London

Ana Maria Pacheco

National Portrait Gallery

Every now and then, great institutions wake up in a cold sweat and—a bit like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa—discover they have metamorphosed into something resembling a dinosaur. The National Gallery awakens intermittently and tries various means of remedying the situation: appointing a trustee who is an artist (albeit a well-established one), for example, or inviting artists to select shows drawn from the permanent collection. Since 1990, another approach has been to offer artists a studio in the gallery for a two-year period, with the idea that they might make work inspired in some way by the collection and then exhibit it. Of course, this could be seen as a somewhat conservative scheme, a nostalgic pining for the last century, when whole days were set aside for artists to work in the gallery, sitting at the feet of the old masters. Thus far the results have not been happy. The first three “associate artists” (Paula Rego, Ken Kiff, and Peter Blake) seemed cowed by the collection, producing winsome pastiches.

The first non-European associate artist (born in Brazil in 1943, she moved to Britain in 1973), as well as the program’s first sculptor (she also paints and etches, but the vast superiority of her three-dimensional over her two-dimensional work suggests that sculpture gives her more room to maneuver, particularly when asked to respond to a great collection of paintings), Ana Maria Pacheco put on a show that is encouraging in its ambitiousness. The exhibition includes paintings, bronze sculptures, and oil-on-paper studies, but the centerpiece is an installation of nineteen figures, slightly larger than life-size, carved from wood and then painted, many of them furnished with porcelain teeth. Entitled Dark Night of the Soul, 1999, after a quotation from the Spanish mystic San Juan de la Cruz, the dramatically spotlighted work comprises a group of figures surrounding a naked, kneeling man who is tied to a post. The man’s head is completely hooded and his body pierced by several arrows—an obvious reference to Saint Sebastian, though the catalogue also cites Robert Mapplethorpe’s Hooded Man, 1980, and Carlos Humberto’s Death Squad Victim, 1988, as sources. In Pacheco’s assembly, some of the onlookers seem indifferent, chatting idly, while others look shocked. The viewer walks around and among the group, thus becoming implicated in the scene.

Pacheco is sometimes overly literal—arrows are a bit archaic, after all—and some of the face painting tends toward schmaltz, but the installation is still impressive—and oddly creepy. There’s a dramatically necessary distinction between the way in which she carves the crowd and how she carves the victim. One is well aware of the massive log of wood from which each spectator must have been chiseled, but there is a fragility to them. They seem pneumatic, as if the slightest pinprick would prove fatal. Some figures appear to have delicate, unmarred skin, again hinting at something that’s easily ruptured. The dead man is volumetrically smaller than the other figures, but he is also more recognizably human, with a powerfully articulated anatomy. Humanity for Pacheco is a diminished and tragic form of something else, the result of a bubble being pricked.

James Hall