almost always pays off.

* “Szyszlo: In His Labyrinth,” Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach; through April 30. (562) 437-1689.


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