PRINT October 1991


GONE ARE THE DAYS when artists in third world countries were helpless to define themselves except by their distance from the artistic center. For the center has lost faith in its centrality, and no longer knows how to lord it over a torrent of diverse inputs, as it once did through the graded culture of Modernism. That imperious belief system, based on a supposed transnational canon of forms, has been humbled—done in by both the runaway success of the ultra-American mass media, soaked up over the world, and the incoming waves of cultures from the colonized margins.

Significantly, the outward movements of communications and the inward thrust of peoples have stemmed from opposite directions. Just the same, as they pass, products from each of their milieux are increasingly crossed with the other, and then again. On the one hand, the ephemeral references and hybrid styles of the pop environment, with its entertainment frenzy, work as temporal points on a line and are always topical. Datable pop cultures are features of technologically based societies. On the other, the deep-set traditionalist mind is beset by a history of generic myths and sentiments, not of fleeting event. This history introduces tastes, manners, images, and memories, some recovered from endangered or deceased genres, that predate the mercantile and industrial base upon which we have founded our media. Yet artistic constituencies that maintain themselves along ethnic lines now also tend to blend previously separate idioms, such as lower-middle-class kitsch, folk, avant-garde, and regionalist, in a rather ahistorical mash. In the syncretic, time-warped atmosphere that now increasingly prevails—the vernacular past contributing to the techno-future, the values of the perimeter propelled and transferred to the polyglot interior—no one quite knows who possesses what heritage.

This is not to say that artists are more genealogically ignorant than before. Rather, they operate within a potentially more shareable mental space. We can speak, even, of a global ferment—made up not so much of unified beliefs as of mutual problems—in which a New York artist and one from Zaire can address themselves with comparable heat to the subject of AIDS. The moment may be querulous but it is also opened out, enabling artists to speak with recognizable purpose from the full authority of their place and their dismay. Such perennial themes as dislocation, the war of the sexes, the quest for identity, and the malaise of the ego are dealt with in indigenous terms. Far from looking retrograde, in a manner once quoted or ironized by Modernism, third world art styles now appear to us as vehicles of a front-line consciousness in a composite surrounding. Whatever their actual achievement, which might be weighed case by case, works in such idioms are beginning to appear to us as sometimes urgent assertions of world views with portents for us all.

Consider, in this context, the disquieting art of the 33-year-old painter Julio Galán, who has shown in Amsterdam, Rome, New York, and his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico. Galán would have us believe that he’s occupied above all with a fantasy of his own genesis, immortality, and personal suffering: He is quite capable of titling a 1988 picture My parents one day before they knew they were going to have me. A feminized self-portrait, in a lunar white makeup, appears in his art more often than any other image. Never is he as passionate as when he reaches a peak of auto-seduction, which undergoes amazing metamorphoses. But this shivery narcissicism is visualized in a form with at least three stylistic overlays that are entirely popular in character.

One style mimics that of Mexican retablos and ex-votos, naively painted tin panels that typically might offer a campesino’s praise to a saint for deliverance from illness. Another apes that of the murals with which artisans once decorated bars, cantinas, and pulquerías. And a third harks back to colonial portraits and still fifes, noted for their rancid color and their faulty memory of Spanish art that was itself already provincial when they were made. All this in addition to Galán’s pseudo-comic book drawing, and his collages of almanac and cigar-box-lid imagery. The artist, who confesses himself an unschooled painter (though he’s studied architecture), is fluent in the awkwardness of all these styles.

How does one account for such archaic visual language in the work of a late-20th-century artist so forward looking that he can date his pictures 1993 or 1998? Galán gives the feeling that he is equally at home, or miserable, in the future as in the past. What will happen, he not relate to industrial Monterrey (a kind of Mexican Houston whose upper classes have been known to wear shorts) but has a lot to do with Mexican folk consciousness. Galán obviously recuperates the visual styles of that consciousness so as to identify himself with it. Based on such appropriations (they are certainly not his influences, which are more current), his art claims to speak for no less than a whole race. To be more exact, his work stews his primary self-involvement in flavors of piety, delirium, and intoxication derived from the visual embodiment of a Mexican past. So the really private and cryptic motifs of his art are enhanced by the accessibility of its populist vocabulary.

In the immediate background of 20th-century Mexican painting, such an interplay was crystallized by Frida Kahlo, with whose work Galán is on almost familial terms. He has surrendered to everything she stood for, letting her vision have its way with him in the justified hope that their difference in sex would spearhead all the other differences that separate and yet mark them out as kindred spirits. As Kahlo embraced the Mexican popular arts, she also fed the torments of her life back into her painting. Where the great Mexican muralists, with their revolutionary ethos, depicted the struggle of the Mexican people, she replaced it with the martyrdom of the artist. Where they covered giant walls in public places, she created small self-portraits for an intimate audience. (And had the nerve to make her own biology a world as large as theirs.) Never mind that André Breton misread Kahlo as the epitome of a Surrealist artist: it was the feminist repercussion of her art, well in advance of the organized movement, that made her a heroine of culture.

Enter her legatee Julio Galán, a male artist whose female identification is radical, and whose exhibit of a homosexual sensibility must be as much a gesture of brazen otherness to a macho Mexican society as Kahlo’s poetics of the self were to a Marxist brotherhood. He pushes the point, too, by often working on canvases of a large scale . . . like mammoth.

Iconographically speaking, the narrative principle of Galán’s work depends upon the encounter of one stand-in of the artist with another. There are usually two of him. Such is implied by Llegando por mi (Arriving for me, 1989), where one male figure floats down, bearing a glow of light, into the outstretched arms of a similar figure, with a movement paralleled in a lavender diagram of an esophagus dropping down into what looks like a digestive system. The artist compares the arrival of illumination with the nourishment of the body. And just as the star and the understudy are exchangeable in their performance, so, too, does Galán equate the male and female. Further, as in any viewer’s nightmare, in Galán’s the one who menaces is surely the one who dreams. With a feckless masochism, Galán scripts into his Self-portrait with Doctor M., 1989, which shows the artist comically and bloodily biting his flesh, “Me muerdo pero no me como” (I bite myself but I do not eat myself). Elsewhere, why not vertically split his face in two, then abut the unequal sides together, with a part of him removed in the crease (the enormous Hice bien quererte [I have done well in loving you], 1990)? The painter, one might say, is sucked into his art, where he loses his symmetry, meets his double, and experiences the most painful longing for a consummation or beatitude, not in love of another but in the embrace of his alter-ego.

Very well, but then how, if at all, does he get beyond this impasse of the self-reflective? Like Kahlo, the isolated heroine with maternal longings, Galán frequently hints at his desire to further his line, but is probably not destined to be a parent. Mi Hijo (My son, 1990) is a paradoxical title for one of his pictures because, in the amorphousness of the main figure, the painting acknowledges that the son’s features cannot be visualized. Kahlo miscarried thanks to the damage done her by a terrible accident and surgery. In her nightmare of parturition, Mi nacimiento (My birth, 1932), she imagines that she has been stillborn and her mother is dead. For his part, Galán represents himself in that same position of the mother in ghastly delivery, but holding his legs not so much to eject as possibly to offer entrance (The Purple Hat, 1989). As a character in his own art, he is victimized, lipsticked, dolorous, languishing. His persona completely lacks the febrile energy, the erectness and alertness, with which Kahlo invested her adult image. Even the children he depicts have something effete about them, a kind of bloated daintiness, and, especially in the type of the Niño Santo, a drowsiness that whispers of the crypt or the reliquary. Galán’s decadence follows the figuration of the once voluptuous and then puritanical martyrology of the Spanish church, but he sees it through the lens of his evident angst.

Who could fail to notice, in this art, a touch of male envy of female procreation? (Actually a theme developed in Surrealist esthetics.) And this hankering after an impossible creativity, to give birth with one’s own male body, is ramified by a fascination with a Catholicism renowned for its homophobia. Still, the oppressiveness of such prejudice is compensated for by the use to which the artist can put the alluring doctrines of the Immaculate Conception, and of the man who died on the cross to redeem our sins. These miraculous and guilt-making concepts offer Galán an imaginative leverage into his own psychodrama, or rather into the picturing of it. He envelops himself in their stories, with the lively desire to overturn them for blasphemous advantage. The flowers, sexual organs of plants, that weep or ejaculate in Envious Roses, 1987, are a symbolic case in point; the Man of Sorrows (if it be He), shown as a soft loverboy in Three Mouths, 1989, is a more explicit one. We’re aware of the wish fulfillments in such substitutions, and that the atmosphere of penitence is but a screen for a lascivious guilt.

How very Catholic after all, it’s tempting to say, except that in the pseudopathos of these scenarios there runs a current of allusion to more archaic—pre-Columbian—creation myths. Their presence is more diffuse than the Catholic obsessions, but in the end more pervasive and just as insinuating. If Galán has engaged with Frida Kahlo, he is also somehow obliged to deal with her imagery of roots and sprouts, which suggests a kind of vitalism of the earth that passes through all conduits and is drunk up into the curl of organic life. So, for example, he paints single instances or larger systems of branches, twigs, and other linear capillaries, vaguely arterial presences spread out through the pictorial field. More than once he seems to x-ray that field, as Kahlo does the body, to bring out the circulation of telluric energy. And then in both their arts, as if by a natural analogic process, tendrils turn into straps or trusses or belts, making us think that what had spontaneously welled forth is fated to be trained and bound tight.

At this point we can imagine a kind of narrative in which a free spirit, an individual initially identified as at one with nature, enters the world of necessity, i.e., culture and its restraints. Such a narrative arose first in ancient religions where a universal birth principle was imaged in the form of a tree spirit or snake divinity (the latter the primal god of Nahuatl cosmology and later incorporated in the national symbol of Mexico). Now, as Francis Huxley writes, “What puts these two images, the snake and the tree, in such close parallel is a fact of some psychological curiosity: they are symbolically bisexual. . . .the main characteristic of primal serpents is their habit of swallowing everything, so that they have to be killed to make them disgorge. This is traditionally interpreted in one of two ways: either the killing of the serpent and the resultant flood of waters signifies the birth of a child from its mother, or it refers to the symbolic ejaculation of the Sky Father, which produces rain and children impartially.”1

With their red spumes and ultramarine and cerulean blue funnels, the waters of Galán’s 1990 pastel/collage Ofo y Vita (a childish contraction of the names of his grandparents, Adolfo and Evita) emblematize something of this primal drama. A tree trunk sticks out from their wavy turbulence, as streams of white tears from sky-borne eyes weigh down the wicker basket of a balloon. Meanwhile, a Y-shaped celestial hose replenishes the serpentine motion of a wave that sweeps up again as a monstrous tail. Galán is there too, about to be bitten from behind by his toothy double, that is, his other sex. Could this tableau, so full of alarms, and yet so ludicrous and farcical, be a rebus in which the author hints of his sufficiency unto himself? The ocean is impregnated from above and gives issue to the artist,who had all along conceived the circulatory scheme as an arabesque of the elements. Kahlo was bisexual, and physically impeded in the hope of giving birth. Galán, her posthumous soul mate, constructs a fantasy of auto-insemination that appears the product of a later historical moment, haunted by the fatality of AIDS.

Had it been only for his iconographical fertility, Galán would stand out as a distinctive artist. With image resources so protean as they breed each other, his work seems a viticulture of meanings and pleasures that expand through the visual field. One writer, Francesco Pellizzi, has attended to the puns, messages, and other linguistic come-ons with which this art is strewn.2 Another, Edward J. Sullivan, has commented on the ecstatic and miraculous references, such as to sacred icons weeping real tears, that abound in it.3 But both leave something important to discuss: the zone upon which all these playful morbidities are inscribed, an ambitious colorism that furthers the Mexicanidad of Galán’s whole outlook.

In fact one’s first impression of these paintings is of their color, their most emotive feature. The torque of images is disposed upon huge segments or large fields of chroma, nominally faithful to Galán’s various sources—the fading tones of frescoes on walls, the candy-box hues of advertisements for cheap goods, the discolorations of old chromolithographs, wallpapers, and flaking altarpieces. Yet it’s exactly in the recall of their decay, as most of these colors have sunk away, that Galán impacts freshly. In the awesome self-portrait Yes and No, 1990 (which emulates Kahlo’s Las dos Fridas [The two Fridas, 1939]), a kilted figure steps out from a landscape of ocherish toxic greens into a kind of interior made with persimmons and tomato red, passages seen through curious dark grilles livened with filigree spatters. The palette has something of the tarot card about it, and a whiff of the Byzantine. This pair of canvases yoked to each other by real belts, which also wind out of a painted anus or hang cruelly like whips from painted hands, summons up the penalties of desire. Better still, the work shows how an artist invests himself in the reminiscent activity of colors so as to ignite their sensory presence.

It’s interesting to notice that in this art laden with demanding subject, the initial accent is decorative. Galán may spray or perhaps sponge on pigment, creating aerated volumes, but mainly he disposes things on or “through” flat compartments that resemble floor plans—as if he were dredging up old souvenirs of architecture school. The floor schemes themselves are irrational. We can only guess whether the spaces communicate with each other or where the doors are. On a level with this metaphor is his habit of treating the “floors” as walls slotted together on a tonal plan that overlaps, even disrespects, the linear one. Galán has a taste for a labyrinthine kind of visual mapping. The eye cannot see its way out of these rooms in the house of his memory. Finally, despite the milky veils that sometimes occur in his art, its sense of patterning comes obviously to the fore. Fondly repeated motifs of designs from table linens, glassware, nursery walls, children’s primers, and the paper cutouts of festival days take over the margins or sometimes the centers of the visual field. One begins to think that decoration is the site into which is twined the first intimations of self, and of something indefinably larger, the world of faith.

Evidently included in Galán’s childhood were the pieties of a strict Catholic upbringing. Whatever its position in other countries, Catholicism in Mexico lives in a peculiar space: in a state with a ferocious anticlerical tradition, where it is illegal for a priest even to vote, popular religious observance is everywhere. Rare is the day that can be passed in Mexico without noting an emblem or imago of a saint and the signing of the cross. The faith sustains resistance to government policies, for instance those that encourage birth control. Complicating Galán’s response to this odd situation must be the fact that he himself cannot be said to be an ordinary Mexican, for he comes from the highest economic class, the son of a family that made its fortune in silver mines and vast holdings of livestock and property. Moreover, he has immersed himself in a sophisticated art circuit, where he knew Andy Warhol and is perhaps affected by the lightness of Francesco Clemente. (Surely he catches more than a flavor of the Italian’s floating bodies and multiple styles, his sexual self-exhibitionism, superimposed images, and interest in protean and pagan myth.) On no account is Galán to be reckoned a home-grown innocent, even though he chooses to work where he was raised. Monterrey itself has a newspaper, El Norte, that reprints articles from The Wall Street Journal, and restaurants with names like Marshall’s Star and Smile Burger, home of the famous “Rock and Dog” hot dog.4 Under these circumstances, the religious aspects of Galán’s art, while unquestionably a part of his background, probably don’t reflect solidarity with the masses so much as an aromatic savoring of a pictorial tradition. And this, of course, is what sets him off in the present international arena where he must compete as an artist.

Yet with a quite young painter like Galán, so easily in touch with a memory that traces to before Columbus, a message comes to us from deep inside the past dreams of a people and the way they affirmed themselves. His canvases embody an infantile charm and reflect a cultural bloody-mindedness that is ecstatic and repressive. In fact, they seem to grow in imaginative brilliance the longer they deny the technological present, a denial that would have been looked upon as retrograde by the Mexican muralists. But then, ours is a historical epoch in which insurgent nationalism can be both liberationist in effect and conservative in ideology. Galán’s art instinctively sides with the nationalism—and its disabilities—from a position of advantage. As it has accelerated rhapsodically over the last five years, his career reflects not only his own internal divides, but also the alarms of a longer history to which we may in part be returned.

Max Kozloff is a writer and photographer who lives in New York. He has a long-standing interest in Mexican art and photography.


1. Francis Huxley, The Way of the Sacred, New York: Doubleday, 1974, pp. 88-89.

2. Francesco Pellizzi, “On the Border,” in Julio Galán, exhibition catalogue, New York: Annina Nosei Gallery, 1989, n.p.

3. Edward J. Sullivan, “Sacred and Profane: The Art of Julio Galán,” Arts 64 no. 10, Summer 1990, pp. 51-55.

4. See Dick J. Reavis, Conversations with Moctezuma, New York: Quill, 1990, p. 94.