Wednesday, July 10, 2013

'Gazing at the World while Hanging from the Sky: A Retrospective' - Ofelia Rodriguez, Consulate General of Colombia, 9th July 2013

Gazing at the World while hanging from the Sky, mixed media, 2009
It's a strange feeling getting an invitation to the Consulate General of Colombia.  I usually experience my art tucked away in obscurity, hidden in decaying industrial warehouses, or emerging from East London garages.  Lately though, with a weekend spent at the Freud Museum and this night at the Colombian Consulate I feel like I've taken a step towards the art establishment.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though it's an odd feeling to having a the constant presence of a nation state looming over the work, though at least here it appears to be a benevolent one.

Then again there's nothing wrong with a nation being proud of one of its children. Ofelia Rodriguez is a renowned contemporary Colombian artist.  Graduating with a BA from the University of the Andes in Bogotá, she became the first Colombian artist to be accepted to Yale University, where she graduated with an MA.  Her career then took her to Paris, with a 1980 exhibition in the Grand Palais and a 1981 exhibition at Centre Culturel Jacques Prévert.  She's since exhibited all over the world, receiving an award at Colombia's most prestigious art prizes - the Salon Nacional de Artistas and featuring in numerous art publications as a must-see artist.  This exhibition, Gazing at the World while Hanging from the Sky, is a retrospective - looking back at her long and successful career.

Tongue Sending From The Sky Her Love to the Turtle With All Her Happiness, mixed media on paper, 2010
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the gallery is an abundance of colour.  The Colombian embassy is tastefully decorated in officious, elegant looking white, meaning Rodriguez' colour saturated paintings practically leap off the wall at you.  Huge chunks of deep, almost fluorescent colour beam life into the room.  It was a glorious sunny evening, and the rays shining through the window illuminated the paintings beautifully.  There was one painting in particular - The Animal Returning to its Past, that's dominated by an enormous expanse of scarlet.  When people were looking closely at it, the colour was so intense that it  reflecting onto their faces, highlighting them with a soft, reddish glow as if they were looking into a sunset.  

The composition of the paintings is infused a similar energy - this is a collection of bold lines made up of confident, almost instinctive brush-strokes that create striking contrasts between colour blocks.  In Tongue Sending to the Sky Her Love to the Turtle... two huge expanses of blue and yellow are divided by a strong black line which looks as if it was created in one sweeping, passionate movement across the canvas.  You can see similar effects in Dead Landscape and Pink Magic Landscape, both of which hum with spontaneity and life.  Granted, perhaps this is the illusion of unbridled, energy - for all I know Rodriguez takes great efforts to simulate it.  But either way it doesn't matter, if it is an illusion, it's a perfect one.

Dead Landscapes in Mid-air, mixed media on canvas, 1989
Overlying this energetic work are numerous entertaining motifs that run across most of the work on display.  Prime among them is the animal kingdom.  There's a wry magical realist humour here: a composition run through with a totally incongruous taxidermied turtle head; a plastic hippopotamus glued to the centre of a canvas; the horns of an ox mounted on top of one her boxes; crab claws bordering tiny mystical lovers; toy alligators snarling from inside intricate yellow boxes.  The biological fixation continues in the repeated use of parts of the human body: tongues, eyes, hands, mouths all make repeated appearances, rendered in styles that vary from clinical accuracy to cartoonish doodles.

The one organ that crops up time and time again is the heart.  Many of these paintings look like abstractions of the anatomy of the heart; especially the orange and pink Dead Landscape in Mid-air, or Flying Landscape With Remembrances Hung from a Cloud, both of which feature arterial pipes connecting the elements of the pieces together.  Attacking an Injured Heart gets straight to the meat of the matter, with an anatomical heart dead centre, bordered by pop art guns.  

Magic Box with Banker pondering whether to turn Cowboy, 2006
It's an appropriate focus, this exhibition appeals to the heart far more than to the head.  The primary reason for this is that the disparate elements that making up the exhibition are shorn of context, I assume the elements making up this work have deep meaning and history to the artist, but realistically, an audience viewing these 'cold' doesn't have a hope in hell of decoding any concrete message.   So we're left with the personal thoughts and emotions that work inspires in us, given the freedom to navigate a tangled jungle of symbols in the manner we see fit.  

Granted, nobody is going to walk out of here pondering depressing existential questions, so there are limits to this freedom.  But this exhibition isn't going to appeal to everyone.  You have to do a lot of legwork to get what is, in the end, an entirely subjective message. That's not enough for some people - it's perfectly reasonable to view, say, Magic Box With the Hand Protecting The Toucan From The Bull and see a jumbled-up jigsaw of mixed imagery without any guide to putting it together.  To appreciate work like this you have to embrace  the idea that you're not going to understand everything, there's no 'key' that'll unlock these pieces.

Attacking an Injured Heart, 2008
I can see why Colombia is so proud of its daughter and so happy to display her work.  The Consulate General of Colombia has been infused with a positivity and love of life that brings to mind the best attributes of Latin America.  My mental image of Colombia exists under a saturated filter - a tropical sunlight miles from the pallid wheezing globe we labour under in London. This exhibition is a tiny taste of that exuberance - embodying all that's positive in South American culture - joyous explosions of colour, passion and vibrant life.

This exhibition runs at the Consulate General of Colombia, Wescott House, 35 Portland St, London, W1B 1AE from 10th July to 26th July 2013

Opening Hours: Monday to Friday, 9am to 1:30pm, or by appointment. For information about the exhibition, please contact Sandra Higgins at 

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