Letter to Linda 4: The Art of Criticism and Education

(C) 2012 Text and Illustrations by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

The Mondrian Influennce ('98)

Bogotá Boogie (’98), oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″, plus a 4″ wide frame.


Dear Linda–

Hi, how are you on a warm sunny day in Michigan? Enjoying every second of it, no doubt!

This might be a little short, considering all the other things I want to say, but I want to stay focused on my subject. I’m going a little crazy these days because I want to start a new painting but can’t find the studio time, or any other time, either. I’m doing too many things which don’t pay off, I feel frustrated and end up doing nothing. To save time, I’ll cut to the heart of a frustration.

I’ve been invited to participate in a small local group show in mid-July. The organizers hoped I’d exhibit a couple of my really good paintings and were disappointed when I said no. In their place, I’ll have four framed black and white photos of Bogotá–two of the Parque de la Independencia and two of the Eje Ambiental in 2003, when it looked pretty bare and forsaken. The waterway existed but the trees looked like bansai experiments.

The inevitable question is–why not show the paintings? They’re unique, well-done and framed. They show that a talented artist lives in the neighborhood (a key point in the show) and creates work that’s easily understood.

And that’s true, too. There really are many talented artists and writers living in the Candelaria neighborhood. We’re all feeling the negative effects of tourism and the floating student population (there are six (6) universities just in this area, all with classes going til 9 p.m. Mon. to Fri., plus Saturday mornings). The former group does not know we exist and the latter has no interest whatsoever. This is our attempt to show another side of the Candelaria without doing a half-assed performance of “La Bohème.”

This is also why I’m in such a yank to re-open my gallery in a larger space. Not only do I need a place for my own work, but so do other and OLDER artists. This is the bright side.

But why I refuse to show my paintings is the dark side of art in Colombia.

Since I started showing and selling my photography, I’ve made a tiny niche for myself. I’m recognized for it and much of my work has become historic, although based on aesthetics. But it is also non-political, which in Colombia is so rare it’s almost non-existent. It’s very difficult to argue about the politics behind my series of acacia trees on the Eje Ambiental (the “Respighi Series”), although no doubt some die-hard leftist will insist on seeing it as an ecological statement. (Yeah, and Otterino Respighi’s tone poem “The Pines of Rome” is also an environmental statement. Right.

A photograph is a photograph, a visual document that captures what IS in a split-second, AS it is, and propels this cluster of light into an undefinable future. StarTrek at ISO 100, f/5.6 @ 1/125 sec. Black and white simplifies everything because we attach meanings to colors and without colors, we have to grapple with different meanings or none at all. No wonder the French love black and white photography–it is the epitome of visual existentialism.

(And yes, that remark is copyrighted by Metta Anderson in all shapes, forms and laws. I do know when I write a pithy sentence.)

I know that the majority of the people coming to this show will be Colombians who know Bogotá. They are culturally conservative. A photograph of the Parque de la Independencia in the morning is coherent. My version of Mondrian in Bogotá (“Bogotá Boogie”) is not. In fact, it has in the past provoked a lot of unpleasant reactions even among people who should know better and THAT’S why it stays in my apartment.

Art education in Colombia is rigid, long on technique (make your own gesso: mix your own paint from scratch), short on history and negligent on encouraging experimentation. It is generally leftist, becoming every single cliché that that philosophy brings with it. Art criticism is non-existent. The museums have erratic funding, little storage and, until recently, shaky security.

The last time I showed “Bogotá Boogie” and four other paintings was December 2007-January 2008, in a group show. I was told that the gallery was discreet but prestigious, etc. CRAP. It was a second-hand furniture and clothing store in a prestigious gay neighborhood and the owners hid the merchandise in order to display art they hoped to acquire on the cheap.

It was an awful experience, and not because my work didn’t sell. I knew it wouldn’t because the gallery tacked on a 50% commission, raising the prices beyond what I could reasonably ask in a private sale. I suspect the curator and the owners refused to pass on contact information for future sales, but I DO know that an attempt was made to steal “Bogotá Boogie” with a lengthy story about someone in London offering US$3000 for it, and then the details got murky. So, as of January-February 2008, the only place to see my paintings is in my gallery. I don’t even like to put them on the internet.

I have also lost four paintings that actually were stolen from a warehouse where they were temporarily kept. I know who took them and I did manage to recover one, but the other oil painting and two framed pastels on paper now hang in the very dreary middle-class apartment of a woman lawyer in Bogotá who likes to pass herself off as “cultured.” I can even give you her name, if you’re interested.

People will not buy my paintings, but they know a lot of ways to try to (and even successfully) steal them.

It’s been argued that I should be happy to have my paintings stolen, because the work will be seen by others. Theoretically, the new viewers will become interested in my work and ask the owner for my name and phone number. Word-of-mouth, you see.

What a CROCK!!!!!!

Name five (5) MALE artists who would celebrate the theft of a painting it took the artist six months or more to complete and frame before showing it.

Yes, people do buy my work. Americans and Europeans will negotiate a reasonable price. Colombians try to receive paintings as repayment for political or social favors, in part because of cultural tradition, but also because 98% of Colombians really have no idea how art prices are set. One painting is a one-of-a-kind object and sold as such in other countries. In Colombia, the mindset is the gross–a bushel of potatoes, six milking cows, a set of glasses or kitchen pots. Any of these and other items individually are cheap and replaceable because they’re part of the collective purchase. A car or appliance is an exception because of the way it’s used.

But one-of-a-kind items also tend to be expensive in any society, and frankly, Colombians often do not have the money. Of course I will negotiate a price, but if I ask Ps$100,000.00, I will NOT accept Ps$10,ooo.oo, which is what I’m offered. The excuses are that I’m a woman, I’m unknown and that the buyer can get something just exactly like my work for less money from someone else.

You do that, asshole.

Last but not least, I’m just fed up with the envy and jealousy and insults from other artists. Yes, I have a very impressive arts background, a solid education and talent. No parental nor family support, of course, but the fundamental stuff is all mine.So, why do I get rejected by local galleries?

I’m over 25, a woman and not socio-economically connected to the potential buyers the galleries want to attract. There is also an unspoken fear that my work will sell while a Colombian artist’s will not, leading to hard feelings and the withdrawal of local financial support.

The artists reject me (insult me, try to dominate me) because they’re envious of my education and what they perceive as an unfair advantage–that Americans (tourists and residents) will automatically buy my work.

Guess what!? They DON’T! They avoid me like the plague and the ones at the Embassy have so little contact with the country that my work is totally incomprehensible to them. Americans unconnected to the Embassy are so gung-ho on supporting Colombian artists that they see me as an oppressor.

But what local artists mostly have against me is freedom of expression.

Bottom Line: Freedom of expression is open to debate and hinges at least 90% of the time on the ARTIST and HIS/HER willingness to take chances. It is NOT the political philosophy of governments. Politicians like to try to dictate the arts and are sometimes successful. This is usually a philosophical argument anyway. The Russians and other totalitarian regimes cared about content, more than styles or techniques. But content is often subverted and with the internet, this is now almost a non-issue.

Colombian artists get bent out of shape because I take a simple subject and create something that didn’t exist before. They do NOT see the

Impressions of Santa Marta ('06)

Santa Marta, Colombia (’06)

education behind it. I’m painting here, not writing a footnoted essay. Yes, I’m familiar with Mondrian and Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass, and that information is in my head, available when I need it. My freedom is having knowledge and knowing when or how to use it. Colombian art education frowns on or even stifles this freedom, reducing the education to high quality technical exercises with ZERO intellectual content and nothing related to Colombia as a place.

Colombian and an awful lot of American artists believe that you should almost footnote a painting. Hopper’s an influence? Matisse? Chagall? Rembrandt? Great, but make it O-B-V-I-O-U-S in your work! And make sure it ties in with whatever -ism is fashionable this season!

My reaction to that mercantile and ignorant mindset is straightforwardly rude and unladylike–FUCK. THAT. Or–Is that the best you can do, you poor brainless bastard?

Now, about art criticism. Or lack of same.

Up until the 1950s or early ’60s, artists also tended to be critics because they had the education (culturally and otherwise) and the experience of communicating information. Most (if not all) were art teachers. Writing criticism can be an extension of teaching, especially when your students are newspaper readers who otherwise would not have access to your field. The Colombian “art scene” was small and had a very conservative and equally small public. There were art galleries in Bogotá (approximately two commercial ones), but many public and private venues were available for exhibitions. Out of this situation SHOULD HAVE grown a market for Colombian and even international art.

But along came the Argentine writer and art historian Marta Traba, and the political violence wrecking the country oozed into the art world. Traba shook up the local art world with mixed results. She did make a strong case for modern and abstract art-making because it was a dominant force in Europe, the US and Argentina. Younger artists and art students did need to know that there are many ways to approach a subject and that experimentation is part of an artist’s growth and development. So was travel and study in other countries.

She also tried to educate the public as a critic and a writer (“El Tiempo” published her art criticism) and with her own TV show. (Ah, the Fifties, when TV could still be used as a valuable educational tool!)

But I think she made some significant mistakes, too. There already was a modern art movement in Colombia and a lot of experimentation in the arts. Foreign books and magazines detailing the latest trends were available and were discussed. Even if it was not on the level of New York or Paris, it was definitely within the trends circulating in Latin America at the time, from Mexico to Argentina and Chile. Traba chose not to see this as significant, and she made quite a few enemies when she dismissed local artists for following their own paths. And in spite of her belief that Colombian artists should incorporate contemporary ideas and issues into their work, her way of promoting these concepts tended to be a regrettable all-or-nothing attitude. Art MUST BE contemporary (i.e., the latest thing, “fashionable”) or it must disappear forever. Singlehandedly, her attitude practically destroyed art in Colombia. Today, gallery-goers can see the latest thing churned out by young (under 30) usually male “promising artists,” and plunk down substantial sums of money for the work. But as I sit here writing in my gallery in 2012, the young “promises” of 1992 and 2002 are. . . where? Over the hill and unwanted at 40.

Meanwhile, adult artists working and teaching when Traba ruled are getting retrospectives and excellent catalogues raisonées (too long in coming), which re-introduce them to a young audience trying to fill in the craters in Colombian art history left by Traba. She did not, unfortunately, understand the importance of continuity and diversity even in a small local market. Because of that, art criticism stagnated and developed a narrow, almost hyper-parrochial point of view so anti-everything it makes a papal bull look liberal. Criticism here is usually too personal, written by someone who either loves or hates the artist and who considers the work as peripheral to the subject. It’s no surprise that artists really detest critics and avoid inviting them to a reception or a show. Art sales are therefore based on factors unrelated to the real market value of a work. There is no critical literature to back up a work’s provenance or exhibition history. And the older the artist (or the more “female”), less literature exists. The exceptions to this are artists like Botero (a very tiny handful) or those with the financial clout to organize participation in the international art circuit (name your art fair).

One final factor–Colombia’s biodiversity is approaching legendary status. Artists from other countries come here, marvel, gasp, fall in love, freak out, take TONS of pictures and make thousands of sketches, and then LEAVE!!! The art they produce afterward never returns and Colombians remain surprised that foreigners find the place so fascinating. (Quick–Google Frederic Edwin Church and his trip to Colombia (then the Republic of Nueva Granada) and then Equador in 1853. Engrossing!)

Colombian artists with any fame (with exactly ONE exception) ignore the physical reality of the place. When forced to deal with it, the result is blood/guts/gore/woe-is-me/blah-blah-fucking-blah. Violence become so banal no one sees it, so you need a really good essay about it in your catalogue.

OH GROW UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Now, the one exception mentioned above is Carlos Jacanamijoy, whose specialty is the jungle of the Putumayo region in southern Colombia, where he grew up.

Colombian artists who do treat the cities, landscapes and seascapes as serious material are ignored by critics and many galleries. They are relegated to being included in group shows in their neighborhoods or solo shows at their schools, clubs or offices. If they’re lucky, their work can be seen in frame shops.

All my work–paintings, drawings, photography–is about Colombia and Bogotá and surrounding areas. I’m anxious to get out of my current financial disaster so I can go to Santa Marta, Popayán and the Tatacoa desert to paint and take new pictures, thus renewing what I can offer in my gallery. But because my work does take Colombia WITHOUT THE VIOLENCE as its theme, I do provoke the anger, jealousy and envy of local artists. They’ve been told repeatedly that Colombia is not a fit subject for art.

I’m saying it is, but I’m a woman and a foreigner, so I can not possibly be right. Can I?

I’ll show my four photos in July and hope they sell, and that they attract people to my gallery. But my beautiful paintings will stay on my walls until someone buys them. Kind of a shame, but I ran out of patience with local artists and customs.

Will write later in the week. Have something else to tell you. Take care and Happy Fourth of July!


Women's Trophies ('88)

Trophy Cases (’88), oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″, private collection.



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