Los Angeles

Jose Luis Cuevas and “Nueva Presencia”

Silvan Simone Gallery and Zora’s Gallery

“Recollections of Childhood,” a remarkable set of twelve lithographs by Jose Luis Cuevas, together with preliminary drawings, is the subject of the show at Simone. Drawings by a group representing the “Nueva Presencia,” dominated by Arnold Belkin and Jose Munoz, are exhibited at Zora’s. Although Cuevas’ work is highly autobiographical, and thus, in a sense, limited in scope, there is such an obvious kinship between him and the Nueva Presencia group that it might be rewarding to consider them together.

While it would be simple to dismiss Cuevas’ work as “grotesqueries” and Nueva Presencia as derivative social protest (as one critic has done) it would be absurd to attempt to dismiss the source from which they spring. For if the work is derivative, it is in the sense that it is part of a continuing tradition of artists who feel compelled to be the conscience of their age. If Lebrun, Bacon, Baskin, come to mind as contemporary “sources” then so do Ben Shahn’s “Sacco and Vanzetti,” and Picasso’s “Guernica”; so do Kollwitz, Grosz, the early van Gogh, Daumier, Goya, Fuseli, Hogarth, even Grunewald and Durer. There is a common bond uniting these varied artists, a certain tension from melancholy and sadness, through anguish and despair to stark terror and madness. Cuevas’ responses are very close to Goya’s and the style shared commonly by all these people, derived ultimately from Tiepolo and Rembrandt, is essentially black and white, essentially graphic. But it is more than style that unites them, it is a sense of the documentary, a kind of visual reportage of the mysteries that lie in the shadows, shadows made more mysterious by light.

It is no coincidence that Cuevas illustrates Kafka, that he admires Dostoyevski; it is no coincidence that Munoz dedicates a work to a martyred family; just as it is no coincidence that Durer carefully painted his initials on the nails of the Cross. If, as the manifesto of the Nueva Presencia states, they “reject the art of ‘good taste’” if “no one, especially an artist, has the right to be indifferent to the social order” if “commitment” is their goal, then they share a view with others who see man as victim rather than as hero. Even if we do not always share this view, we cannot always dismiss it.

Joan Hugo