Buenos Aires

Marcelo Pombo

Viewing Marcelo Pombo’s dazzling enamel paintings—obsessively rendered to the point of madness, with hallucinating dots on dots reproducing themselves like an uncontrollable epidemic over large areas of whirling paint—is, to say the least, a mesmerizing experience. Geometries emerge amid such images as these: beautiful wavering trees surrounded by water; alien figures holding musical instruments and inhabiting a nest; a roof made out of twigs, branches, and jewelry hovering over a garish rectangular form; a conglomeration of beads, feather dusters, weeds, and framed abstract paintings soaring in midair; and an embellished head among exotic ornaments. Everything floats or levitates, and nothing appears solid or weighed down by gravity. Pombo’s images pull the viewer in like a magnet, and the deliriously polymorphous quality of his pictures stands in exquisite contrast to the didactic works so often seen in galleries these days.

Pombo is probably the emblematic Argentine artist of the ’90s, a time when the local art scene was torn between a hard-line conceptual wing and a supposedly buoyant, carefree faction represented by the Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas under the curatorship of Jorge Gumier Maier, the place where Pombo’s production, and that of many others, emerged. The work exhibited there was quickly labeled by critics as “light art,” in reference to its unconcern with local political themes and its bright and breezy attitude. But there was more than met the eye. In Pombo’s case, his years as an art teacher at a school for the mentally handicapped in the poverty-stricken outskirts of Buenos Aires would prove crucial. Pombo found truth in beauty and in sticking to what he knew and had at hand. He became attached to the notion of thrift, the idea of saving rather than discarding. In a Cinderella operation, he turned a brick into a sparkling gift, covered in glitter, enamel dots, and beads; he created a stained-glass window out of plastic bags; he gave detergent and juice boxes the glamour of jewels, patiently applying to them stickers, glitter, and enamel as if they were Fabergé eggs. This decorative addiction resulted in what the artist called “a fake Conceptualism.” For what usually began with an experimental gesture using readymades ended up transforming them into therapeutic arts-and-crafts objects.

Since 2000, Pombo has concentrated almost exclusively on enamel paintings in which dazzling skies, low horizons, strange vegetal formations, and geometric apparitions create a fluid world that recalls Hindu cosmologies, the French Baroque, ukiyo-e paintings, Native American designs, Surrealism, and de Stijl—a vast array of art history centrifuged until almost unrecognizable. Now, after nearly ten years’ absence from the gallery scene in Buenos Aires, Pombo’s return seems miraculously timely. As if coming full circle, his new enamels call to mind his early pop objects. In their hypervisuality, eccentricity, and imaginative overflow, the images evoke stereotypes of Latin American kitsch while at the same time evading all categories. In the early ’90s there was a boldness to Pombo’s work, a sense of urgency that set him apart from his colleagues. At the time he seemed unique and, more than ten years later, he still does.

Maria Gainza