New York

Guillermo Kuitca

Guillermo Kuitca had a lot riding on this exhibition—his fourth solo effort in New York in as many years. In the wake of a fairly lackluster showing at last year’s survey of Latin American art at MoMA and at Documenta the year before, as well as a decidedly unconvincing 1993 debut at his first blue-chip SoHo gallery, skeptical voices had begun to question whether he could actually deliver the goods. That Kuitca had been all but consecrated as the first young Latin American artist in decades to sustain a strong European following only fed the fires of New York skepticism, providing an easy out for those who had enjoyed his early work but found his highly codified figurative style moving inexorably toward solipsistic decadence.

It comes as something of a relief, then, to report that Kuitca has not only managed to transcend the difficulties of the recent past and make good on his earlier success, he has actually surpassed the promise of his more formative works, demonstrating along the way that even a well-worn formula can be reinvented if the stakes are high enough. In Kuitca’s case, the images of maps and floor plans that have more or less dominated his work since 1987 have taken on an unexpected intensity with the introduction of surprising variations on these themes—a city map with the streets indicated by syringes, plans of impossible or nonexistent structures, as well as subject matter that is completely new for him, such as a crown of thorns that wraps around itself so many times no opening is left for the head.

Generally speaking, Kuitca’s art functions by playing up the tensions between generalized locales created for mass audiences (cities, stadiums) and the intimate areas reserved for more domestic uses. However, regardless of which extreme he is working from, Kuitca’s art invariably comes back to an alienated view of the human predicament, in which the implied but typically absent subject is depicted in terms of his or her societal slot. In fact, in light of recent Argentine history “The Tablada Suite,” 1991-93, is reminiscent not so much of Jorge Luis Borges (the most frequently cited influence on Kuitca’s work) as of Jacobo Timmerman’s epic account of his imprisonment during the country’s “dirty little war” under the military dictatorship of the late ’70s. The grimness of Kuitca’s institutionalized worldview can even be interpreted as shedding a harsh light on the psychically charged issue of territorialism today, from its prolonged manifestation as ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to the devastation wreaked by the recent bomb blast that levelled the main Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, killing 100. Almost forlorn in their insistence on compartmentalized anonymity as the underlying truth of our time, the best of Kuitca’s paintings continue to probe areas of being human that have more to do with the assignment of cells, numbers, and labels than with warm flesh and blood.

Dan Cameron