Buenos Aires

Nicolás Guagnini

Instituto de Cooperacion Iberoamericana

A single motivo (motif)—the word should be understood in the double sense that it carries in Spanish, that is, as both a single theme and as a single cause—is repeated throughout Nicolás Guagnini’s recent series of paintings. The motivo is a visage, the schematic representation of a face in profile looking to the left. This face is not represented in a realistic way but, rather, it appears to be an amalgamation of decorative fragments or twisted grounds, of allusions to Pop or Op art. Throughout the series of paintings that make up this show, the drawing of the face, imprecise and almost unstable, pierces through the most severe stylistic devices. The allusions to Argentinean Concretism are mixed with quotations from Surrealist painting, while the colors range from the acidic to the caramel-coated, so that the incomplete shape of the face almost dissolves in the tense complexity of the grounds. Toward the back of the room, the only sculpture in the show was a small chair, like a child’s high chair, which would immediately have brought to mind Rietveld’s chair were it not for the stake placed in the center of the piece. The little chair, like the rest of the paintings in this show, bashfully withholds its potential violence. It is less a matter of broadcasting a threat than of issuing a secret warning: its use could prove fatal.

Guagnini belongs to a group of Argentinean artists engaged in what could be called a critical recovery of the country’s painting tradition. What we are dealing with (after the effort to erase artistic memory under the military dictatorship and the subsequent cultural anesthetization to which the country saw itself subjected) is the question of how to retrieve from the Concretism of the ’40s and the figurative art of the ’60s a form of social criticism. That is, to recover the forms of Argentina’s artistic past would imply the possibility of articulating a commentary on the current conditions of production. In this sense, there would be no precise separation in the work between esthetic, ironic, and caustic reflection and political commentary—each would be equally acute and disillusioned. Guagnini’s faces attempt to be the very physiognomy of a fragmented cultural territory undone by the collective action of a violent repression, forced oblivion, and the vicissitudes of that new form of imperialism known as globalization. What we have here is an impossible face, never identical to itself, an anonymous self-portrait which is just as lost before the emblematic as it is fascinated with the formless. And it is precisely this tension between emblem and formlessness that can be found at various levels—from the political to the esthetic, from the daily verification of the disintegration of Argentina’s social fabric to the programmatic search for an informalism structured according to the Modernist logic that is the backbone of Guagnini’s work.

To give a full sense of this work, it is necessary to highlight two more of its essential components. First, the laughter that it provokes in the viewer—a forced, tense laughter—is of the kind that produces a sense of discomfort rather than relief. This is the laughter that is found on the border of the formless or that occurs as a response to the threat of disintegration; the face, the sign of the identical, is always on the verge of dissolving into the anal banality of a series of unfinished arabesques. In the second place, it is worth noting the desire, implicit in these paintings, to establish a dialogue with contemporary painting outside of local tradition, or rather through it. There is nothing more South American, however, than this desire to form part of an imaginary tradition, this aspiration toward a broader horizon of reference points. Guagnini’s work, like that of his compatriots Pablo Siquier and Jorge Gumier Maier, unfolds in that tense, uncertain terrain that exists between the notions of center and periphery, between a politics of culture and an esthetics of resistance.

Carlos Basualdo

Translated from the Spanish by Vincent Martin.