PRINT November 1988


THE ISSUE OF THE CONNECTION between homeland (not nation) and art has to a large extent been lost at the present time. Ever since the magnetization of Paris in the late 19th century made the capital of France the capital of modern art, and of its commercialization, it hasn’t mattered where you come from or where you’re going as long as you remain in the capital. Today, artists from all over the world seek to be homogenized in New York and to have the city’s commercial systems distribute their work everywhere else. Ethnicity has become a much degraded concept. Originally, ethnic meant “the others,” the foreign, the godless; now it just signifies “minorities,” as in “Let’s eat Chinese tonight.” But there is an ethnic or generic aspect to all art, however hidden by contemporary myths it may be. The art world tends to suppose itself immune to nationality, and functions almost as if it, that is we, were our own separate race, complete with international tourism, the bridges and tunnels of communications networks, and no need for no home base.

Miguel Angel Ríos is a mature artist-of-all-mediums whose art disputes these smug assumptions of international class complicity. He makes things related not only to himself, but also to his family, to the land where he was born, to the culture that nurtured him, to various regional earths in all their fecundity and variety, and also to the art of the present time. The work of Ríos is frankly ethnic, strange, indeed otherworldly in a way that no science fiction begins to approach. It is a language spoken by an alien in our midst. There is some analogy if we could imagine what the people of Tahiti might have thought about the many paintings, carvings, prints, and pots that they inspired in Gauguin, but Ríos is not making portraits of us natives. On the contrary, his work is completely abstract.

Ríos is now a New Yorker, but he comes from an Andean valley in the far north of Argentina called Valles Calchaquies, which includes part of the state of Catamarca, where his hometown, San José Norte, is located. This was about the southernmost reach of the great Inca empire that covered much of the Andes before being driven out of business by the Spaniards in the 16th century, and Incan traditions persist among the people who still live and work upon the relatively unwelcoming, chilly, and arid mountains. Ríos grew up with llamas, and with the textiles that his mother wove from their wool as the Incans had, and with the old and local knowledge of the pigments secreted in the earth that could be used in craft. One series of his is called “Llamas,” 1980–1985, because these progressively longer and larger rows of abstract figures are derived from the llama, though they don’t actually look like those beasts, but more like five bars, one sticking up and four on a path or line. The figures are repetitive, but no two are exactly alike. Sometimes there is no llama where one expects to see one, and sometimes there are more than one, of different colors. These colors are earthy, literally, for Ríos’ work is made out of the earth itself. Of course everything, even aspirin and automobiles, ultimately comes from the earth, but I mean that for the 12 years that I have known him, Ríos has hardly ever opened up a tube or jar of paint. He makes his own. There are many kinds of soils, sands, clays, and rocks on the surface of the planet, and he has investigated them wherever he has gone, mixing them with organic and mineral pigments to form an earthy paint. This is not to frame him as the practitioner of some ancient craft; Ríos is definitely a contemporary artist—a former art student and teacher in Argentina, a traveler in Europe and Asia. But it is to say that making the paint or clay to exactly the desired consistency and color is a clear part of his work, a part that many artists accept as a readymade without a thought.

A critic could talk about the grid in relation to Ríos, or about seriality, or about the llama as an abstract pattern of lines. But it seems to me that all artists use what they have to make what they do, and that in the case of Ríos what results in this process is ultimately unfamiliar and finally of its own genre, while inevitably being part of contemporary practice and, at best, enlarging the range and scope of art in general. Goethe once wrote of Dürer’s visit to Venice that the city’s effect on his art was slight, for “that excellent man can only be explained in his own terms.” New York has made Ríos bolder, and it has inevitably enriched his experience of the whole range of his contemporaries, but he too can only be explained in his own terms, and his terms are shapes. It has been his custom to work a shape until he has exhausted it; he eventually lost interest in the llama sign, as he had earlier with a series of arrows. The shape that ensued was the egg—or the head, or a small melon, or anything else handsome and organic in that basic ovoid form. Ríos’ current group of works is composed of eggs made of fired clay, sometimes plain and sometimes polished, in several colors. Ranged together row upon row on wood-and-canvas grounds, these forms become wall pieces that Ríos sometimes calls a “mural” and sometimes calls a “painting,” rather interchangeably. The eggs are all different, and the ones used in different pieces are very different indeed. “Muralized” like this, they become sometimes icons (almost like faces), sometimes symbols (but not in the degraded sense in which a symbol is thought to bear a clear one-on-one parallel with what it symbolizes), and sometimes characters as in writing. Such a “poem,” as one is dubbed, is readable in the way that hieroglyphs may seem readable to the untutored.

Pinté un poema con agua y arena o las huellas que deja el rio (Painted a poem with water and sand or the tracks the river leaves, 1988) is made of four equal-sized panels in each of which rest 84 eggs, most of them made of white clay, some somewhat pink in tone, and a few with variegated pink and white skins. Many of them are slashed with purposeful cuts to reveal their hollowness and to suggest the presence of a scriptlike order to the “reader.” The mural is almost 11 feet square, and the ovoids, as Ríos’ ovoids go, are also big, about seven or eight inches high, which makes them more like heads than eggs; there is something facial as well as something alphabetic, then, in their sequences of slashes. But the cuts act more to give a direction to the reading of the poem than to suggest facial gestures. Another, more painterly work is one called Los muertos se hacen cosquillas (The dead tickle each other, 1988). Here the rows of predominantly whitish eggs are broken up occasionally by larger, dark-to-black eggs canted at different angles; colored diamonds, bars, and triangles are scattered throughout, and painted lines of clay connect some of the icons, if they are icons. The clay of Camino largo a Coyotepec (Long road to Coyotepec, 1988), and so the work as a whole, is very black, polished (Ríos never uses glazes), and inlaid with tiny bits of mica, the glasslike rock that gives this piece its fierceness, glowering toward the viewer.

Many of the current works have musical implications. The ovoids arranged in rows to form Concierto de okarinas (Concert of flutes, 1988) are uneven, resembling potatoes more than eggs; their meaning, though, lies not in their likeness to anything but in the musicality of their arrangement, as if in a concert of the sugar-cane flute (okarina), or of the other Andean instruments Ríos grew up with, like the ampolla, the shiku, the quena, the rondador, or the pinkuyo. Oddly, some of the shapes are absent from the beds prepared for them. The effect is of empty graves, and the whole work’s presiding darkness contributes to its funereal air. Ríos has also produced a number of sculptures that have some eggness but are individual—large solitary heads, or headlike shapes, about three feet high, that have been given human names; conceivably extraterrestrial, these sculptures have huge slits at which one can listen for the seashell-like distortions of ambient sounds. Others, though retaining the basic ovoid shape, are sculpted with steplike indentations, and still others have indentations that make the shape more into a body of unknown species. Still, I prefer the big wall pieces to these smaller works, which may be merely a prejudice in favor of such things as thousand-page books and endless concertos.

One of the largest recent works, not actually an egg piece, has an appropriately large name: Sinfonia del viento con las siete notas del rondador (Symphony of the wind with the seven notes of the rondador, 1988). This huge, about nine-by-nine-foot mural of 12 ceramic panels bears no resemblance to the rondador, a flute composed of reeds of seven different lengths which are blown across in order to make the characteristic noise of Andean music. The panels have protrusions and depressions, none of which add up to seven, and some are fashioned to tilt outward so that the work thrusts into the room. Instead of being implanted into a wood-and-canvas background, these modules are mounted in steel frames that we can occasionally glimpse between them. I find the piece ominous, even sinister, like an unfriendly star-wars computer with a keyboard projecting outward for us unqualified users. This is perhaps because it is faceless or eggless. Nevertheless, it retains an epic scope and an uncompromised clarity.

This analogy of the epic, and with it of language, is I think appropriate to the work of Ríos, and probably preferable to that of music. lt is grander, more inclusive. An epic thrives somewhere between repetition and uniqueness. In order to encompass all, the same and the different must appear together. Just as the unknown characters of an unknown alphabet may all seem alike at first, Ríos’ eggs begin by seeming similar and then, with their varying shapes and colors and unlike patterns of holes and incisions, become more and more individual, more unique, as we begin to be able to “read” them. During the process of familiarization, any code, such as a language, loses its hermetic, secretive quality, but it does not lose its general quality—it is still German, Dutch, or Urdu, and has thoughts and manners of speaking that are unique to and inherent in it. While the metaphor of language has been applied to art in a number of different ways, I invoke it here because in his large ranges of egg shapes, Ríos achieves something that is analogous to language, and the analogy is not vague, it is precise. The work is no Esperanto or ersatz or substitute for language; like a language, it is itself only.

The ancient epics—Beowulf, the Odyssey, Gilgamesh—were heroic stories that certified mythology and codified language, and as such they’re not made any more, but the epic sense is not outmoded or lost. Epic practice is alive, if as rare as it has always been, and the aim of the epic artist, as always, is to include everything within one thing. The epic embraces the world and attempts to demonstrate it. Looking at the paintings of Miguel Angel Ríos, one enters a place that is everywhere and yet nowhere that one has been before. I don’t know exactly where this world is, but I like it there. I don’t think it is in Catamarca, nor is it in San Bartolo Coyotepec, the village in Mexico where Ríos works with a professional potter, Don Antonio Eleazar Pedro Carreño, and his family to create and fire his ovoid shapes. Neither is his world in history or prehistory, or in New York, Paris, or Madrid. In true epic form, it is everyplace, and at the same time only available in the work itself.

I think the terms of Miguel Angel Ríos are best defined by two of the larger works, Requiem a Doña Romelia Nuñez and El aleteo de las parvadas, both 1988. The first is in honor of the artist’s mother, who died last year. In the single panel, the eggs are ranged in 12 horizontal rows, with 32 in each row. The objects are similarly sized and fairly regularly placed, but there are lots of irregularities: mica chips flash out here and there from the mural, and although most of the shapes are black, some are terra-cotta. The dark ground has a storm-cloud look. Miguel’s mother brought him up to be an artist and encouraged him to go out into the world, far from Catamarca in the majestic and arid Andes. In wished-for prophecy, she even named him after the greatest international artist she knew of, Michelangelo. His homage to her is calm and emotional, moving and static, general and particular. This is how the planet Catamarca hooks up with the planet Art. El aleteo de las parvadas (The fluttering of the flock), nearly eight feet high and ten feet wide, is divided into two equal panels. As the title suggests—Ríos always uses suggestive titles, which are frequently poetic and sometimes witty—there’s every type of “bird” here he can make, as well as more space between the rows for painting in the ground. Different things are going on in different parts of the aggregation—it’s like society—but we can’t tell what all it is. The clay is in many different colors, with many different cuts and extrusions in its surface. It’s a muddle of races all of whom are foreign to us. Yet these “cabbages” or “kings” retain their handsomeness, their softness, and their accessibility, for all their grandeur. The flock flutters with significance, variety, sameness, color, blackness, and dumb alacrity, once again approaching language from another direction.

Frederick Ted Castle is a writer who lives in New York. His third novel will be published by McPherson & Co., Kingston, N.Y., in the spring of 1989.