New York

Julio Galán

Annina Nosei Gallery

Julio Galán’s paintings, no matter what their subject matter, inevitably conjure female medieval mystics—their copious tears, their silence, and their mouths, tasting of honey at the moment of union with the longed-for body of Christ. Although his work has often been compared to that of Frida Kahlo, with which it does share compelling affinities, Kahlo’s work is essentially secular, rooted in the agony of daily existence. Galan’s, however, is driven by a profound and transfiguring sensual disturbance.

The dark undercurrent in Galán’s work—in the past he has specifically referenced the diabolical—heightens the intensity of his mystical effusions. As Georges Bataille wrote of the agonies of love, “If love is sometimes pink, pink goes well with black, without which it . . . would surely lose that quality which affects the senses.” While the dark borders of these paintings evoke the black-rimmed notices used to announce a death, the images they contain can be readas the flesh of Western painting, at once ripe for reinvention and hopelessly damaged. The lush ground of gold, purple, and blue pansies in Vuelveme a querer (Make me love again; all works 1996), which resembles skin blossoming with bruises, is far more carnal than the ghostly hand—so pale as to suggest illness—that floats in the center of the image. Despite the hand’s delicacy, the image as a whole is suffused with sensuality and barely concealed violence.

In Avvertenza baleno (Warn lightning), a piece of red drapery that seems to have been torn from a representation of a saint or an apostle levitates in eerie solitude before the mute rocks and frozen spray of a Magrittean seascape. This enigmatic image may seem at first glance a critique of Christian spirituality, but the elements of the picture remain stubbornly ambiguous. The same is true of Pierdete en mi, no sentiras (Lose yourself in me, you will not feel), in which a three-legged, Christlike child pisses or farts a stream of glitter into a shadowy, amber-tinted landscape below, as he floats in a mandorla of scraps torn from what was perhaps a painting of a Madonna.

Although the color in many of these works is less saturated than in previous ones, the paintings continue to be strangely lit. The women, reminiscent of Breton’s Nadja, who often people these works—and double for the artist—have an unnatural glow. The moon in Candiles y molestias (Chandeliers and disturbances) is a lusterless wafer, while a much stronger light is generated by the spectral event in the foreground: an icy waterfall pouring out of the chest of a dreaming boy—who is more chalk-pale than the moon, though his cheeks and lips are flushed—into a river that rushes below.

Identity, as it is invoked in Galán’s work, remains subtly multilayered. The young girl depicted in Sempre insieme (Always together), her face and luxuriant hair hovering in a field of gray paint, is a distant, mournful echo of the woman in Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s 1935 photograph Portrait of the Eternal, whose brilliantly lit profile and gleaming tresses—which she combs while looking in a mirror—animate the darkness that dominates the composition. Although the girl in Galán’s painting gazes out toward the viewer, she seems to question her own image as if she, too, is looking in a mirror, to question the tuft of blonde doll’s hair that is pinned to her head and the flesh-colored, heart-shaped pincushion that adorns her chest—or at least where her chest might be if it weren’t enveloped in a gray fog. She is divided and doubtful, while the woman in Bravo’s photograph suggests a seamless continuity between herself and her image. As Octavio Paz said of Portrait of the Eternal, “Perhaps that is what ’the eternal’ is: looking at oneself, being looked at, looking. The spark . . . the brightness, the light in the eyes that ask, desire, contemplate, understand.” For Galan, however, it seems eternity is not to be found in such flashes of lucidity, but rather in a perpetual, often delirious loss of equilibrium.

Kristin M. Jones