Artforum International, Vol. 33, No. 1, September 1994
Jusidman, Yishai, Artforum International
MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
Julio Galan’s inventive mix of Mexican kitsch and contemporary pictorial styles has won him international attention for nearly a decade. An early but timely retrospective of this work unified what have often seemed like discordant gallery shows.
Galan’s decorative early tableaux (1982-84) share a school girl’s predilection for pretty colors, frontality, and simplification. The children, toys, figurines, and animals depicted in these cute dreamscapes refuse to be anchored or linked. Beneath the apparent innocence of such cheesy and crowd-pleasing surrealism, there is something disturbing, perhaps perverse about these paintings. In Nina con vestidode animalitos esperando veralgo que no te puedodecir (Little girl wearing an animal-print dress waiting to see something I can’t tell you, 1983), a fair-haired child faces a window that looks into the picture’s void. In addition to preventing the audience from participating in whatever she is expecting to see, Galan also depicts her with her eyes shut, thus doubly closing avenues of vision.
Galan’s move to New York in the mid ’80s prompteda shift in his developing pictorial vocabulary, one away from folksiness and toward the ambivalent painterly extravagance then practiced by artists like Julian Schnabel and Sigma Polke. Once attuned to their flamboyance, Galan’s surfaces became his fantasy playground, and would henceforth be draped in full post-Modern regalia. Like many of his contemporaries, Galan resorted to superimposing multiple planes, collaging cacophonous elements, collapsing figuration into abstraction and vice versa, cutting up the canvas, and, of course, attaching tchotchkes to it. Ever since, Galan has abused his trademark prettified and afflicted self-portraits with fruits, vegetables, and flowers; linear, organic, and mosaic patterns; allegorical landscapes; and domestic animals.
The visual opulence of these paintings is suggestive of an intricate code for the author’s conscious and unconscious secrets. The scrambled sentences scribbled onto much of the work (“Me muerdo perono me como” [I bite myself but I don't eat myself],”Amored-mil-27,”) as well as the vague references to his relations (“El amor contigo nunca entro en misplanes” [Loving you was never in my plans]) contrast with its emphatically public scale and coarseness to create a physical as well as an esthetic distance. Whenever Galan teases us in order to rouse our curiosity (Desearias saber . . . [Would you like to know, 1986]), he only magnifies the viewer’s distance(both physical and esthetic) since there is no apparent answer to any of these questions. It is as if he wishes to advertise his alienation by deliberately discomfitting an audience predisposed to recognize a solitary and wretched soul in these pictures.
The young painter tortures his canvases and their contents, hoping the painting will serve as a metaphor for his allegedly distressed self. But this flagellation is actually perpetrated on the spectator who must be led to play the rules of Galan’s intrinsically deceptive work. Galan thus operates as a cunning esthetic dominatrix, rather than as the sorrowful, confused persona of his self-portraits.