New York

Arturo Duclos

Annina Nosei Gallery

Chilean artist Arturo Duclos makes elegantly rebuslike paintings filled with thorny contradictions. Though verging on the bloodless and diagrammatic, they are in fact resolutely sensual. Simultaneously terse and prolix, they are replete with provocative juxtapositions the ultimate significance of which eludes one’s grasp. At first glance, these paintings, which evoke hermetic allegories, seem to promise the kind of satisfaction one can find in deciphering elaborate puzzles. However, the more closely one studies their fantastic arrangements of conspicuously loaded images, symbols, and texts, the more surely one senses a profound slippage between a desire for resolution and a systematic displacement of meaning.

Each painting frames a labyrinthine network of references that extend from the religious and the political to the personal. Although the inclusion of texts in Latin, Spanish, and English could be said to evoke, respectively, the stylized voices of Catholicism, of the conquistadors, and of England (the country to which Chile has at times been compared), the words themselves seem to emerge from a well of complex ideas, emotions, and experiences. And though the works’ precise, hierarchical ordering of elements may seem to evoke the historically rigid stratification of Chilean society, images are assembled only to be refracted and dispersed. Myriad voices are amplified and silenced, as systems of belief are taken apart and reconfigured with unnerving fluency. La mano loco (The crazy hand; all works 1993), for example, neatly expands the Catholic sign of the cross from the Trinity into a Quaternity—with “Generatio” (begetting), assuming the supreme position at the top of the canvas. In the same work, another set of four—a hammer and sickle, a cross, a pair of crossed daggers, and a star—forms a kind of tetragrammaton out of the emblems of communism, Christianity, militarism, and capitalism. Fatidic horse heads, vignetted in ovals at the corners, suggest military authority. At the center of the painting is attached, in a white plastic frame surrounded by a yellow nimbus, a picture of kitschy roses—redolent of such “virtues” as secrecy, silence, and martyrdom—lettered over with “Verbum” (the word). In Black Mirror, the four cardinal virtues of Socratic philosophy—justice, fortitude, prudence, and temperance (the principles on which Catholic martyr Thomas More had his Utopians found an ideal secular society)—are painted on four trompe l’oeil strips of wood. Radically juxtaposed, references seem almost to cancel each other out, replicating an impulse toward utopian clarity in the face of unspeakably banal truths. The sense of conflict as an overriding principle is made literal in two frozen pairs: a duo of sparring boxers in Nigrum nigrius nigra (Black blacker than black) and two dueling fencers in Die Grosse Utopie (The great utopia).

In Black Star, an iconic severed foot, which eerily recalls mutilations suffered by natives at the hands of Spanish conquerors, is overlaid with lines of poetry that discuss the idea of “wholeness” as an “index that you have everything.” Like Marcel Broodthaers, Duclos has painted on human bones. In these paintings it seems that the various elements are not relics, but, rather, the restless fragments of language as it is endlessly shattered.

K. Marriott Jones