Light and Darkness, Sight and Scream
The Photographic Work of Luis Gonzalez Palma, by Fernando Castro
Luis Gonzalez Palma's work was first shown in Houston in 1992 as part of the Latin American exhibits of FotoFest. If one were to ask retrospectively what exactly it was that was so impressive about his work, an important answer would be: his portraits of indigenous peoples of Guatemala like La rosa (1989) and La esperanza (1990). I reluctantly call them "portraits" because they are not intended as depictions of the individuals they denote; but rather, as impersonations of archetypical characters of myth, popular culture and/or the poetic imagination of the artist. Gonzalez Palma has continued, mutatis mutandis, producing these portraits throughout the nineties: El soldado (1993), El casco (1994); and more recently,80 mm, 5.6 (1998), La mirada critica (1998) and Tramay urdidumbre (1998).
Other portraits of Guatemalan Native-Americans had been featured at FotoFest 1990 in the work of Hans Namuth Los Todos Santeros. But Namuth's work, although impressive in its own right, is fairly straightforward whereas Gonzalez Palma's work (not plain Palma, as some would have it) follows different paths — zigzagging along, crisscrossing others' paths and branching off into untrodden territories. In order to understand a little better Gonzalez Palma's work, I will attempt to walk along those paths.
The obvious and most conspicuous place to start is tone. Gonzalez Palma's prints are generally glazed with a dark sepia medium that tones all but selected portions of his prints. Various interpretations have been given for this prominent feature of his work. Some have found in this earthy monochromaticism a connection with Goya's dark paintings. Others have connected it with the way paintings and frescoes in churches look after hundreds of years of exposure to the smoke of candles, incense and the exhalations of devotees. Others have underscored the resemblance that his toned prints have with the bark on which ancient Mayans allegedly wrote. This last suggestion is particularly germane because, according to the Popol Vuh, the first act of creation is dawn; and bringing the world out of darkness is part of Gonzalez Palma's poetics. These interpretations are not mutually exclusive; more than likely, Gonzalez Palma is plugging into all these outlets simultaneously — thus exemplifying a culturally diverse tradition of image-making and exposing his own aesthetic eclecticism.
In many Gonzalez Palma's portraits only the eyes of the subjects are spared the sepia tone so as to imbue their gaze with an engaging, confrontational and almost hypnotic quality. Take the case of America (1990), a portrait of a young woman whose name happens to be "America" — the title is both exact and metonymic. The white of the eyes irradiates a light that subliminally leads the viewer into St. Augustine's intuition that its source is the luminosity of the spirit. Through toning Gonzalez Palma establishes a metaphor central to much of his work, namely, that the life of many indigenous Guatemalans transpires in darkness (the sepia tone) although their spirit (the glistening eyes) prevails and endures. It is clear that Gonzalez Palma endorses their cause and makes the brunt of his oeuvre bear a political message for their liberation. Many would argue that the political impact of art beyond the narrow boundaries of the art world is more often the unwitting design of censors. But Gonzalez Palma belongs to that breed of artists who believe that art itself has a spiritual luminosity and power whose social effects should not be underestimated.
The depiction of Gonzalez Palma's indigenous subjects is a way of changing the historical perceptions about them forthemselves and for others. Pedagogically, it is a forced act of self-knowledge whose main lesson is: "You are the protagonists of your own history." Unfortunately, what is scream for some is heard as song by others who see only the exoticism of the imagery. This kind of ambivalence is characteristic of great ideological paradigms like beauty or freedom. On one interpretation, for example, the luminous gazes are the light of reason: human rights, republicanism and rationality (ideals of the Enlightenment). Therein lies a connection with Goya's Capricho's El sueno de la razon produce monstruos that has an ambiguity that reveals the bright and dark sides of reason. From the Native-American perspective, "Enlightened" rationality has been a double-edged sword insofar as it has been the conceptual tool for liberation as well as for exploitation. Gonzalez Palma has explicitly pointed to that ambivalence in one of his most conceptual and avant garde installations: Historias Paralelas (1995). The installation consists of a series of transparencies of white shirts ridden with bullet holes. Gonzalez Palma identifies the shirts of "Parallel Histories" as those of Maximilian, Archduke of Austria who, in 1864, was imposed on Mexico as emperor by Napoleon III and Mexican conservatives. In an epoch when for the very first time a Zapotec Native-American, Benito Juarez, was elected president of Mexico (a process for which Enlightenment ideals are partially responsible), a European monarch was forced militarily on a sovereign American republic. Ironically, Maximilian turned out to be more liberal (read, "Enlightened") than the Mexican reactionaries would have wished; Juarez shared more reformist views with him than with some of his own allies. Nevertheless, Juarez ordered his execution not only because Maximilian himself had ordered the execution of republican guerrilleros but also because he was the incarnation of imperialism. Thus, Historias Paralelas is also a reflection on the impersonality of violence; it was not Maximilian's person that was important in deciding his execution but his investiture symbolized by his shirt.
An equally important feature of Gonzalez Palma's work is the way he consistently endows the image of Native-Americans with an almost irresistible beauty. To do so, Gonzalez Palma slides the canons of European beauty along indigenous traits— a concept spelled out in Reflejo (1998). The trinity — beauty, truth and goodness — is a Platonic amalgam whose persuasive power has not dwindled since antiquity, but whose currency was challenged — among others — by the art of the historical European avant garde. German artists of the so-called New Objectivity movement, like Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, brutally, even grotesquely, depicted the bourgeois society of their time. For these artists beauty was clearly a distraction and contrary to their aims of critical objectivity. Beauty, however, is a value with which the Latin American avant gardes have found it harder to dispense. In Gonzalez Palma's work beauty conspires to ennoble his indigenous subjects. Through the rhetorical power of beauty the viewer is rendered more susceptible to fully accept their humanity just as 500 years ago Bartolome de las Casas gained over a handful of Spaniards by arguing that the physical slightness of Native-Americans was a sign of nobility.
More recently, Gonzalez Palma has introduced contemporary genetic theory in the work, The image of the world (1998).For Gonzalez Palma, the move to dignify and beautify the Native-American subjects of his portraits has the effect of persuading the viewer to move from the facti-tiousness of their staged personas to the documents that attest to their existence and exploitation. Works such as Los Re-cuerdos Intimos (1991) and more recently, Letanias con angel (1995), depart from an aesthetic heavily dependent on beauty and enter a more current one based on text and evidence. With these latter images Gonzales Palma pays homage to Christian Boltanski, whose work has had a tremendous impact on his own. In fact, in Letanias (1993) as well as in Letanias con angel many ID-photos (as in many of Boltanski's works) become blurred to the point of becoming useless as tools of identification. One reading of this feature comes from the tragic futility of looking for "disappeared" ones with id-photos not only in Guatemala but throughout the continent — in a sense, a debunking of the idea that photography's main function is to document and/or identify. Indeed, something as unmimetic and unsensorial as DNA is a better tool for identifying the dead as well as clarifying the kinship of all humans.
That Gonzalez Palma has not always relied exclusively on an aesthetic of beauty is clearer in his early work where there is even a hint of the grotesque. In Imdgenes de Parto y Dolor (Images of Child-Bearing and Pain) (1989) or La Muerte Reyna(Death Rules) (1989), Gonzalez Palma exposes his connection Joel-Peter Witkin's work. If only a few of Gonzalez Palma'simages can be regarded as grotesque it is perhaps because since then the rhetoric of beauty was so steadfastly established throughout his opus that it entices the viewer to regard works like Deer (1991) and The Moon (1989) as something more akin to the sublime than to the grotesque. Beauty, therefore, is also a strategy for persuading the viewer into accepting different paradigms, if not of beauty (whose parameters are historically and ideologically fairly well-defined in spite of theenthusiasm of many who relativize it), then, of artistic representation. Gonzalez Palma recycles a whole gamut of religious, popular, ancient, mythical, and media icons. In Loteria I and Loteria II, for example, he alludes to the game of lotterywhose images — according to Maria Cristina Orive (one of his first commentators) were used to convert Native-Americans to Catholicism. In order to address issues like emigration, more recent works like Tensiones her meticas (1997) leave behind not only beauty but also the representation of Native-Americans as a potentially exotic specimens.
In a way, Gonzales Palma's eclectic work allows us to discern two epicenters in his artistic persona. One is spelled out by the rhetoric of the titles of his books, exhibits and some of his works (Poems of Sorrow, Wedding of Solitude) — a mod-ernista a la Ruben Dario, with a clear penchant for beauty. A second one is an avant garde installation artist a la Boltanski. It is this second aspect of his work that most impressed me about his work in 1992. Gonzalez Palma irreverently tears photographic prints, nails them to rough supports; collages legal documents and pins ribbons to the prints; invents rituals; uses popular culture. A horde of issues of authenticity, veracity, even morality that photography in the documentary modehad defined within its own paradigm, were thereby forced into revision. Gonzalez Palma — like Gerardo Suter or Mario Cravo Neto — makes no effort to hide his staging and his choreography. It remains unclear what degree of complicity he has with his subjects who usually include his wife, friends and workers. In a sense, Gonzalez Palma preempted issues of validation and authenticity. His work in 1992 was in the avante garde of Latin American photography; and the notion of the avant-garde — is worth remembering — is always contextual.
Fernando R. Castro is a photographer and curator in Houston, Texas.