Almanac: a commentary on the Carlos Ampuero exhibition


“The world comes to represent it in my studio.”
Gustav Courbet

In 1855, the French artist Gustave Courbet presented “The Painter’s Workshop; true allegory, determinant of a seven-year phase of my artistic (and moral) life, an ambitious pictorial project which sought, on the one hand, to question the very nature of plastic activity (by questioning, incidentally, the role of painting in that extremely complex socio-political context), and on the other hand, positioning itself as a key agent for the Parisian cultural scene.

In the work – a sort of mise-en-abyme, a “painting within a painting” of enormous dimensions- it is possible to distinguish a series of elements from whose interaction a sophisticated visual manifesto is articulated: at the center of the scene the The artist portrays himself himself painting a landscape of his mountainous region, surrounded by a multitude of different characters, in an ambiguous and confused space, halfway between an interior and an exterior, between day and night, equidistant from high and low society.

It should be noted that several of the protagonists who appear on the right side of the scene belong to the “real world”, friends and acquaintances of the artist, exponents of the upper middle class and/or the worldly intelligentsia of the capital, while on their left one can appreciate some vernacular figures of urban street life (homeless, crazy, gypsies, street vendors, a street child who observes him attentively, dogs, various objects). His imminent departure from the then dominant academy of Fine Arts is represented by the nude model who gives up her static work and approaches modestly but relaxed to appreciate the landscape that the artist paints.

A century later, and with a completely different tone, the Argentine cartoonist Joaquín Lavado (Quino), in one of the cartoons of his famous cartoon Mafalda, presents us with the protagonist sitting on the sidewalk with her inseparable friend Felipe, to whom he suddenly asks serenely: “Have you thought about what would happen if distance didn’t exist, Felipe?”, at which point the boy, finding himself seized by a sudden “shock of the imagination” and carried away by the avalanche of concentrated information, collapsed. For the child (a voracious consumer of curiosity and popular culture), in the eventual absence of distance, his entire known world suddenly condenses, converges and suddenly collapses into one point: his mental space.

The artist Carlos Ampuero.

Both the Courbet painting and the Quino cartoon immediately came to mind as soon as I first saw Carlos Ampuero’s recent paintings.

Collected in this exhibition entitled “Pendulum”, it is a generous group of images – enigmatic and subtly disconcerting – in which absorbed and silent characters coexist, beings and situations belonging to an indeterminate era, which together compose a narrative sequence as if allegorical how paradoxical it is. Through a summation layer after layer of characters and places, the artist presents us with disturbing human groups, organizations, congregations, secret societies – Freemasonry, occultism, spiritualism – in the midst of strange circumstances – rituals, ceremonies? I don’t know, but judging by the staging and their body languages, they suggest topics of the utmost importance: these subjects, most of whom are adult, Caucasian men, seem to be basically -just like us- in front of them – solve puzzles.

In a certain sense aligned with the same concerns of Felipito and Courbet, Ampuero also seems to be fascinated by the possible critical scope of painting, as he painstakingly elaborates the symbolic assimilation of culture in the process of globalization. It could even be said that the images of him operate as a cold, serious and solemn facade, with the “face of Buster Keaton”, behind which a tangled, encrypted and turbulent emotional universe is sheltered, punctuated by all sorts of psychoanalytic winks.

Born in Santiago in 1965 into a family belonging to our enlightened bourgeoisie and grandson of a mythical socialist leader, Carlos Ampuero had to emigrate early from Chile with his family, spending most of his childhood and youth in London. There he found himself, as a child, with a reality radically different from that of his native Chile: another climate, other customs, another idiosyncrasy, another social and ethnic context, since then initiating a process of simultaneous identity restoration and recognition of society sometimes indecipherable, stratified and hierarchical.

Raúl Ampuero.

It was in the United Kingdom, therefore, that he initially studied architecture, only to be definitively fascinated by painting in the early 1980s. It was in those prestigious UK museums and galleries that at an early age he also became acquainted with the work of local heroes such as Lucien Freud, David Hockney and Richard Hamilton, and where he shared his first exhibitions with emerging British artists of that time, such as Cecily Brown, Peter Doig or Jenny Saville.

Back in Chile in the mid-1990s, Carlos Ampuero began to integrate a current of research that at this point we could call “conceptual realism”: a highly reflective pictorial aspect, which maintains a close relationship with the image of photographic origin and in which currently it would be possible to consider Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans, Mark Tansey, Rudolf Stingel, Neo Rauch, Wilhelm Sasnal or Matthew Benedict, as some of his most important international references.

Carlos Ampuero’s recent work seeks to establish a dialogue with his surroundings, and despite his eminently introspective airs, these new group and individual portraits, landscapes and still lifes constitute complex visual plays through which an attempt to casually reconstruct the recent history of humanity in the West (daily life, world of work, scientific progress, socio-political conflicts), i.e. a large Theatrum mundi in which large and small events are admitted, placed and superimposed, distant subjects such as geography, government, demography, agriculture, media, transportation, health and medicine, song, recipe, ephemeris, religion, technology, love life, zoology, warfare, or sport.

In these works there is an atmosphere full of melancholy and nostalgia, uncertainty, innocence, negotiation with one’s childhood, romantic meditations, but also solitude and death; a prison environment, sweetly Kafkaesque, which, although populated by people, inevitably ends up evoking isolation and incommunicability.

Heirs of the timeless European encyclopaedic tradition (only in this case we are talking about the archiving of apparently corrupt, damaged, stained or diseased data and files, cracks and glitches in historical logic), these paintings flirt with the compiling will of the great almanacs in all the world and to a certain extent also with various mass-market publications (such as the never-appreciated Reader’s Digest Selections, so popular in the Spanish-speaking world during the decades of the Cold War); He even seems to suddenly feel a spirit similar to the illustrations made at the beginning of the twentieth century by Mario Silva Ossa, Coré, for the erudite audience of children and young people in the magazine El Peneca, or to the epic charge of Prince Valiente by Hal Foster.

Through a remarkable and sometimes dissonant orchestration of light and shadow, of aberrations and anomalies of textures and colors (which oscillate between achromatopsia and toxic/radioactive excesses), Carlos Ampuero proposes to immerse us in these scenes in which they seem to have displaced the conventional notions of space / time: a “dystopian past” in which episodes full of profound dramatic tension follow one another. The artist is leading us, through atmospheres of intense optical and psychological tingling (as when we experience the numbness of our extremities), towards an anachronistic dimension: the consistency, eloquence and power of his pictorial language seem to be determined by the constructive step step by step, grain by grain, particle by particle, of their surfaces, as if they were great pyramids flat nebulae; a sort of collapse in reverse, or if you like, a reconstruction of the ruins.

In a Freudian key, Ampuero replaces the imaginary of dreams with abstruse photographs found in old books, among which the recurrence of the so-called “surgical theatres” or “anatomical amphitheatres” is no coincidence, eloquent metaphors of the struggle between scientific realism and / s of critical realism (between modesty and spectacularity), of stratified painting, and the emptying of any recognizable meaning to end up suspended in the perpetual fluctuation of a semantic limbo.

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  • The content expressed in this opinion column is the sole responsibility of its author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial line or position of The meter.



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