When critics say that a painting is formal, we usually mean that its shapes, colors and textures take precedence over its narrative messages and symbolic representations. When we use the same adjective to describe social occasions, entirely different associations come to mind, including images of suits and ties, tuxedos and evening gowns.
Guillermo Trujillo's paintings bridge these two worlds. At the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, 30 substantial canvases the Panamanian artist made between 1990 and 2000 demonstrate that works of contemporary art, no matter how formally refined and rigorously composed, are always social affairs.
Nearly all of the 74-year-old painter's images depict groups of people chatting, dancing and cavorting, often acrobatically. On sandy beaches, in lush jungles and below cloudy mountaintops, every one of Trujillo's fanciful figures appears to be taking a break from the workaday world, hanging out with friends who are also dedicating themselves to social pleasures.
That's exactly what museum-goers do too, alone or with others. Although Trujillo's fantasy-laced scenes are hardly realistic depictions of the visible world, they capture the spirit of art at its best, when it brings people together by providing respite from life's daily grind.
The skinny figures in most of his paintings are inspired by nuchos, ceremonial batons or staffs that the Kuna, Choco and Waunana peoples of eastern Panama use in fertility and healing rituals. Being an artist, not an anthropologist, Trujillo is less interested in conveying the original significance of these objects and their contexts than in using them to work his own magic.
About a third of the paintings in the chronologically arranged exhibition were made between 1990 and 1997. In most of these large acrylics on canvas, Trujillo has divided the composition in two.
When split horizontally, the upper sections depict schematically rendered landscapes, usually in a range of muted pastels. The lower realms, which resemble cut-away diagrams of the Earth's geological layers, contain an abundance of silhouetted figures based on the nuchos.
Looking a little like a cross between Matisse's lyrical dancers and ginseng roots, these organic forms are animated by energized lines and a dreamy sense of weightlessness. In two pictures, additional groups appear in the sky above. More diaphanous than the earthy occupants of the underworld, they have the shimmering intangibility of mirages.
When Trujillo divides his images vertically, he limits his palette to clay reds and charcoal blacks. Drawn with fine lines that highlight tiny details, these images link flora to fauna, suggesting that humans play a supporting role.
Beginning in 1998, Trujillo's paintings fuse the dual worlds into a single realm where fantasy and reality freely intermingle. The wispy lines of the earlier works take on greater solidity, resulting in chunky figures who occupy fecund, color-saturated rain forests or stand stiffly, like members of a Greek chorus, before fields of flickering color.
In some, rainbows of verdant greens outline writhing vines and leafy branches. In others, fiery reds and blazing blues clash dramatically. Recalling the exotic sensuality of a Fauvist's fever-dream, Trujillo's paintings refrain from indulging such overwrought emotionalism. Instead, they evoke the cool nonchalance of Henri Rousseau's storybook images, in which fantastic scenarios unfold as if they happened every day.
Dressed in extravagantly patterned garments, wearing wacky hats and sprouting the heads of large-beaked birds and horned beasts, the whimsical figures in Trujillo's recent paintings have come a long way from their source in nuchos. Representing a wide range of activities and experiences that are easy to identify with, they celebrate the polyglot world in which we all live.
* "Guillermo Trujillo: The Eternal Dance of the Nuchos, Ten Years of Painting, 1990-2000," Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, 628 Alamitos Ave., (562) 437-1689, through Aug. 12. Closed Mondays. Adults, $7; seniors and students, $5; children under 12, free.