Somos la fokin moda

Don’t just ask us, talk to that guy over there. We agree one hundred thirty percent with our buddy Cisco who said that the best part of the IX Bienal Internacional de Cuenca wasn’t in the biennial at all, but down a little callejon off Calle Larga—Bajada del Padrón— where Amadeo Vázquez concocts crucifixes for the multitudes. Take a gander at these.

Of course, we would say without even getting red in the face that Cisco Jiménez himself is just about the very, very best part of the biennial, the bomb, really, even though his work is nowhere to be seen, nor, as far as we could determine, is it hanging about in Cuenca at all. Jiménez was in Ecuador to open an exhibition over on the coast in Guayaquil, at the place with the many fine old anthropomorphic pots and the tongue-twisting name: El Museo Antropológico y de Arte Contemporáneo (MAAC). Yes, we admit that he’s a buddy from way back and that in a better world this would be a shameless plug, but get real! The whole art shebang smells like a wallowing thousand pound sow, you know it, we know it, it’s tough nuggies all around. Sufficiently grease the palm of the little man in the baggy gold lamé outfit and bow tie at our front desk and we’ll see what we can do about fitting you in.

This is our favorite painting in the show. If only the little catalogue had a checklist, we could tell you its name, its size, and what it’s made of. Prominently to the left is the notation “Systema nerviosa de la chingada,” and we like to think that this is what Jiménez had in mind to call the work. It’s dated 2000, measures about 4' by 6', and our expert eyes tell us it’s the usual oil-on-canvas slather. Cisco is such a chico malo, and the painting is full of his saucy inventions: “pendejolandia,” “masturbimex,” “orgifiesta divertida,” and perhaps the foulest of all, “Solo compre con Jokob Carpio.” (Alert Miamians will find numerous such references to their benighted outback, perhaps bestowing a tiny moment of cheer.)

This is a not very good shot of the central feature of the installation, a curved wall which Cisco put together during a workshop with Guayaquileño art students. But it gives you some idea of the psychedelic-cum-disgusto-organic aesthetic at work in the man’s brain. Unique among artists of our acquaintance, he actually wants to be known by his hometown. He is a Cuernavaca artist, none of this, “I’m not a Latin American artist, man, I’m just an artist.” We give the guy an A+. He’s a kick in the pants.

But let’s return now to Cuenca and the job we are supposed to be doing, getting up close and personal with the grubby world of the art biennial. Goodbye salty Guayaquil, goodbye rustic Cañar. Hello to the beady look and the shifty smile.

No offense meant, guys. Anyone who’s read more than two Rotund sentences in a row knows how much we like to tomar el pelo. We’re a bit boricua in that way. We had a fab time in Cuenca, really. The fact is—and we’re not saying this because we’re residents of la isla del encanto—we thought that the works of nuestras compatriotas, as a group, shone like a dying star in mid-convulsion. We’ve always been a huge fan of the wall-size grids of Nayda Collazo-Llorens’s fussy, sometimes gorgeous, mysteriously coded little drawings. Frankly, we think Collazo-Llorens deserved a portion of the plata the biennial jury was doling out, for her work—whose detail we show first in the sequence below—from The Numbered Series (over two hundred drawings, mixed media on paper, 9" x 6" each, 2003-07). Migdalia Barens-Vera, second image down, gets our vote for intrepidness and valor, mainly for really trying to follow the imperatives of the biennial. If we properly understand what we saw and heard in the darkened chamber of her four-screen video installation, she set out on a more or less serious expedition through something we might call “Cuencaness.” The wheeled cube in the foreground was, apparently, her home, vehicle, and storage closet while she undertook her adventure, which also included a stint in the streets of San Juan. Of course, we could be entirely mistaken about the whole thing, but we’ll simply treasure the illusion even if we’re wrong.

One of the very best moments of our entire two-week pilgrimage to the mero centro of the hemisphere was a chance encounter with mayagüenzano Carlos Fajardo who, inexplicably to us anyhow, was one of the US representatives. How that came to be is slightly more complicated than we could grasp in one telling, but whatever the ins and outs of the story, it has a happy ending. Because Fajardo’s series of the drawings—or rather photocopies of drawings—which lined the vestibule of Cuenca’s baroquely ornate alcaldía was an absolutely eloquent response to the times. He depicts the wise guys who rule our lives—Sr. Bush, Sr Rove, Srta Rice, Sr Dick, et al—as the frolicking skullheads and horned demons they actually are. It is as if the savage, satirical printmaking tradition of nineteenth and early-twentieth century Mexico suddenly awakened and flew from its tomb out of sheer disgust with the frivolous sleep of death. We offer you last below a poor sampling of what Fajardo does and a view of his installation weirdly shadowed by a reflection from the tiled floor. Too bad the jurors didn’t have the cojones to give 200 Dibujos coloniales (200 photocopied drawings on paper, 8.5" x 11" each, 2005-07) the honor it deserved.

We would be complete, thankless bumpkins to stop here, but the truth is we’re still queasy from the food poisoning—or was it something more, shall we say, deliberate?—we suffered at one of Cuenca’s more reputable criolla eateries. Thanks a bunch, know-nothing Ecuadorian gourmands. We have a long ways to go before presenting a sufficient picture of the range of the Cuenca Biennial experience. After all, fifty artists, nineteen countries. True, as in anything, only a tiny percentage of what we saw really zipped our fly. But we will leave you for now with a thoroughly random sampling of artworks from countries other than Puerto Rico so as not to give the impression that we play favorites. Oh no, not us! “Faves, hah,” we like to say.

Erika Ewel from La Paz, Bolivia, created a nicely interactive, appropriately alarming installation on the well-worn theme of migration, occupying a room at Cuenca’s El Museo de los Metales. Migration is, as we have mentioned, a phenomenon of tectonic proportions in Ecuador but it’s hardly limited to a single Latin American country, and according to Ewel Bolivia has its own migratory tides. Her take on the subject is playful and neat, but it’s also thoughtful and not without a sense of remorse. The installation provided visitors with the opportunity to stamp a piece of paper with the image of a chosen creature—iguana, croc, snake, and so forth—in answer to the question, “If you had to emigrate from your country today, what clothes would you wear?” or make a list of the things they would carry under the same circumstances. You could then hang the slip from a paper clip or attach it to a piece of barbed wire. Indistinct voices filled the space, imbuing it with a sense of both the anonymity and the humanity of what the artist is implying, rightly, is the forced mass movement of individuals, impelled by the varied circumstances of contemporary life— whether it’s war or the economy—to leave their homes.

Lest you begin to think that La IX Bienal Internacional de Cuenca—and Latin American art in general—is all didactic and theme-ridden, quiteño Marcelo Aguirre placed big, honking paintings of a rather garden-variety expressionist weirdness in plazas all around Cuenca, causing no end of consternation among strollers unaccustomed to anything more colorful than birds-of-paradise. Below is one of those, whose title we take from the writing on the painting because it’s not in our notes: El día después del día. We apologize if we got it wrong. And not that these paintings are the best of the biennial’s lot. They are merely among the most noticeable, and this is probably a good thing for the clenched-buns atmosphere of the town. We agree whole-heartedly with the biennial jury for their decision to award cuencano Juan Pablo Ordóñez one of the painting prizes for his sun-driven light projection which casts reflections—on those rare afternoons when the sun shows itself in Cuenca—on a monastery wall near this very plaza. We were not among the fortunate ones who have actually witnessed the phenomenon which the installation generates—thanks to small pieces of tin and solarized window panes which the neighbors across the street from the monastery agreed to use—but we saw the video which the artist made for sad sacks like us, and we captured a shot or two in the darkness. Below Aguirre’s painting is, first, a video still of the work as it’s supposed to look, and a shot of what makes it happen.

Does that wear us to a frazzle? You bet it does. Have we even scratched the surface? Alas, we have not. We have real work to do and may not return to the Cuenca Biennial before it is raggedy, malodorous news, of interest to no one but those whose names we might yet mention. Yet we remain optimistic. No good work should go unpunished. As we like to say, stay tuned.

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