New York

Feliciano Centurión, Tigres (Tigers), 1993, acrylic on blanket, 70 7/8 × 72 3/4".

Feliciano Centurión, Tigres (Tigers), 1993, acrylic on blanket, 70 7/8 × 72 3/4".

Feliciano Centurión

Que en nuestras almas no entre el terror (May Fear Not Enter Our Souls). This plea—the title of a piece by Feliciano Centurión—is as urgent today as it was in 1992 when the Paraguayan artist, diagnosed that year with HIV, delicately stitched the words in red cursive letters onto a scrap of fabric. “Abrigo” (Covering) is an exhibition at the Americas Society devoted to the extraordinary and intense textile-based works Centurión made in the last six years of his life. Curated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, this show marks the debut of Centurión’s work in the United States. Its appearance here, nearly a quarter century after the artist’s death from AIDS-related illness in 1996, feels timely in its resonance with current discussions around affect, caregiving, and mortality.

Centurión was born in 1962 in San Ignacio, a rural town near the Argentinean border, and grew up under General Alfredo Stroessner’s military dictatorship and amid the horror of Operation Condor, a US-backed South American terror campaign. The artist’s mother and grandmother were both adept seamstresses, and he was exposed early on to skills traditionally associated with female domesticity. As a young man, Centurión moved to Buenos Aires to attend art school, becoming a fixture of the bohemian scene around the Centro Cultural Rector Ricardo Rojas, a university gallery synonymous with the defiantly kitschy and homespun aesthetic that characterized the art produced by the city’s vanguard in the 1990s. Centurión began as a painter, working in a schematic figural mode somewhat reminiscent of Matisse. He soon started applying stylized, willfully naive animals and flowers in acrylic onto cheap, mass-produced blankets purchased in the city’s working-class garment district.

Typically used for packing or shipping, or as shelter for unhoused people, Centurión’s blankets suggest vulnerability and contingency. They are also intimately indexed to the body, offering—as the artist wrote in 1990—“warmth, shelter, protection. Affective, sensorial support.” In Tigres (Tigers), 1993, two predator cats, painted uranium green and surrounded by flowering branches and bromeliads, fight for visual attention against a patterned backdrop of blue and white striations, initiating a collapse of painting and readymade, of figure and ground. As art historian Ticio Escobar aptly notes in the show’s catalogue, “the blanket’s anodyne geometrical patterns possess the same visual rights as the painting made by the artist’s hand.”

Centurión’s most meaningful intervention wasn’t in the realm of painting however, but in the area of language, the materiality of which he stressed by embroidering epigrammatic phrases onto handkerchiefs, doilies, tablecloths, and other textile scraps salvaged from secondhand markets. From a sentimental cliché embroidered on the front of an apron (MI CASA ES MI TEMPLO [My house is my temple]) to a declaration of faith on a length of Paraguayan lace (TU PRESENCIA SE CONFIRMA EN NOSOTROS [Your presence is confirmed in us]) to a health update on printed fabric (mis globulos rojos aumentan [My red blood cell count increases] or a simple affirmation inscribed in the center of a flower (ESTOY VIVO [I am alive]), Centurión’s queer textuality yokes the readymade to the autobiographical, the conventional to the expressive, conveying the gravest matters of life and death through the decorative and often devalued idiom of feminized housework. In one of his last pieces, which he made while hospitalized, Centurión confronts his imminent departure in a single, courageous word, gracefully embroidered on a lace-trimmed cushion: REPOSA (Rest).