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Painting Borges at UB Anderson Gallery

Laura Delgado’s "La otra—éramos demasiado parecidos y demasiado distintos" (The Female Other—We Were too Similar and too Different).

Sympathies and Differences

“Our imagination and our dreams are forever invading our memories; and since we are apt to believe in the realities of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truth. Of course, fantasy and reality are equally felt and equally personal, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance.”

—Luis Bunuel

In the week after my Army discharge in 1970, I bought a bright blue Schwinn 10-speed racing bike and a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones, having some months earlier heard about his stories of murder and metaphysics from a roommate with whom I briefly shared a trailer before our air-conditioner died. By that time I was short in country and the rainy season nearly over.

Borges’s stories, his evocative language, brought pictures easily to mind. That next fall in art school I did a drawing interpreting his narrative of labyrinthine imaginary books as surrounding a massive figure with coke-bottle eyeglasses. I chose a figure of a bull to dance on his head.

For the best part of the 20th century, readers of Spanish considered Borges to be the major prose writer of South America, but it was only in the 1960s, when his work was translated into English, that Borges was revealed to North American readers as one of the finest writers anywhere in the world. Though a thoroughly contemporary artist (he died in 1986), his deeply traditional literary roots contributed to the writer’s work becoming a brilliant and singular addition to modern literature.

Jorges J. E. Garcia, SUNY Distinguished Professor and the Samuel P. Capen Chair at UB, in the spirit of interdisciplinary inquiry, has curated a traveling exhibition raising questions about how an artistic interpretation of literature differs from other kinds of interpretations and whether it makes sense to call them “interpretations” when the media of visual art and of literature are so different. The curator picked one author, Borges, and chose to exhibit only recent artists whose work was not burdened with history and criticism, and whose work was figurative and sensitive to conceptual content.

In selecting Borges, Professor Garcia chose a writer whose stories are rich with visually memorable characters and filled with conceptual puzzles. A porteno, born and raised in Buenos Aires, Borges had an evident impact on Argentinian artists, but the UB Anderson show includes non-Argentinean artists to attain a variety of perspective. The artwork chosen was restricted to paintings, drawings, etchings, and mixed media. Twelve stories by Borges were organized into three topics, giving each artist two visual approaches to each story, adding up to 20 works by 16 artists interpreting identity and memory, freedom and destiny, and faith and divinity—categories intended to prompt artists to create images that inspire fundamental questions of human existence.

All the artists in the exhibition are from South America. Their work projects imagery of intense contrasts, with red and black predominating, floating figures, hidden faces, in emotionally complicated scenes of surreality and illusion. Borges was interested in compelling issues of his own identity, religious heresies, doubt and dogma. In interpreting the show’s three themes, the chosen artists create images of metaphor and allegory that might be seen to both literally and obliquely illustrate the stories themselves.

The one artist I was familiar with, Alberto Rey, contributed a painting, The Doubting of St. Thomas, a florid closeup of the vaunted spear wound as a hand probes with a forefinger. The image is cropped—only the hands are shown, one pulling back the clothing the other being invited to probe the gaping rent. There is just enough specificity to relate the theme without forcing a literal reading.

In Carlos Estevez’s metaphysical geometric diagrams there is room for the viewer’s imagination to entertain more fanciful alignments to the chosen story’s theme. His images in pencil and gouache on paper—Forking Gardens, Hole in Time, and The Immortal—offer the viewer a multifaceted approach to interpreting Borges narratives of infinite libraries, pre-technological virtual worlds, and ancient texts, all emerging in a combination of mythology and scholarship.

The variety of art processes may give the viewer an incentive to actually read or re-read Borges, but for this viewer the most successful visual interpretation was in the work that met the theme at the intersection of technology and literature in an elegant measure of abstraction.

Professor Garcia has generously supplied gallery visitors with a 16-page, newspaper-like catalog of the exhibition, including a concept synopsis, short biographies of each artist, and color reproductions of many selected artworks.

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