New York

Luis Caballero

Nohra Haime Gallery

Neither a retrospective nor a showcase of new work, Luis Caballero’s show of large-scale oils on paper and smaller ink and charcoal drawings—all relatively monochromatic variations on the male nude—provided what initially seemed like an arbitrary slice of this Columbian expatriate’s oeuvre. Given that Caballero has been working in this mode for almost twenty-five years, however, this selection of pieces actually functioned as a survey of the artist’s midcareer work.

Caballero combines an eclectic, academic naturalism with an Expressionist bent that sometimes approaches pathos. His focus on the male nude is surprisingly devoid of political engagement—instead of identity politics, one finds a ponderous, hermetic investigation of sexual desire. This show was dominated by single-figure compositions in a variety of media; in each, the male body is objectified and highly eroticized. Caballero’s figures rarely have faces, and although the poses range from tense, even tortured crouches to what look like postcoital swoons, these figures are less subjects than idealized objects cast as passive recipients of both pleasure and pain. At best these works use the nude as a springboard for forays into a subtly expressive abstraction that recalls the paintings of Francis Bacon, as in an untitled, mixed-media work on paper from 1984, but the majority (the oils from the mid ’80s and the pen and inks from the early ’90s) are accomplished, if insistently somber, academic studies.

More challenging are Caballero’s figural groups, orgiastic scenes that tease the viewer with dramatically cropped compositions of passionately interlocked male bodies. Unlike Salomé’s blatant, celebratory, neo-Expressionist orgies, Caballero’s remain just out of reach, giving the impression of dim, feverish, unfulfilled fantasies. The most compelling of these are two untitled drawings done in ink but with the look of charcoal from 1991 that at first glance look like orgies but later come to resemble eerie piles of Baconesque torsos and limbs.

Over the years, different constellations of meaning have attached themselves to Caballero’s project, yet its timeless nature always manages to thwart these readings. Seen alone or in small groups, Caballero’s works are exquisite invitations to meditate, but a roomful of them can become oppressive. The obsessive repetition of so many unfinished fantasies creates a state of perpetual esthetic arousal with little hope of consummation.

Jenifer P. Borum