Art That Mesmerizes
by Eleanor Flomenhaft, Executive Director, Chief Curator,
Fine Arts Museum of Long Island
In 1913, after his break with Freud, Carl Jung, in a state of despair, searched his fantasies and other material that surfaced from his subconscious for clues to a more substantial understanding of himself and his relation to the cosmos. What he found was that images formed in meditation and dreams were not of his experience… that (they) produce themselves and have their own force… and could originate only in a mythic and psychic realm which would be common to everyone, the “collective unconscious.” 1 A figure that recurred often was of an old man Jung named Philomen, with whom he had long conversations and who, for him, represented superior insight.
Orlando Agudelo-Botero’s MENTOR is such a figure. Dredged up from the depths of the collective subconscious, Orlando has drawn a form layered with a rare convergence of philosophies that reach back and forward through the corridors of time, interwoven with the chance riches he gleans from hearing about the lives of the many people he meets in his travels.
MENTOR is an upright meditative figure that dominates the painting with an architectonic harmony that evokes Pythagorus’ modules, as if its substructure was the plan of a basilica. In the subject’s compact, simplified composition, one perceives intimations of Sumerian statues from the Abu Temple, Tell Asmar of approximately 2700 to 2500 B.C., which were carved out of a single block of marble, yet it also has a marked affinity for a Hermetic cosmic oven.
Not the conventional madonna and child, MENTOR’s androgyny points with some insistence to the dualities of life’s forces that defy integration, the rational and the irrational, light and darkness, life and death, the solid against shifting values; yin and its yang; and in fact, opposing forces are carefully orchestrated and reconciled in this work. By way of example, the dominant figure is white faced. Yet the nostrils imply African descent, and the child within, an infant sun-god in formation, is black. Such referents to the merging of races set the tone for one of Orlando’s guiding ethos, that all of humanity could live together as one in peace. Thus, Orlando reveals himself as a humanist, clearly identifying with his MENTOR. But he is much more. Seeking a union of his soul and mind, trying to recapture a simplicity of spirit in his art, utilizing as his prima materia the images and symbols he unearths in his subconscious, he has forged an alchemic art that defies classification while it compels careful study. Since many of the world’s major philosophies, whether Platonic, Christian, Taoist or Tantric are deeply imbued with magic, and Orlando has absorbed those and more – sometimes not consciously – alchemic principles are hardly foreign to his art. In fact, observing him at work in his studio, he appears more conjurer than painter. Transforming paints, paper and the sundry other materials that he embeds into his papers, he seeks a perfection in his art akin to the magicians’ struggle with the transmutation of base metals into their concept of the most perfect substance, gold. His physical communication with his materials is of such an intensity that he actually seems to imbue them with life. Oftentimes he creates his paper and lets the pulp dictate its own needs. He embraces the wet canvas as he paints, absorbing its rhythms as if in a trance, and allows the canvas to absorb his own bodily rhythms.
MENTOR’s head is surrounded by an evenly broken halo which hearkens back to times earlier than the halos of medieval Christian art, to those of sun-gods worshipped by the world’s first settlers. Alluding to the sun hints at a male presence in Hermetic terms, according to Greek wisdom. Furthermore, in Hermes’ alchemic scheme of the universe the soul is male and is also identified with the sun. The child within MENTOR’s belly, also a sun-god, eschatologically suggests Christ’s death and resurrection. Implied in the total composition is Orlando’s heroic struggle through a large reservoir of knowledge as he searches within himself for the great mysteries of nature. With ideas conveyed through implication rather than elucidation, MENTOR allows for no single pat reading. Rather it is richly layered like the earth, and as one stratum is cleared away, another presents itself, from layer to layer, from association to association.
MENTOR’s body is circular, a form that has had so much mythical significance, scratched on rocks in Paleolithic times, representing the cosmos in Tantric Yoga, abstracted on rose windows in Gothic churches or appearing as the Christian mandala with Christ at its center, not unlike the way Orlando has drawn the sun-god growing within MENTOR’s belly.
Like all authentic psychic images, MENTOR is drawn from the soul of earlier years, yet is totally of its own moment of time. As a multimedia work, painted on handmade paper, it bears the physical stamp of our era. During the 1970’s a groundswell of artists emerged using paper as a major expressivemeans. Artists found handmade paper to be malleable, as fragile as it can be strong; and they described the manipulation of pulp and pigment in sensuous terms. Orlando, with similar feelings, cautions his assistants not to move the screen on which the pulp is drying for he can already sense the gestation period beginning and the painting emerging within its matter. While the paper is being created, he already knows the direction the painting will demand. Art-historical groundwork for MENTOR was laid down from about 1870 by the Symbolists, the pioneer anti-historicists who substituted suggestive imagery for naturalism, and found in the symbol the necessary catalyst for their ideas. Like the Symbolists, Orlando is a seer with the expressed goal of leading others to the light, to enlightenment. Although Orlando does not consider himself a symbolist, the plangent note which they sounded he rephrased in his own key. Hearkening to the words of Baudelaire, Symbolist poets and artists tried to achieve correspondences to the aural senses, the former in onomatopoeic verses and the latter in the emotive properties of line and color. From his youth, Orlando found that while sitting in algebra classes he preferred painting to taking notes of the equations the teachers were discussing. He drew his teachers’ voices and textures; and so it began. Or was his future already ordained?
Philosophically, MENTOR is rooted in the teachings of the Theosophists at the turn of the century, who opened the doors for poets and artists to Plato’s geometric equivalents relating the heavens and earth, the elements, the soul and the spirit, as well as the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ with its occult secrets. But mandates are also to be found with the surrealists, who had explored the writings of Freud and Jung, and by 1924 had begun to tap their automatic instincts for clues to their subconscious, and in action painting of the post World-War II era that combined free automatism with the strong gestural involvement with which Orlando attacks his canvas. Finally, MENTOR can be viewed as a work which adumbrates Orlando’s entire oeuvre. Themes, subthemes and precedents insist on suggesting themselves, leading in a free flow of consciousness to the rich grammar of his imagery.
Dualities, as in MENTOR, are ubiquitous signifiers in other of Orlando’s paintings. In LUZ the masked face is blood red on one side, predominantly brown on the other, with a white outline that also serves to separate two halves of other wholes not yet able to unite. The philosopher Mircea Eliade points out in “Mythical and Ritual Origins of Masks” that it is man who “increases his magico-religious possibilities by hiding his face and concealing his body…By wearing a mask he becomes what he is resolved to be: homo religiousus and zoon politikon.” 2 But Orlando’s mask incorporates femaleness in its maleness, for the artist believes that acknowledgment and understanding of a male’s female quotient or the reverse adds to one’s strength and sensitivity. In addition we all have two different halves to our faces just as Orlando has created two halves of two faces. According to experiments every face carries the dualities in each of us. The left side of our face supposedly reveals our subconscious desires while the right side is purported to be our true face. Further, we all wear what Jung called our persona, the name of the mask worn by the ancient Greek actors, a protective system by which we represent ourselves to the daily world.
LUZ in its numinous rather deceptive simplicity, reflects an honest search for the marvelous in nature. The mask from prehistoric times was used to deal with the supernatural and all the vagaries of man’s fate. It is one of the earliest known artistic expressions and has fascinated artists to this day. “Scandalized Masks”, 1883, was the first of many paintings by Flemish artist James Ensor in which he unveiled everyman’s persona. In 1904, Pablo Picasso created a bronze he called “Man’s Mask,” and two of the figures in his most famous cubist painting, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” have mask-like faces, a result by that time of influence from West African masks. Perhaps the modern artist who made the African mask most his own was Amedeo Modigliani. But why did Orlando create this split mask in LUZ ? To how many contradictory forces is he alluding? Once again we realize that the gossamer web within Orlando’s recondite visual-poetic art can never be totally unraveled, but has a compelling power that is easily felt.
Further, observing the female features on the blood red left side of the mask recalls an alchemist’s allegory of the sun mating with the moon, the sun representing the male prototype and the moon the female, their offspring conceived in water and born in air, and when he becomes red he walks on water. But it was Jesus who walked on water, and the overlay of Christian theology, archetypal memory, mythology and magic continue to fascinate in all of Orlando’s paintings.
Above the mask is the word LUZ which means light. One word. But a word is magic. The wisdom of the ages teaches us from the time of hieroglyphics and throughout all religions, that using the word will make it happen. Luz, light, enlightenment, education; Orlando will repeat those words over and over, and like an incantation they are meant to magically coax the viewer into a recognition that salvation resides only in learning.
Written imagery, which abounds throughout Orlando’s canvases, also confirms his identification with his own moment in the art historical process. From the turn of the century a revisionism took place and written imagery, previously utilized in biblical works and children’s books, entered poster art, and soon after became legitimate subject matter in fine art. In 1900, English artist Walter Crane pointed out that “Writing is but a simpler form of drawing, and we know that the letters of the alphabet were originally pictures and symbols.” 3 Picasso and Braque incorporated written imagery into their cubist art from 1911, and the floodgates were open. Writing was to become an important part of twentieth century art. By 1930 art and communication became curiously linked in pictographs and ideograms inspired primarily by the Uruguayan Joachim Torres-Garcia who formed in Paris the group and periodical entitled Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square) along with Michael Seuphor (Dutch born art critic). Philosophically pertinent to Orlando’s art are Adolph Gottlieb’s pictographs created from 1941 to 1953 which reflected a fascination with necromancy, works with such titles as “The Sorceress,” “The Evil Omen” and “The Alchemist.” Many scholars feel that Gottleib was strongly influenced by the grid-art of Torres-Garcia whose imagery merged myth and magic in a way that resembles that cryptic script of Native Americans. In addition to art with symbolic signifiers, idea art, which made its appearance in the nineteen seventies and eighties, that could combine the scientific and metaphysical as in Arakawa’s paintings, or is polemical as in that of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, bears close affinities to many works by Orlando. In paintings such as EFIGIE and PAZ: IDEALIZMO VS. MATERIALIZMO, messages–political, social and philosophical — play a prominent role. But written imagery served another purpose at times of personal changes which Orlando found difficult. He then wrote on paintings as a way of nurturing himself. On PAZ: IDEALISMO VS. MATERIALISMO the entire work is lined with names of countries in alphabetical order starting with Afghanistan in the upper left corner continuing through the field of a square and ending with Vietnam in the lower right. The square in the center strongly indicates idealism, and owes an indebtedness to Kasimir Malevich’s first Suprematist painting of a black square on a white ground from 1915. The black “desert” for Malevich equalled feeling, the surrounding field signified the void beyond feeling. Malevich regarded objects from the material world as meaningless in themselves with only feeling as the source of creation, and independent of the environment that surrounded it. Feeling is what this compelling work PAZ is all about. Superimposed on the square of Orlando’s painting is a mandala surrounding a symbol of peace, the names of those people still seeking homelands bordering the inner edge of the circle, while faces force their way through the paint of the entire canvas as if they were barely remembered pentimentos. The word paz means peace and at the time Orlando was immersed in this painting he was trying to find some measure of peace within himself. What we sense is that only in a constructive dialogue between idealism and materialism, the latter signified by writing, can harmony be approached.
A strong work by Orlando entitled INFINITY holds further aesthetic and intellectual pleasures. It relates to the artist’s view of life and death which he sees as part of a metamorphic process in which we move from one to another cosmic level. He paints infinity as a naked woman bordered on one side by a band of blood. Mircea Eliade noted that just as man increased his magico-religious possibilities by wearing a mask, “woman’s ceremonial nakedness increased her magico-religious power…In her body, by her body, the goddess reveals the mystery of inexhaustible creation on all levels of life in the cosmos…the Hindus, for example, (believe that) every nude woman incarnates prakrti, nature, matter, the primordial substance.” 4 Certainly in her spiritual nakeness and fetal position, Orlando’s figure is linked to the cosmic cycles of creation, birth and death. It is no accident that within this work we find connections to other of Orlando’s paintings, since all of his works adhere as part of the warp and woof of one fabric, reflecting his pilgrimage through life, and his ontological relationship to his every experience. In INFINITY the figure’s bent head, for example, repeated in chalk white in QUEST , in LA FAMILIA I, and even discernible with some difficulty in LUZ , signifies humility. It has an important personal significance for Orlando. Since the age of eighteen, he has struggled without stint to learn to be humble. As an adolescent he knew himself to be proud and at times even arrogant. But when he experienced true pride in himself as a human being he realized there was no room for false hubris. His symbol for humility has a “simplicity,” says Orlando which he lovingly notes “is better said by the Spanish word, sencillez.” And the head is male; it is firm, strong, lacking female softness, and as such, in INFINITY, it asserts the male essence of woman being reabsorbed back into nature. Additionally, lines of written imagery on the woman’s body name religions and philosophies including Buddhism, Christianity, Eastern Orthodox Church, Judaism, Hinduism, Theosophy and many more, part of Orlando’s heroic struggle to join all as equals in the process of cosmic metamorphosis.
As Orlando makes his way through the welter of life’s complexities, he recognizes humanity’s need for organized religion, although attending church is not his way. He has a strong communication with a higher being, but believes one has the power and responsibility to carve out a moral living space, and to live with kindness and compassion. In his engagement with life, he is religious about what he does, about how he treats others and about learning. Education, written several times on the painting, QUEST expounded on in LA FAMILIA III, and the basis of LUZ is his passion.
A significant symbol in Orlando’s painting INFINITY is the triangle, drawn at afar, removed from the more dominant nude female figure, and close to the shadows where chaos reigns. In the Christian religion the triangle is equated with the trinity – the Father, the son and the holy ghost. But since dual meanings are always suspected in Orlando’s art, we would be remiss to omit reference by Plutarch, well versed in Platonic and Oriental esoterism, to the earlier holy trinity of Osiris, Isis and the son Horus, who corporealized intelligence, matter and the cosmos, and were called the most perfect triangle. Isis is thought to have lived on in Western culture as a madonna and the feminine part of nature, symbolized by flowing hair, as in Orlando’s INFINITY and by a half-moon on a womb, not unlike the form drawn on MENTOR.
Orlando Agudelo-Botero is a consummate educator, a scholar, and a humanist in terms that art historian Edwin Panofsky defines so well: as one with the “conviction of the dignity of man, based on both the insistence of human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and fraility); from these two postulates result responsibility and tolerance.”5
Orlando paints for an audience without any geographical restrictions. Although culturally a Latin, he places no graphic limits on his spirit, his mind or his emotions. From the time that he was a youth he was fascinated by what was beyond the borders of Colombia where he was born in a small four hundred year old town in the Andes Mountains. When he came of age, he immediately got his documentation and then presented himself to his father for approval to leave the country. Although unhappy about it, his father took him to the airport the next day and Orlando left for the United States, arriving on a Friday evening at 9 P.M. . It was February 13, 1968. On Saturday morning at 10 a.m. he was already at a desk of an English class where he would meet a conglomeration of ethnic types from all over the world. He sat next to a young lady from Thailand and to someone from France and Germany and so forth. From the first he loved the exposure to other cultures, which acted as a springboard for his art. Hence his work and life were to become of a piece. Certainly Orlando’s accomplishment is most singular. He has remained unswayed by the latest art fads. Pursuing his own trajectory, he seems to have cared nothing about being iconoclastic or in the avant-garde, and has created a formidable body of work which reflects this artistic integrity. Having absorbed a great deal of information and impressions, he approaches a canvas without any preconceived ideas. When he works it is always spontaneous, and a mesmerizing visual effect is the result of that process. In its total conjoining of artist to subject, and its unity of idea, material and form, his art challenges the mind of the viewer while at the same time it awakens the desire for one’s own voyage of discovery.
Having just turned forty-five years of age, he still has many unanswered questions about himself and his art. Beginning to realize the power of his aesthetic, his goal is to convey important messages, one being the necessity of education. Moreover, his paintings will always remain vehicles of self-study. Says Orlando, “Most of the education that I have, I owe to my paintings.” And in his engagement with life, he is the eternal student. He says, “I learn through every painting, not just technically, but most importantly, about life itself. Whatever I have at times wanted to learn, I have painted.”
- C.G. Jung “Word and Image” Princeton Univ. Pres; 1979.
Translated by Krishna Winston from C.G. Jung: Bild und Wort, @
Walter Verlag AG, Olten Switzerland, 1977; p.68.
- Mircea Eliade “Symbolism, the Sacred, & the Arts” (N.Y. The
Crossroad Publishing Co. 1985), p.64.
- Walter Crane, “Line and Form” (London: George Bell and Sons,
- Mircea Eliade, “Symbolism, the Sacred, & the Arts,” op. cit.
- Erwin Panofsky, “Meaning in the Visual Arts,” (Chicago, The
University of Chicago Press, 1939), p.2.
- Quotes of Orlando Agudelo-Botero are from an interview with
the author, August 1991.
Foreword for Luz Exhibition