There’s something odd about this bed.
Instead of a mattress, it’s got a painting of Jesus. He’s bleeding, crowned with thorns, and in the throes of the Passion. And while the image is gory, it’s also goofy: Christ’s skin is painted robin’s egg blue, and his features are obscured by clumpy pools of enamel.
Despite its gaudy hues, many will know this particular image of Jesus from Catholic calendars and holy cards, especially those with Latinx roots. Others will recognize the mass-produced, clunky metal bed frame with its cheery geometric designs from Latin American working class homes.
This strange and familiar object is a different kind of art.
The Colombian artist Beatriz González presented this bed and similar pieces at the 1971 São Paulo Biennale. At an event dominated by Conceptual art, her sappy saints splayed across faux finished furniture were seen as unfashionable, and mostly ignored. But “Naturaleza casi muerta (Still Almost Alive)” (1970) is an example of what González called arte universal transformado, or ‘transformed universal art,’ and it represents themes that the artist continues to confront in her work today.
Kitsch blended in surreal fashion with suffering and the struggle to live – literally and conceptually – come through in over 100 of González’s multimedia works from the 1960s to today at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s “Beatriz González: A Retrospective.” The exhibition offers an extensive view into his outstanding artist’s varied and rigorous 60 year career.
It’s also a rare treat: González has only recently garnered attention at an international, institutional level. Co-organized by the MFAH and the Pérez Art Museum Miami, this is 81-year-old González’s first major retrospective in the United States.
Born in the medium-sized Colombian city of Bucaramanga in 1938, González has long seen herself as a provincial artist who works outside of trends in the capital city of Bogotá or the first world’s art scenes. Throughout her career, she’s promoted her position professionally, curating exhibitions and publishing books on Colombian art. Artistically, she’s launched biting critiques of the social, political and cultural world around her through sharp and at times shocking artworks.
González’s earliest canvases take European masterworks as a critical point of departure. In them, her disjunctive colors and off-kilter compositions irreverently push artists such as Velázquez and Vermeer into uneasy abstraction.
In 1967, she rejected oil paint altogether, preferring industrial enamel applied to sheets of metal and later, furniture and housewares. Enamel introduced vibrant color intensities and dissonances that reflected Colombia’s jarring, rapid commercialization. “These were the colours that I saw in shop windows, in re-interpretations of universal images that were made in the Third World,” González explained in a 2015 interview.
The change in media came with a change in source material. González turned her focus from art historical imagery to Gráficas Molinari & Cía, a Spanish-owned company that distributed cheap, popular prints in Colombia and several other Latin American countries. The artist co-opted these widely-circulated pictures of mothers, children, saints, and other sentimental figures as a way to question taste, both in popular culture and in her avant garde art circles.
Because of her bright colors and appropriated imagery, some have compared González to Pop artists from the United States and Britain. González was exposed to Pop art on a trip to Amsterdam in 1964, but she insists that Pop wasn’t what she was doing then, and isn’t what she is doing now.
Unlike Andy Warhol and other Pop artists, González doesn’t engage with the frivolity of consumerism. Instead, she challenges the chain of influence between the first and developing worlds. Her critique of the Western art canon and of religion is often infused with a wry sense of humor: in “Klonk” (1974) – based on a 17th century painting by Guido Reni – González paints John the Baptist’s decapitated head in a serene seafoam green on the base of a rusty metal breadbasket.
But it’s impossible to ignore that González’s work also emerges from the harshest impetus: violence. Before we see any art, the exhibition presents us with a lengthy timeline linking González’s life to a near constant stream of violence in her native country. Colombia’s civil war began when González was 10 years old. Over the next decades, countless politicians, activists, and civilians have been killed by government forces, militia groups, and drug traffickers. For decades, González has carefully cataloged the conflicts around her – from incidents of domestic abuse to national clashes – in newspaper clippings she’s collected, sketches, and final artworks. Seeing these materials together, side by side, proves paramount to understanding the complexity of González artistic practice.
Over the years, González continues to bear witness to suffering and injustice, though her position has shifted from persistant provocateur to mother and mourner. In the last few decades, her return to oil paint, charcoal, and pastel on canvas and paper has signaled a new sensitivity in her mark making and subject matter, which now includes indigenous rights, environmental protection, and pacifist movements.
Art history remains a constant, as does the universality of pain. In works like “Autoretrato desnuda (Self-portrait Nude, Crying)” (1997), González channels the streamlined sensuality of Gauguin’s Tahiti, but with the electric torment of Miriam Cahn’s nudes. Others, like “Los Papagayos (The Parrots)” (1987), present government and military officials as one repetitive, candy-colored frieze: the figures are ineffective, interchangeable, and unreal.
At the beginning of her career, González read Wassily Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1912). In it, the pioneering abstract artist and theorist writes that “The artist is not born to a life of pleasure… he has a hard work to perform, and one which often proves a cross to be borne.”
Much the same can be said of González. In her most recent works, we see the same beds she painted in the 1970s now hitched on the backs of migrants who flee political turmoil, natural disasters, and guerilla violence.
The octogenrarian González still has more hard work ahead of her. She continues to bear the cross.
“Beatriz González: A Retrospective” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston through January 20, 2020. mfah.org