East City Art Reviews—Beyond the “Encuentro”: Printmakers from Medellín, Colombia

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on December 18, 2019

The first, and unprecedented encuentro (encounter or gathering) of printmakers in the city of Medellín in November 2018 was the brainchild of Washington DC artist Felix Angel.  As more than seventy printmakers took part in that exceptional event, it involved the city’s Secretary of Culture, the Bio-Terra Hotel, the Conquistarte Organization and many volunteers.  Additional costs were borne by the Angel-Gómez Foundation.  From this ample source of work, Felix Angel has selected eighteen artists for the present exhibit at the International Development Bank Staff Association Art Gallery on 13th Street NW—just steps away from Metro Center station. The exhibit show’s Angel’s excellent curatorial eye.  There is a wide variety here of styles, generations and ideas exemplifying the diversity and richness the printmakers currently living and working in the city of Medellín.

While many readers in our region may not expect Medellín to be the site of an art exhibition of seventy contemporary printmakers of this level, or might be surprised at even eighteen in the present exhibit, a large part of Angel’s effort was to correct the notion that not much of importance could be coming from such a place which many North Americans associate with crime and violence.  It is amazing to me that these prejudices, which are, in fact, very old, continue into the present.  While this is certainly not the place to discuss this, I can say that when I lived in Santiago de Chile and especially during my stay in El Salvador in the early 1990s, I heard this lament from artists all the time.  To cite only one example, Salvadoran sculptor Negra Alvarez once said “ellos piensan que nosotros tenemos solo plumas y metralletas” (they think all we have are feathers and automatic rifles).

To correct any such notions the reader should head straight for this exhibition.  The gallery is an open, bright space that accommodates the variety of works shown.  What stood out to me was the apparent tendency among the younger artists toward figuration and a return to traditional techniques such as etching with aquatint.  These were some of the most striking works in the exhibit.  Among them were the two sensitive etchings of Ana Fernández.  E. is an image of a small boy caught between looking toward or away from the viewer.  The technique is delicate and careful, a sharp contrast between the boy’s white shirt and face against a completely dark background.  What is perhaps most compelling about this print is the way it connotes a sense of mystery and depth of character.  What, the viewer might ask, is this child thinking as he looks at us over his shoulder?

Ana Fernández, E., etching, 15” x 11”, 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Carlos Marín also uses etching, aquatint and drypoint which he combines with photopolymer and transfer onto heavy watercolor paper in an untitled work that at first looks like a surrealist collage.  Against a barely perceivable map the artist combines drawings of animals, a study of the proportions of a female nude and other found and drawn elements. The imagery seems to point to a theme about bodies, whether they be those of animals or humans, but the meaning remains elusive.

Carlos Marín, Untitled, etching, aquatint, drypoint, photopolymer and transfer on Fabriano Tiepolo paper, 16” x 8 5/8”, 2017 (artist’s proof). Photo courtesy of the artist.

The same artist is represented in the exhibit by his etching with aquatint En Vos confió… (In you he trusted…) that also combines found images of male figures against some kind of proportional scale, and a popular sourced one of the Sacred Heart with thorns and flame—a common image all over Latin America.  Both are visually interesting and provocative prints.  Camila Maya Monsalve (b. 1996) also works in a naturalistic and delicate etching technique.  Her Jacamar represents a native bird resting on a branch whose feet seem to morph into leafless twigs.

Camila Maya Monsalve, Jacamar, etching on zinc plate, 9 7/8” x 6 7/8”, 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Another millennial artist, María Lopez, is represented with two etchings on iron plates.  One, El abrazo del la angustia (The Embrace of Anguish) is a painful, but beautiful image of a dog with ribs exposed, and her Espera (Wait) is that same dog’s face looking upward in that agonizing expression of want that anyone who has a dog will recognize.  Yet, these prints are not about dogs.  They are comments on the pain of hunger and waiting—for asylum, for healing—in our present life.

The prints by Hernando Guerrero (b. 1947) and Armando Londoño Gómez (b. 1944), among the oldest artists in the show, were very strong, and in a completely different mode and style.  The contributions of both these artists, clearly well known in Colombia, are recent works, but their styles can best be understood in the context of the history of 20th century Latin American art.

Hernando Guerrero, Untitled, collagraph, 12 5/8” x 12 ¾”, 2017.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Guerrero’s untitled collographs of 2017 are full of color and texture, characterized by calligraphic marks and signs that seem to swirl through the apparent density of the surface—one of the benefits of collographic printing techniques.   The tendency to include this kind of calligraphic marking can be seen in many artists of Guerrero’s generation, and later, stemming, most probably, from the legacy of Joaquin Torres-García (Uruguay-Catalan, 1874-1949).  For Torres-Garcia and for many others, it was part of a search for identity, for finding correspondences between the pre-Columbian abstract tradition and that of the modern era.  Torres-García is usually credited with bringing Constructivism and Neo-Plastic styles to Latin America, and we can see the legacy of this in the prints of Londoño.

Armando Londoño Gómez, Formas Inestables (Unstable Forms), monotype, 11 ½” x 11 1”, 2017.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Although clearly an example of the Constructivist movement in Colombia, prominent in the 1960s and 70s, they are also reminiscent of Cubist collage.  The forms in Londoño’s prints in this show seem cut-out and layered in a neutral space in which they collide with one another for prominence.  The very simple color scheme of primaries and black makes a forceful statement that stands out against the more narrative works surrounding these prints.

Alvaro Botero Gallego, Nos estan matando… (They are killing us…), linocut, 9 7/8” x 6 7/8”, 2018.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

The two linocuts by Alvaro Botero Gallego are very nearly as strong as those of Londoño in terms of bold form and color.  In many ways they are more impressive.  They seem to want to address phenomenological questions of perception by means of color and movement—what do you see? —but with an ironic bite.  With Nos estan matando…, at first a viewer might only see black and white stripes inside a red border.  In another moment the forms resolve into missiles.  Botero’s other print, Barriera visible II (Visible Barrier II) is more evidently figurative, but both strangely reminded me of some of the constructivist style works of Alejandro Otero (Venezuela, 1921-1997) which featured abstract strips of white and red against a black background painted with duco on wood panels.  Of course, the younger artist’s color scheme is classic, and he is concerned with much more than interesting abstract shapes.  These works speak of the violence that has, indeed, been a fact of life in Colombia for many years in its struggle with political upheaval and drug traffickers.  The exhibition of these prints is proof that art survives, and still flourishes in Colombia, and in the city of Medellín in particular.

Beyond the “Encuentro”: Printmaking Artists from the City of Medellín, Colombia, curated by Felix Angel, IDB Staff Association Art Gallery, December 3, 2019 – January 10, 2020, 1300 New York Avenue, NW (entrance on 13th St.), Washington DC 20577.  For more information, call 202-623-623-3635 or visit the gallery online at http://www.idbstaffassociationartgallery.org/en/index.php