Federico Guzmán

Galería Tomas March

WITH SO MANY WORKS taking the body as the basis of their aesthetic discourse, it comes as a relief to find an artist who reflects on other living materials. Federico Guzmán deals with plants as organic beings on which humankind has left a considerable imprint. In doing so, he works to dismantle aspects of the Western idea of the Americas, constructed in part through European botanical expeditions of past centuries. The graphic representation of American flora was born of an error: the idea of exploration, that is, the discovery of “new” species (ones unknown to Europe).

Guzmán attempts to represent plants in all their diverse aspects, using large-format watercolors, canvases, photographs, and drawings. Among them is Yagé, 2000 depicting the climbing liana that is recognized in Amazonia as a medicine and plant of knowledge. Guzmán has painted it from a photograph taken in Colombia. The work's full title lists more than eighty names, which is telling: What enormous importance this plant—considered sacred—has had. In Achiote, 2000, Guzmán takes a botanical illustration from the eighteenth century and distorts it by superimposing onto it the pigment of the plant itself, which certain indigenous communities used to paint their skin during celebrations. By smearing the image fabricated in the books, Guzmán tries to return to the image of the plant its actual properties.

The most extensive series in this exhibition, composed of seven pieces, is called “Yerbas dulces” (Sweet herbs), 2001. Centered on canvases with white backgrounds are bare, schematic drawings of plants; along with these, in juxtaposed fragments, Guzmán has included news items from the Colombian press, as if he wanted nature and culture (be it a violent and exploitative one) to appear on a parallel plane. For example, texts about proceedings by a district attorney's office to investigate 190 notaries coexist with the demands of indigenous communities: “The p'was consider the exploitation of petroleum to be detrimental to their culture,” reads one of the reports from the newspaper. Drug crops also exist and are discussed, for instance the use of cocaine for medical purposes. Here resides another truth about plants and their functions: the richness that sprouts forth from them, their curative properties.

Photography, along with painting and drawing, helps the artist on his way through a world that refutes the order and harmony of logic-centered mentalities. In one image may be detected amid some leafy vegetation a man whose face we do not see; his crippled hands seem to graze some coca leaves. In another photograph somebody has arranged clusters of shrubs and herbs on a page of a newspaper. To whom do these belong? What use can they be given? We do not know. We are too accustomed to immediate responses in a world that refuses to hear the vital and uncontrollable murmur of nature. This is what Guzmán appears to propose as the object of artistic knowledge and reflection.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Michèle Faguet.