Cuban-American painter Cesar Santos’s first New York City solotion, at Eleanor Ettinger Gallery (October 27–December 5, 2011), was titled “Syncretism.” The term syncretic is often used to describe cultural hybridity—the mix, say, of European and indigenous iconography in Latin American folk art, or the folk art-inspired work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. but Santos’s more conceptual juxtapositions are firmly rooted in mainstream art history. Many of the twenty new paintings (all works 2011) in the exhibition pose traditionally painted figures, usually young women, in front of modernist artworks. The technical challenges are obvious, but Santos largely succeeds in combining the relatively tight rendering of contemporary realism with modernist exercises in expressionism and abstraction. In Following the Scream, the red-haired nude twists her body in mimicry of the figure in Munch’s famous painting, framed in gold on the wall behind her. Complicating the range of idioms, a section of the wall is peeling and tagged with graffiti. Yet everything is contained within a convincingly continuous visual space.
Santos, who studied at the Angel Academy of Art in Florence and was part of Jacob Collins’s Hudson River Fellowship, calls himself a “neo-academic.” A skillful naturalistic painter, he is fully aware of the longstanding—and recently renewed—antagonism between academic and modernist schools of art. His approach to all this weighty history is playful and ironic in a way that is not unsuitable to the post-postmodern era. In Nude with Glasses, a half-draped girl, with her hair in a chignon, looking like a model from a traditional atelier, kneels before one of Willem de Kooning’s fiercely cartoonish Woman paintings. Spray can in hand, she is defacing the high art caricature with orange glasses and a scrawled beard. It’s a better informed, more technically accomplished jeu d’esprit than the slovenly works of most postmodern jokesters. On occasion, Santos’s humor overtakes the dialogue between past and present, and the painting topples over into frivolousness. In The Tattoo, two adolescent girls—one wearing Hello Kitty panties—are examining a provocatively placed tattoo, while old master figures lean in behind them. The sources for the voyeurs are a Rembrandt self-portrait and an elderly baroque saint. They all occupy the same shadowy tenebrist space, and the result, while elegantly painted, seems to trivialize the encounter.
In an artist’s statement, Santos writes: “I conceive pictures that represent my deepest and most irrational perceptions....taking objects out of their natural context to create a new environment for them, a new reality or world for us.” Realism in the service of the imaginary is an approach with a long art historical pedigree. Santos’s Young Turner is a fine example. A young boy, in a bold red contemporary jacket, poses in front of a Romantic seascape. The painting-within-the-painting is unframed, and paint drips off the canvas and into the boy’s space, a barely sketched dark workroom. The boy ducks his head and smiles shyly. His eyes are alert, and it is easy to imagine the seascape as the fantasy of a young mariner—or artist. Some of Santos’s paintings comment directly on art history. Picnic in Central Park poses three realistic contemporary figures in front of a painting reminiscent of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, a groundbreaking exercise in avant-garde flatness. Manet himself was riffing on a famous Renaissance print of a classical scene, and added shock value by showing a nude woman sitting with a couple of bourgeois men in contemporary dress. Santos continues the cross-century communication by showing the man naked and his two female companions clothed, and he adds some take-out trash to the more conventional still-life fruit in the foreground.
The most striking of the works in the exhibition may be a painting with no particular conceptual agenda. In Password (cover), two young women sit together in front of a Rothko abstraction. The redhead whispers mischievously into the ear of her friend, a blond with a faraway expression. They wear the kind of casual clothes that teenagers might wear to a museum. Nothing surreal is going on, yet the image is both mysterious and formally satisfying. The artist takes obvious pleasure in capturing the texture of their luminous skin, their hair and clothes; he takes pleasure as well in the deep matte, soft-edged color blocks of the Rothko. The girls’ heads are thrown into strong relief by the black rectangle at the top of the Rothko; the painterly white at the bottom bleeds into the reddish vertical border and—not incidentally—into the russet of one girl’s skirt. Password is a dialogue between artists and a demonstration of how very different schools of painting can come together in the individual creative mind. Eleanor Ettinger Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 925-7686. On the web at www.eegallery.com