'An Anthropological Minimalism'
ANA MERCEDES HOYOS: AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL MINIMALISM
By Peter Frank
Ana Mercedes Hoyos figures as one of the great humanists in contemporary Latin-American art – an art that (rightly or wrongly) is considered practically synonymous with humanism. Hoyos' embrace of her species, however, distances itself from the fantasy, allegory, and pathos that drives so much other Central and South American figuration – and in that distance, her art finds its distinctive shape and its power. Especially now that Hoyos has reverted to the kind of restrained, pared-down imagery with which she first made her mark, her art reclaims its spare eloquence, an eloquence made sanguine by her keen eye and sure, supple line.
If Hoyos emerged in the wake of Pop art as a minimalistic kind of representational painter (notably with mute, striking depictions of windows), she ensured her popularity subsequently with lush, voluble figures and still lifes, genial and reassuring even as their colors and forms tussled with one another. The visual struggle in these images seemed charming and affectionate, brimming with the world's verdancy. But Hoyos' heart is a little tougher than that, if no harder, and she seems that much more in her element with her newer, sharper, and more reportorial paintings, drawings and prints. There is less "hand" in this work, but yet more eye, and arguably more mind.
These most recent images realize much of their clarity and precision from their source, an ongoing sequence of photographs Hoyos has been maintaining, and which she wisely regards as artworks in themselves. Given the significant formal variations and reconsiderations Hoyos realizes in translating what her eye (or camera) sees into what her hand (or brush or pen) renders, her photos exhibit logically and in dynamic contrast with her other work. Together they seem less to obviate one another than to describe the various optical and spiritual “angles” Hoyos takes on her rich subject matter.
As we know well in the United States, the slave trade of the colonial era brought large numbers of Africans to American shores. The evolution of African subcultures on this side of the world took myriad different forms, engaging on manifold levels with the dominant civilization(s). The community of San
Basilio de Palenque, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, was established in the 16th century in the wake of a slave revolt in and around the nearby port of Cartagena, one of several such communities but the only one still surviving. As a result, San Basilio de Palenque, still an entirely Afri-Latin community, is the site of an indigenous culture, syncretic in origin but with remarkably distinctive characteristics, including a patois as reflective of Kikongo (a language spoken in the Congo and Angola) and of Portuguese as of Spanish and – of particular interest to Hoyos – a strongly matriarchal social structure. Also piquing Hoyos’ interest is the possibility that Palenque was the first “post-colonial” territory in the Americas; it is likely the oldest remaining.
Hoyos does not approach the Palenqueros as exotics, but as fellow Colombians – and as fellow human beings. In their civic and commercial activities, she finds and echoes the rhythms of social activity and the “local color” of dress and decoration, which she translates and simplifies into near-abstractions of line and hue. Even her bronze sculptures simplify the human form without losing any of its signal detail. In the visages of the Palanqueros Hoyos finds at once the intricacies of individual personality and the varietal complexities of physical appearance – a physical appearance that draws from profoundly different blood lines and evinces the elaborate interplay of vastly disparate bloodlines. If the Americas comprise a vast laboratory of miscegenation , San Basilio de Palenque is one of its most notable test tubes, and Hoyos studies it with an anthropologist’s keenness – but an artist’s eye.
Hoyos’ photographs zero in on visual details: the relationship of nose to mouth, belt to dress, stance to object. These are the opposite of snapshots: they contain not moments but monuments, monuments of and to people, the lives they lead and the life they share. Similarly, in its stylized reduction, each head, each face Hoyos paints or draws or even sculpts bespeaks a people – in spirit as well as appearance – at least as much as it does a person. In their clean descriptions (their repetition betraying her Pop-art origins), each costume, each line of figures Hoyos composes transcends literal reportage and leads us into a meditation on custom and ritual. Indeed, her magnified, close-in considerations of heads and backs, clothes and gestures, and even tools and devices force us to see the Palenqueros as physically and energetically nearby us, and by inference close to us in their humanity – or, rather, we close to them in ours.
Hoyos thus exploits the visual proximity her camera provides and her hand echoes to collapse the distance between the Palenqueros and the rest of the world. It is a trick she learned from Pop, but in fact upends: Pop art itself brought us closer to objects and images and thus forced us back to examine our role(s) as consumers of such things, while Hoyos brings us closer to objects and images to reify their own integrity. These objects and images, after all, are not mass-produced for contemporary consumption, but have evolved out of the exigencies of past events and their latter-day manifestations. Hoyos celebrates not universal banality but glorious particularity, provoking our empathy with humans whose peculiar lineage does not prevent them from breathing and bleeding and eating and working just as we do.
This is a neo-Pop approach not to things but to circumstances, circumstances that are at once human and historical in scale. Ana Mercedes Hoyos has found in San Basilio de Palenque and its people at once a nexus of stunning distinction and a microcosm of the world. The Palenqueros are remarkable, but they are Hoyos’ fellow Colombians, fellow Latins, fellow humans, and she marvels no more at their uniqueness than she does at their resemblance to the rest of us.
Los Angeles-New Orleans