Cuevas, the essential one
By: Aldo Fulcanelli
Latin American art has been greatly influenced by Jose Luis Cuevas and his ability to confront the cultural events of Mexico without fear. From the 50s on, along with other artists, we saw his promoting a new way of conceiving the plastic arts, starting no longer from the basis of Folkloric idealization of a country that was visually exposed as a souvenir through “muralism” (untouchable before Cuevas). He chose as protagonists of that new proposal those people, in the words of Cuevas himself, “to whom the revolution did not do justice”. From the asylum of “La Castañeda”, the young Cuevas portrays the insane people whom the domesticated society back then refused to look at. He goes to the challenging cantinas where the nightlife lights up the morbid beings, those who grow in the silence like mold, and find kindness uprooted in the dark regions where the middle class does not care to look, there in the city catacombs where plans are stifled, but also, where the generosity of those ones flourishes; those whom the establishment-oriented society calls freaks. This unique artist challenges Siqueiros, Rivera and Orozco, and demands not only generational but also creative relief, because the old revolutionary nationalism, a detonating factor in “muralism”, has become a providential way of imposing reality from an aesthetic point of view. This, although proven to be masterful, is already insufficient to record the reality of a society past the boiling point.
While the ladies of the “Decency League” threaten with cilices and excommunications of children in the Mexico of the 50s, the heralds of the press of the regime with countless tentacles are responsible for extolling the achievements of the powerful Germanism, the Industrialization of a Mexico that contrasts in postrevolutionary rhetoric with the belts of misery that grow outside the big city, and that Luis Buñuel brilliantly portrays in the film “Los Olvidados” (The Forgotten). This invaluable visual document courageously shows reality without background music, scenarios mounted by the way, nor the heroes or heroines resembling opera buffos, with the perverse intention of moralizing the public. Together with the surrealism of Buonuelian Mexico that despises the visual reality imposed by the system, to exhalt the supernatural as an aesthetic that tells of injustice, the “generation of rupture” of which Cuevas is part, then a budding artist who begins to use the pencil as a .38 caliber with which he shoots down the old ways of doing art in Mexico, saying goodbye forever to the exacerbated self-indulgent folklore. He is determined to make use of the skulls, the indigenous features that are applauded by the collectors of New York, the Indian Tehuana costumes, hats, magueys and mezcal with which the muralists have made (artistically-speaking) the national “creative universe” drunk, to continue selling a picturesque and visually exhausted image of the country.
Cuevas appears in ‘67 from the top of a building, to show an ephemeral mural in the heart of the city, newly baptized (by him) as the “Zona Rosa”, a nickname invented by the provocative artist to make fun of middle-class snobbery, and that far from causing discomfort, was adopted (contradictorily) and fully assimilated by the inhabitants of that region of Mexico City. Dressed as a Dandy, Cuevas appears in the pictures along with a beautiful girl who promotes his image, looking down from the heights to the public fans in the “Zona Rosa” who watch him with disbelief. They ignored the fact that the following year the country would be stained red, while Cuevas would change the look and radicalize his methods of artistic creation, he knew in his interior that the city was not divided into zones but regions; regions of the air that undress its inhabitants, regions where those same inhabitants with their wrinkled faces embrace to diminish the shivering caused by the implacable urban cold, in nocturnal regions where people hide to sing about their deformities, to grant a caress, or to sing out from behind the scars under the cover of alcohol. Since then, perhaps much earlier, we have a Cuevas that captures the images moving away from the traditional figurative style, distorting the human figure to place it alongside the feeling from which it originates. Cuevas is the demigod that gives birth from his own voluntary selection, A nature that although clear, is more alive than the unknown cobwebs, the pens of frozen rents where echoes of the ghosts are still heard at midnight, and old age is burdened as a hard bundle, along with Alzheimer or Nightmares, as well as the countless defects of a society that wanted to be politically correct to the extreme, and from Don Porfirio’s day down to our day, hid the flesh under the tight corsets, condemning eroticism to the contempt of brothels, and deformity to the underground circuses, the vitally creative universe of Jose Luis Cuevas.
From its beginnings, the critics who called the artist a “monkey painter” with delusions of greatness, accused him of promoting the deformation of art, but Cuevas responded in the way of the geniuses, shooting up the establishment with his 38-pencil, Inaugurating a precious period of the arts from Mexico to the world. It is impossible to resist a trace of Cuevas that shows him off as a masterful artist from the first glance, the precise and emotional lines that do not stop and that show the crooked lines of man, his thoughts taking the form of obscene animals, contorting dancers appearing from center stage in the revelry, while the multitude of fans sit in rickety chairs clapping, echoing a sign language to the explosiveness, while the laughter leaves the toothless mouths of the “unnamed” ones, that the demiurge Cuevas welcomes in Its sanatoriums of passage. Those are the provocative paintings where ink runs baroque-style; the surprising etchings where Rembrandt, Goya, or Picasso make a sneak appearance, the disturbing engravings where Cuevas radiographed all the ailments of a society tired of assimilating oppression, in a dignified manner. Without fear, Cuevas walks the streets, as in an act of psycho-magic, venting his intimate regions, showing the wounds as in a theater of panic, to heal his ailments, but also to help others, who dare to look at that seventy-something-year-old prince of the “new wave” drawing from his bed, while the paparazzi capture the images, along with a cohort of snobs, those whom Cuevas mocked from the “Zona Rosa”, looking for an autograph, without understanding an iota of his art. But Cuevas knows this and he knew that he would be expelled from the Parnassian universe of traditional Mexican Orthodox art, only to subjugate universal art in the manner of Bacon or Dubuffet. Cuevas becomes the exposed wound of a regime that outlawed the reality, to seek to extol subjection under the Mexican pink color. The artist understands that more than a person, he is a symptom, the result of domination or arbitrariness, the undermining of emotions in pursuit of nausea. Cuevas’ work in the end is the artist’s response to the hard paternal yoke, but also to the stiffened yoke of “muralism” composed by a trio of so-called communist colonels.
Cuevas portrays himself, again and again to satiety, knowing that reality is chained phenomenologically to change, to transition; that never will one stroke be equal to another nor any work of his art be the same, nor will it be seen in the same way from the different angles of an unbearably three-dimensional reality to which the artist would renounce.
He also drew Picasso dancing; he drew the Borgia, the intolerance or crime galloping as a four-legged monster, ugliness and again dementia sharing space in a 4 x 4 garret, next to broken glass, and the remains of the skin that would give rise to a new monster in the XXI Century. As if it were a brutal prophecy, the “Zona Rosa” lost the glamor of that profane declaration of Cuevas, the poor wild artist, the teacher, and his recently-changed image under the restrictions that come with illness. And there are no more ephemeral murals plying the contaminated regions of the big city. Cuevas has only left us in appearance. We still have his sketches of the soul to which he aspired, always risking “sound judgment”. We also are left with traces of his violent, overwhelming look, and the memory of those fingers that caressed with wild love things considered grotesque. Those he used to welcome and to embrace forever the uprooted; those freaks that society continues to deny.