If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then on the surface it appears Curt Belshe certainly admires the engravings of Spanish artist Francisco Goya. The impetus for his latest body of work now on view at Washington Printmaker’s Gallery stems directly from Goya’s Los Caprichos published in 1799. Burrow below the surface though, and a rich commentary on humanities’ foibles comes to light—inspired by the past but firmly grounded in the present day.
While known worldwide for his painting, Francisco Goya was also an accomplished printmaker. His 80-work series Los Caprichos stands out not only for its haunting beauty but also for its social commentary on the shifting social and political landscapes at the end of the eighteenth century. Variously translated as whims, foibles or follies, Los Caprichos used a traditional artistic idiom to slyly critique and satirize long-held beliefs of both the crown and the common man.
The New York-based Belshe mirrors his predecessor’s sense of mischief and intrigue. While his prints directly reference Goya’s in key ways (including the use of the same titles), it is clear he intends to draw on Goya for inspiration rather than simply paying homage. Goya employed both aquatint and etching to create his prints, conjuring a moody, atmospheric interplay of shadow and light. The artist takes this combination of processes one step further, using 21st century inventions in conjunction with the traditional printing press. The figures that inhabit his works are conceived digitally and “born” via modelling software into 3D sculptural forms. Those sculptures are photographed in various poses and the resulting images are further refined, transposed to a polymer plate and traditionally printed.
The resulting texture of paper and tint of ink invokes the same atmospherics as Goya’s but results in crisp detail that instills a new, wondrous sense of depth to the image, most notably in works that situate the figures against a defined background. Plate 26, Ya tienen asiento (they’ve already got a seat) situates a trio of texting individuals–smart phones are a repeating iconic device in the series–within the graffitied shell of a building. Here the staircase is clearly delineated from the floor plate behind it and the discarded material in front that serves as a pedestal for two of the figures. A similar stage set is also created in Plate 27 ¿Quien mas rendito? (which of them is the more overcome?) and Plate 71, Si amanence; nos Vamos (When day breaks we will be off).
The subject matter is thoroughly modern and at once contextually relatable to contemporary society. Plate 43, El sueño de la razon produce monstrous (The sleep of reason produces monsters) captures a ghostly apparition defined by the solidity of its garment, holding a machine gun in between two children. The trio stands in front of a brick wall, a shadow—perhaps a drone— is visible in the upper left. While the machine gun itself intimately speaks to modern fears, the architectural vernacular of the concrete wall as a means to corral and contain our emotions also addresses the complex formation of anxiety in the modern age. The idea of a barrier as a mnemonic device to instill subtle anxiety repeats itself across several plates, including Plate 79, Nadie nos ha visto (no one has seen us) where it takes the form of bundled cargo that towers over a lone figure, suggesting the relationship between commerce and the individual is more unbalanced by the day.
Graffiti, guns, warehouses, airports and cell phones—all conventional devices that would have been follies in Goya’s time. While the visual cues have changed since 1799, Belshe also seems to wonder what has stayed the same. While the immediate concerns of the individual may differ, the artist points out that many questions Goya dealt with remain fraught today. Belshe, like Goya, sees society at a crossroads and while modern society has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight (we can, for example, view the 1789 French Revolution with a more nuanced eye than Goya) he suggests we are not actually using that hindsight to our advantage. In this light, Belshe’s work does not aim to flatter Goya; rather, he seeks to use it to demonstrate that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.
21st Century Caprichos is on view through July 29, 2018 at Washington Printmakers Gallery. For more information, visit their website here.
Banner image: Plate 75, ¿No hay quien nos desate? (Can’t anyone untie us?) (detail). Image courtesy of the artist.