Friday, November 09, 2012

AGO: Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera, Evan Penny

Frida & Diego, Passion, Politics and Painting, the latest blockbuster exhibit at the AGO, displays the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera together.  Because their art is so different in styles, this is usually not the case. We were surprised to find it to be sparse in curatorial insight relative to other shows that we have seen.  There were no audio guides offered and not much printed or video information accompanying the art or even on the large plaques denoting each section.  Perhaps the thought was that the art should speak for itself.   Luckily we had prepared for the show by first watching the biographical movie Frida, which gave us the personal background we needed to understand the motivations that drove these two extremely talented yet diverse artists.  There were also many photographs on display that documented their lives together and apart.

According to his own words, Rivera painted "for the people".  His art reflected his politics and provided social commentary life in Mexico.  Over 21 years older that Kahlo, he was already an established and respected artist when they first met.  Many of his paintings depicted female workers in the fields, often carrying calla lilies that were prevalent in his country.  He was also known for his large scaled murals that were commissioned both around Mexico and in the USA.  His work called "En El Arsenal" shows political activists, including Frida Kahlo,  preparing for the Mexican revolution by  handing out rifles, and the founder of the Cuban communist society accepting ammunition.  He painted a series of frescos called "Detroit Industry" on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Frida Khalo's paintings were much more personal, mainly self-portraits reflecting upon important and often traumatic events in her trouble-filled life.  A near fatal bus crash when she was 18 left her in pain for her entire life and subjected her to numerous operations.  Kahlo started painting during this period and documented the life lasting impacts of this accident in many works.  Her emotions regarding her multiple miscarriages were graphically portrayed, as well as her rage and pain over Diego's incessant womanizing.  The final straw that led to a separation and divorce came when she caught Rivera having sex with her own sister.  This resulted in a painting capturing how she cut off her long flowing locks and wore men's clothing in an act of rebellion and reflected her emancipation from Diego.  One of her most famous works called "Two Fridas", depicting two images of herself sitting in European and Mexican dress, reflects her ongoing identity crisis regarding her mixed heritage.  Her Father was a German Jew while her mother was indigenous Mexican-Spanish. In the painting a blood-line passes between the two images connecting at their exposed hearts.

Despite their tumultuous relationship and many affairs on both sides, Diego was the love of Frida's life and vice versa.  They reunited after one year of divorce and stayed together until Frida's early death at 47.  Many of Frida's paintings include an image of Diego, often around her forehead to show that he was always on her mind.

My favourite part of the exhibit was found at the end where a display of whimsical, vibrant sculptures were presented.  The theatre group Shadowland had been commissioned to create papier-mâché Judas figures reflecting a Mexican tradition held during Catholic Holy Week.  The Judases are meant to represent all sources of evil, from the devil to military dictatorships. Puppets of Frida and Diego portrayed as Catrina skeletons are a means of honouring loved ones during the annual Day of the Dead festival.  An work-in-progress display was under construction that would eventually hold ceramic sculptures interpreting Mexican legends and traditions.

After viewing the Frida and Diego exhibit, we went up to the Contemporary section on the 5th floor to see Evan Penny's incredibly life-like, yet warped sculptures of human heads and torsos.  We first encountered Penny's work when one of his sculptures (Stretch #1) was displayed in the gallery when the AGO reopened after its renovations.  It was amazing to see the the details of every pore, wrinkle and facial hair on the skin.  This time around, Stretch #1 is joined by 30 other sculptures in a larger exhibit that gave insight into Penny's process and body of work.

Penny would start from a rough pencil sketch of his source figure, and then use Photoshop to morph, stretch or skew it to the desired proportions.  He then sculpts using modeling clay and covers it with a rubber mould that peels off to be the base of the sculpture.  On top of the mould is applied layers of silicone, which gives the figure its hyper-realistic qualities, using techniques that Penny learned while working with Gordon Smith's FXSmith company (of X-Men fame). The eyes are separately created including painting of the eyeballs and carefully adding veins.  Facial hair is added by individually punching strands of human or animal hair into the silicone.  Penny created self-portrait sculptures based on a photo from his youth as well as projections of what he would look like in his later years

Unlike Stretch #1 which is clearly distorted, a series of sculptures are shown that appear to be fully 3-dimensional and proportional when looking at them straight on.  But viewing them from the side reveals their flattened nature.  Penny has a few works that show the back of the head and torso.  When you approach it and try to look around, you realize that there is no face attached.  Penny created a sculpture of his friend Libby Faux and then made another version called L.Faux CMYK.  This second piece superimposes three coloured (blue, yellow, red) versions of the same image in a skewed manner that simulates a blurry photograph that was taken with insufficient light.  Looking at it, your eyes keep trying to merge the images back together into a single solid form.

 Using a special camera that captures a single photo over an extended period of time, he took photos of his friend having a conversation.  Using this for inspiration, he created sculptures of the results.

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