Wednesday, June 11, 2014

'Ellas' by Maripaz Jaramillo at Gallery Petit, 10th June 2014

The London summer is finally here.  How long it's going to stick around nobody knows, so let's enjoy it while we can  This onset of light, heat and happiness casts the city in a fresh light - makes for the perfect backdrop to the current exhibition at Sandra Higgins' Gallery Petit, Maripaz Jaramillo's Ellas.  These are paintings of women rendered in simple, bright chunks of colour - women almost literally radiant, like they're lit from within. 

Maripaz Jaramillo, born in Manizales, Colombia in 1948, has had a stratospheric rise through the world of Colombian art.  Following formative years at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, Jaramillo spread her wings and moved first to Cali "a hot sensuous city" to London to study graphic art at the Chelsea College of Art, then in Paris, before finally returning to Bogotá.  Over these years she carved out a well-deserved reputation as an eminent Colombian artist. Her recent projects include painting a portrait of President Juan Manuel Santos and his wife, and contributing a mural (in the same expressionist style as the Ellas pieces) to Medellin University.

Facing these paintings is like staring into a 100 watt bulb, a luminosity that practically requires sunblock.  These bright colours have some instinctive cheering effect on the brain, and, coupled with the sunlight beaming through the windows of the gallery, makes them thrum with life. I later learned the colouring of the yellow skin arises from a trip to Egypt.  There Jaramillo discovered that traditionally women are to be painted with yellow skin as they're supposed to stay out of the sun (and men in browner shades). 

This tradition is news to me - and as a mark of where my tastes generally lie my first thought was of The Simpsons.  But this might not be so off the mark - part of the reason The Simpsons became so internationally popular was because the yellow hue of their skin allows whichever ethnic group is watching the show project their own nationalities onto them.  For example, in the Middle East they read the characters as Middle-Eastern and so on throughout the world.  

The universality of this tone has the same effect in Jaramillo's work; allowing us not to see these women as individuals of any particular nationality or ethnicity, but as representations of a universal feminine joy; the simplicity of their features allowing us to project our own memories and experiences of pleasure, laughter and exuberant energy onto them.  This subtle connection means the paintings conjured up  half-forgotten happy memories, the sight of a lover tossing their hair in a breeze on a sunny day, or the simple pride in making someone you care about laugh.

These slabs of colour, coupled with the minimalist approach to the features also reminded me of the work of Patrick Nagel.  Nagel is, to put it mildly, pretty damn unfashionable in 2014; the art of a hair salon in dire need of a renovation and of dusty old Duran Duran LPs.  Cheesy (and let's face it, kinda sexist) though his work is, there are certain aesthetic principles he shares with Jaramillo's Ellas.  Nagel's process was to keep reducing his images down to their most basic geometric elements - to see just how much you can get across with as little elements as possible, much as we see here.   But where Nagel's subjects have the definite whiff of the necrophile to them, Jaramillo injects more life - accentuating vibrancy and spontaneity rather than diminishing it.

That said, there's two works at the gallery that come from a very different, darker, place to the rest; These two, both entitled Maquina de la vida, are from 1973.  They're drawings of prostitutes, rendered in harsh monochrome - the only colours used serve to accentuate the sickly fleshiness of their bodies and their lurid makeup.  These demonstrate Jaramillo's progression as an artist from (in her words) "contempt for academia", "decay" and a passion for the "grotesque" into the optimism we see in her more recent work.  I like these older pieces, though they tickle a very different part of my sensibilities than the rest.  

Whereas the Ellas series grant divinity, the 1973 works drain it away - anchoring the prostitutes in an organic, corporeal mire.  There's a dead-eyed, zombie-like quality to the women, the artist making visible the scars of sacrificing humanity so they can make it through just one more client.  There's an aggressiveness to these two that's absent from the contemporary work; a forthright boldness borne of a desire to "address the fundamental problems underlying our society".

Perhaps the joyousness of the modern works contrasted with the despair of what came before indicates mission accomplished for the artist?  Perhaps it's that she's now happy, free and successful and wants to communicate this happiness to us.  Perhaps it's just her working from the truism that you catch more flies with honey.  Whatever the reason, the progression from darkness to light is fascinating to ponder.  So while the UV beams down upon us, try and get yourself to Chelsea and bask in this sensuous, radiant and optimistic exhibition.

Ellas by Maripaz Jaramillo is at Sandra Higginas Fine Art, Gallery Petit, Chelsea until 20th June 2014

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