“Not a just image, just an image”
Jean Luc Godard
Some fifty-five years ago, in post-war Paris, an artist named Renato Guttuso sat at the feet of Pablo Picasso and received one of the most crystalline if least reported artist’s retorts to a lingering dilemma. Asked whether painting figures was still possible after photography, Picasso responded with characteristic concision: “Now we know everything that painting isn’t”.
An embryonic formula for all the arts during the ongoing, superheated age of mechanical reproduction, Picasso’s quip has served generations of critical thinkers as a barrier against the onslaught of the photographic image. Today, for example, it is possible to examine, even deconstruct photography from the vantage point of some of the oldest and most traditional practices in both the arts and the arts and crafts. Painting, drawing, sculpture, paper cutting, hand-stitching, shadow-throwing and myriad other practices, often admixed with installation, have become valid methods through which to query and even reinvigorate photography—a hundred and fifty year-old practice that has, in our time, seen a marked decline in its retinal, emotional and conceptual power.
From contemporary artists like Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand to Vik Muniz and Tim Noble & Sue Webster, many of the leading international artists of the day have dissected photography to arrive at powerful works that defy the inherent realism and truth-telling of their photographic sources. To that list we can now add the name of Chilean artist Monica Bengoa. Bengoa—who constructs intensely handcrafted murals from rather prosaic, documentary-style snapshots of her family and home life—makes stunning, almost heroic extensions of photography from materials many would consider to be garbage.
Throw-away restaurant napkins, the dried and colored flowers traditionally used in Latin America for funeral crowns, needle and thread, all of these become in the hands of Mónica Bengoa urgent supports for confecting obsessively detailed works with a striking degree of visual punch. Her work “Sobrevigilancia” (Over Vigilance), for example, uses some 9,160 dessicated flowers to compose a 4.45 x 11.78 meter image of the artist’s own bathroom. Cast in a green hue that recalls the sickly color of surveillance monitors (and which also echoes the funereal stuff that make up the artist’s modular mural), “Sobrevigilancia” recreates an image of the everyday on a discomfitingly massive scale. What is more, the work’s powerful effect is matched only by its astounding economy of means.
Another work, “Ejercicios de Resistencia: Absorbción” (Resistance Exercises: Absorption), recently installed at the Fuller Museum in Brookline, Massachussets, employs 1,330 paper napkins and several sets of colored pencils to portray the unremarkable image of a kitchen stove stacked high with pots and pans. Drawn in primary colors and grade-school utensils, Bengoa presents what is essentially a no-frills take on a Third World kitchen with remarkable accuracy. The inescapable scale of the work speaks volumes about a domestic arena which is routinely overlooked (and also its attendant concerns, including issues of North and South), while the cast-off nature of the cheap napkins used underlines both the fragility of the image and the precarious social situation which it depicts.
Generating a great deal more visual heat from her materials and images than would seem possible while providing oblique narratives that stretch significantly beyond mere documentary record, Mónica Bengoa uses photography as just another tool in her artistic arsenal. The quotidian, the cast-off, the highly skilled and the photographically prosaic are all turned awesome by Bengoa’s muralistic, nearly sculptural, installation-based practice. If the devil, as the saying goes, is in the details, Bengoa’s art, it must be said, is all details. Massive, meaningful details, which she builds up carefully and powerfully from the most overlooked and plainest of images.