Reviews

ESTEBAN BLANCO’S “PLAYING WITH DOLLS”

Ricardo Pau-Llosa

In art, humor is always the function of wit. These two concepts are not at all synonymous. The difference lies in that humor is most often linked to content while wit operates through form, manner and structure. A joke slightly altered fails usually, or gains — which is to say, becomes another joke altogether. This truism owes its wide acceptance to the fact that jokes are linguistic constructs. Curiously, in the visual arts, even in caricature, humor is usually conceived in terms of content, which is a mistake. Abstract considerations, formalist niceties, nuances, are usually reserved for the art of reflection, the Apollonian reaches, with humor grasped within the rules of presentational immediacy, the Dionysian Now. Postmodernist impulses to reduce the visual arts to cathartic and often obscure journalism has pushed humor in these arts further into the grip of heuristics and hermeneutics — further, that is, into the realm of content and language. But humor which is the function of wit in any medium, linguistic as well as visual, is the triumph of context not content, form not image, manner not message. Wit is the gift of pause not punch, even if getting it seems instantaneous. The crash of the wave belies its oceanic biography. Case in point, the complex and lucid sculptures of Esteban Blanco.

Prior to his current series “Playing with Dolls,” Blanco, always fascinated with the Jungian shadow of toys, focused on the subversive power of certain forms, particularly bloated ones. The subject matter: weapons, tanks, bomber planes, warships. When we think of bloating in art we usually think of Botero, in whose work this has become a mannerist redundancy. In contrast, the inflation of form has become in the work of such diverse visual thinkers as Picasso, Brancusi, Magritte, Lindner and Cuevas a trope of great depth and subtlety. The always hidden dream of forms and beings is to become a world. Outside of caricature, i.e. in art, bloating does not signify vanity nor does it seek to ridicule. It speaks tridimensionally of existential ambition; it is one of the codifications of foregrounding (understood cognitively, not pictorially) that is easiest to misunderstand because it is grasped as an action that comes from within the thing or being that is represented and not as a distortion inflicted by the artist. The inflation of form is intended (phenomenologically) as an inherent and essential characteristic rather than a stylistic device that communicates the artist’s point of view on the subject. In caricature, the inflation of form is bracketable, detachable from our apprehension of the image. Not so in art.

Blanco’s “Playing with Dolls” represents an evolution from his previous formalist essays into the ambivalence of toy-violent imagery. Sculpturally conceived and not simply satires of phallic weaponry, Blanco’s tanks and ships really were weapons of mass. The Dolls, however, are theatrical. Their protagonist is the Barbie doll, the pop icon whose elongated ideal acts as a lightning rod of feminist critique. But if gender harangue were all that these sculptures communicated, they would be nothing more than retro social commentary, even a parody of feminist hyper-sensitivity to the indoctrinational allure of playthings. The power of these sculptures lies in the context in which the Barbie dolls find themselves. Blanco’s voluptuous retablos, haloed by tongue-like flames and decked in garish colors, pull us away from the world — even the world of fantasy, eros and playfulness, and into a strident theater where sexual, social and formalist values clash and interact as equals — molecules colliding and alloying to form a dynamic image whose message is too vertiginous for the reductions of satire. Painted shadow-plays in which empty hands mimic hand guns reinforce the intensely theatrical conception of these works. This is also the case with the coffin-like “Sirens” in which mermaid Barbies, whose lower torsos are provocatively oversized, look like bait being swallowed by a fish, as the hooks dangling over their heads suggest. One tropological scheme—juxtaposition—is overtaken, literally and symbolically, by another — metaphor.

It is precisely this interaction between tropes which defines theatrical action. Characters, plot, symbols, not to mention light, setting and other components of a scene, absorb spectators into an alter-reality that elicits emotions and ideas that parallel those of life but are distinctly different from them. In “Round” a circular school bus filled with multi-racial Barbies lights up like a halo on wheels, a pop ouroboros. At first reading, it is an homage to the policy of busing, cornerstone of educational racial integration during the last generation. It is also, radiantly, a wondrous sculptural form, both static and dynamic, a slice of a spiral whose mobility is implicit. The title also evokes the boxing ring, reminding us that gender and racial integration is an on-going process. The circle and the theme interlock to resonate with ambivalences — serenity and struggle, journey and stasis, yin and yang, carrousel and boxing ring. Wit, like ideas, ensures its durability through ambiguity, not through the articulation of slogans.

Blanco often engages many of the obvious social messages associated with Barbies — woman as object of lust and power deformed into fetish. But the evocations quickly turn, figuratively and literally, into mordant wit. In “Barbie-Q” a single Barbie is flimsily tied to a spit and cooked over a baroquely constructed oven whose cogs, wheels and chains turn wooden flames. It is a musical instrument without music, an organ with a doll to grind. But the point is not simply that femininity is an object of consumption. The real protagonist is not the doll but the wondrous object itself whose elaborate and syncopated movements constitute an anatomy in churning silver. The sado-masochistic theme in this and other sculptures by Blanco is mated to a reverberative wit which escapes the confines of predictable social commentary about power and gender. Each theatrically conceived work is a self-contained world in which pain, power, beauty, and aesthetics turn and feed upon each other. What is perhaps most startling in these works is their tonal ambiguity — beyond satire and nightmare, a protean sense of beauty is born.

Blanco’s “Playing with Dolls” are miniature stages. They may have emerged from the improbable mating of a Cornell box and Pop art, but they activate myriad ideas about the theatrical, allegorical and ineluctably representational nature of art which are central to Latin American art of the last century. Blanco’s pieces do indeed owe something to the doll house, but more than settings they are characters too — each one conceived as a personality, or at least a state of mind. They are erstwhile playful scenarios/personae which have returned from the unconscious like prodigal sons in search of an author — a role the viewer, denied the comforts of the spectator, must now fulfill. In an age overrun with lumbering installations that sway between slogan and opacity, these sculptural theaters are welcome windows to the imagination.

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Ricardo Pau-Llosa is a poet and art critic. His website is www.pau-llosa.com