New York

Julio Galan

Annina Nosei Gallery

More formally refined than in the past, Julio Galan’s recent paintings remain cryptically autobiographical, addressing key issues of selfhood—birth, love, sexuality, memory, and fantasy. A Mexican who lives in New York, Galan is openly eclectic, and his largely figurative, often mixed-media paintings reflect the influence of European and American artists such as Francesco Clemente and David Salle, as well as fellow Mexicans such as Frida Kahlo. Simultaneously pertinent with respect to current artistic concerns and somehow time-tested, Galan’s works exceed the sum of these influences.

He draws from the Mexican tradition of Catholic ex-voto and retablo devotional images, and a religious flavor often dominates his work. In Como Un Jardín (Like a garden, 1990), a contemplative, almost saintlike self-portrait, the artist surrounds himself with carefully arranged, found image-fragments that look like kitschy flower petals from a sacred festival. Hardly a religious painter, however, Galan employs theistic themes and iconography to construct a viable secular universe, but one that retains a sense of magic and spiritual mystery. He recreates the world from the perspective of an innocent, frequently portraying himself as an androgynous child. In The Black Pearl, 1990, a mythical self-portrait that idealizes youth, innocence, and beauty, he portrays himself pursuing a giant pearl that remains just out of reach.

Galan’s use of sexual imagery is less flamboyant here than in previous shows, though sexual ambiguity still sets the tone for the self-portraits. Relampágos-Naranjas (Lightning-oranges, 1989), a painting of a female nude and fruits clustered with oddly wrapped, mixed-media phallic shapes, which he exhibited in his last show, is echoed here in the more subtle yet equally fetishistic Know No End, 1990. In this hazy landscape in which painted images of men’s undergarments float like elusive substitute phalluses, Galan moves toward the abstract; these objects hover like question marks on a scratched-up, flattened surface. Galan has deftly incorporated the lessons of Modernism into his own vocabulary of personal symbols, and there is the general sense that his introspective project is the stronger for a developing formal virtuosity.

Birth and childhood are the subjects of Mi Hijo (My son) and Acupuntar Almal (Acupuncture of the soul; both 1990). The composition of the former is bisected to look like a diptych. In the right half, a portrait of a pregnant woman has been hauntingly botched. Horn- and branchlike forms protrude from her blurred body and invade the left side of the painting, where the artist has portrayed himself as a distressed young boy. In Acupuntar Almal, a tondo with a Renaissance-inspired Madonna and Child that has been defaced with scribbles appears at the upper right; another self-portrait occupies the lower left. Kitschy cutouts of children’s-book animals are scattered throughout. In each of these paintings, birth is handled as a mystery almost beyond representation, its magic preserved in dreamlike renderings.

Almost every painting here is marked by an incessant ordering and reordering of the composition that serves as a formal analogy to Galan’s public construction of his own persona. There is often a push-pull between the frames and chaotically collaged image-fragments that threaten the compositional order. In Aladino y la Reina Victoria (Aladdin and Queen Victoria, 1990), framed paintings-within-paintings are overrun with such collaged elements. In Llorando de Felicidad (Crying with happiness, 1990), antique frames encapsulate vignettes that range from a young painter at his easel to a quirky abstraction. There is no limit to the scope of Galan’s painted and found imagery.

The two major self-portraits are compelling not only for their immediacy, but also for their restless, calculated imperfections. In Hice Bien Quererte (I have done well in loving you, 1990), the artist’s head gazes directly at us, bisected asymmetrically so that part of the middle is missing. The result is a graceful, mannerist self-portrait worthy of Bronzino. Roma, 1990, presents the artist languid and bedridden, his elongated body stretched across three separate frames until the bed eventually unravels into a decorative pattern. Galan wields artifice beautifully to create, on the one hand, an idealized self in a magical world, and on the other, to expose the construct of self as an illusion. His is a never-ending story without a plot, an inaccessible yet formally intoxicating fabrication of self.

Jenifer P. Borum