Luis González Palma

Walter Benjamin’s phrase “quiet exposure,” which he aptly used as a description of the peculiar silence that permeates nineteenth-century daguerreotype portraits, comes to mind when confronted with the sober faces pictured in the recent work of Guatemalan photographer Luis González Palma. Purposefully choosing to eschew artificial light and high-tech equipment, González Palma works with his sitters one-on-one, capturing expressions that are difficult to read but suggest contemplation, confrontation, melancholy, and sorrow.

In the recent exhibit, his signature sepia-toned, black-and-white photographs were placed alongside swatches of highly textured fabric and flatly painted geometric shapes in intricate mixed-media assemblages. Influenced by baroque altarpieces, González Palma often draws on traditional Christian iconography such as wings, skulls, and halos to address universal themes of suffering, longing, and transformation. At the same time, his work’s graphic combination of photographs with words or short phrases feels quite contemporary, as does the work’s implied political critique. Featuring almost exclusively Mayan models, González Palma’s photographs obliquely cast light on the social conditions of his country’s indigenous Indians, a population that continues to suffer the political and economic consequences of European colonization.

The new work retains both a romantic aesthetic and a political edge, but here the pieces often engage viewers directly. For example, El Silencio Flota en el Silencio (Silence floats in silence), 1998, consists of an unlikely assortment of photographs—a soccer team’s portrait, the face of a poverty-stricken boy, a decaying soccer ball, and a skull—arranged in a grid pattern and submitted like criminal evidence to be interpreted according to the imagination of each viewer. Héroe, 1998, recalls childhood with its playful presentation of a boy costumed as four popular cartoon heroes, including Spiderman and Captain America. Yet the presence of a chalice-shaped trophy, the youth’s deadpan expression, and the fact that he is literally wearing different masks also suggest the melancholic theme of transformation and loss that inevitably accompanies the process of maturation.

For the first time, González Palma’s work has become reflexive, particularly with the critique of representation offered by the site-specific installation La Mirada Critica (The critical gaze), 1999. Problematizing both the role of the artist and that of the collector, ten elaborately framed copies of a photograph of a Mayan girl hang on the walls of a staged nineteenth-century bourgeois interior. With a single richly painted gold wall, a sumptuous red carpet, and assorted chandeliers (including one artfully placed on the gallery floor), this mise-en-scène is meant to evoke a collector’s home. Across the girl’s brow a tape measure serves as a headband. This incongruous detail communicates the notion of the “measuring” eye of both artist and collector, one that too often ignores the humanity of the individual pictured in the work of art in the interest of self-serving aesthetic choices. González Palma has faced himself off, as it were, in this self-searching installation; it will be interesting to see in which direction his work goes in the coming years.

Patricia Briggs