Buenos Aires

Santiago Villanueva, Panel 1, 2012, ink-jet prints on illustration paper, 27 1/2 x 19 5/8".

Santiago Villanueva, Panel 1, 2012, ink-jet prints on illustration paper, 27 1/2 x 19 5/8".

Santiago Villanueva

Abate Galería

Santiago Villanueva, Panel 1, 2012, ink-jet prints on illustration paper, 27 1/2 x 19 5/8".

The question is recurrent in art: how to escape history’s compulsion to categorize and pigeonhole? The answer given by Santiago Villanueva differs in each of his shows, thereby adding new layers of meaning. The artist seems to think art history is a sort of conspiracy, a collective attempt to falsely simplify experience into manageable parcels. Two years ago, at nineteen—an absurdly young age to be pondering the manipulations of history—Villanueva created a series of prints that read as a world art history running parallel to the official one but included only very minor works by major European painters found in Argentinean museums: his own provincial story of the evolution of painting.

The title of Villanueva’s latest exhibition, “1931,” alludes to the year a literary magazine was published in Azul, the town south of Buenos Aires where the artist was born in 1990. The magazine was a rare species flowering in an arid cultural atmosphere; among its contents was a utopian manifesto by the Argentinean poet and painter Xul Solar that called for Latin America to be united by means of a new language that he called Neocriollo. This text, copied out on the gallery wall, faced a sort of painted anachronism, something like the type of romanticized daub one would associate with 1890s history painting but made forty years later. Executed in swirling brushstrokes around 1930 by an obscure painter from Azul, it depicted a raid by Indians on a settlement. The coexistence of experimental literature with a retrograde kind of painting still clinging to nineteenth-century pictorial strategies epitomizes the perplexing encounters Villanueva is fond of setting up. The same idea hovers over a series of photographs, each titled Panel, 2012, and showing several reproductions of paintings—some by household local names, others completely obscure—affixed to a board. Some are grouped according to simple themes such as “self-portrait” or “landscape”; others seem to be arbitrary aggregations based on intuition or free association. But like Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, 1924–29, which orders history through images on screens, the panels become private constellations, celestial maps used by Villanueva for his own speculative journeys through Argentina’s split artistic heritage.

Two years ago, Villanueva used the money he got for a prize to buy a small landscape by Anselmo Piccoli, an artist little known outside Argentina with a bent toward abstraction. Then he donated the painting to a small museum, Museo López Claro de Azul, contributing in his own fashion to the formation of a permanent institutional collection. This was also his way of pointing out the arbitrary fashion in which art histories are constructed. Also two years ago, at his studio in Buenos Aires, he mounted “Pombo: a guerrilla man,” a speculative exhibition that identified Marcelo Pombo—an Argentinean artist who emerged in the late ’80s and who has been hastily consigned to the category of “light art” due to his work’s apparent unconcern with local political themes and its breezy attitude—with a political activist of the same name who was involved in the Cuban revolution. Then as now, Villanueva seems to suggest there is no one art history independent of the several ways of interpreting it, which depend upon the specific interests of the historian—or artist-as-historian. He declares his freedom from art history by showing it to be a fiction.

María Gainza