Between Two Dimensions: Paintings by Isabel De Obaldía

Posted in Essays

Edward J. Sullivan

In the last several decades the aspect of Isabel De Obaldía’s work that has become best know is that of her glass sculptures. Exhibited at major venues on both sides of the Atlantic, her intriguing, evocative and technically masterful totems, human and animal figures have entered the mainstream of contemporary art. This is appropriate as the medium itself has moved from the realm of craft to a position that it has long deserved within the hierarchy of fine art. This prominent role is reflected in the renewed attention placed on the art of glass by galleries and museums. To name only a few major exhibition sites in the U.S. we might turn to the best known of these, the Corning Museum of Glass in New York (where De Obaldía executed a major commission in 2009), the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington and, most recently, the pavilion designed by the Japanese architects Kazuyu Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa for the Toledo Museum of Art, whose holdings of ancient to modern glass are rivaled only by those of the Metropolitan Museum, New York City.

Jaguar en la SelvaIt should not be forgotten, however, that there is an equally powerful side to the creative process and imagination of De Obaldía, her paintings on canvas, which in the current exhibition are being given pride of place alongside her three-dimensional work. There is a symbiotic relationship between her works in two and three-dimensions and the following series of remarks will seek to indicate some of these points of convergence. In an exhibition bearing the title Primordial it is appropriate that her canvases be present to represent the more directly narrative aspect to the artist’s imagination. The glass sculptures may suggest primal forces and tensions in the world of nature, but the paintings, with their dynamic lines and vivid colors, complement the three-dimensional images by rounding out the stories, and creating palpable worlds in which the creatures, both human and animal, walk and interact with one another.

The most recent painting in the exhibition is a work from 2010 entitled Jaguar in Jungle , a powerful image imbued with the characteristic dynamism of its artist. We see a massive yellow beast approach a naked man, lying on the ground in terror of the threat the animal poses. The jungle setting is suggested by slashing, flame-like brush strokes and the fear of the moment is enhanced by the blood red tones surrounding the beast and his prey. The power of raw nature is the subject here but the main character is undoubtedly the imposing animal figure with its mask-like face. As in much of the work of De Obaldía there are strong suggestions here of telluric forces at work. The struggle between man and beast might be seen as an over-all metaphor for the surging energy of nature which often collides and struggles to gain power, one over the other. The figure of the jaguar, a sacred beast to many pre-Columbian peoples in the Americas, is a member of the vibrant menagerie of beasts including crocodiles, panthers, birds and snakes that populate the imagination and the three-dimension glass work of Isabel De Obaldía. As in the glass totems, there are suggestions here of the impact that prehispanic sculpture and jewelry has had on the artist who spent much of her life and career in her native Panama, with its rich indigenous traditions, both ancient and modern. Nonetheless, despite the congruencies between the two and three dimensions art of De Obaldía, I would like to suggest that her paintings demonstrate an aspect apart from her glass production, reflecting, perhaps, a different set of aesthetic criteria. De Obaldía is one of the rare artists equally comfortable in the realms of both sculpture and painting.

The great majority of paintings both in the exhibition as well as in her oeuvre in general correspond to the late 1980s and 1990s. De Obaldía began to exhibit in the late 1970s, with a solo show of drawings in 1977, and soon became completely aware of the wide variety of artistic manifestations that had captured the world’s attention by that time. De Obaldía began to paint in 1980 and this was her principal form of artistic expression until she studied glass beginning in 1987.
De Obaldía was certainly cognizant of the growing importance of what has been termed by some Neo-Expressionism, a transnational phenomenon in the art worlds of many nations that began to take hold in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In some ways inspired by the expressionistic forms of artists from Germany and Central Europe in the 1910s and 20s, the Neo-Expressionist artists in Europe and the U.S. began to demonstrate shared tendencies and sensitivity to lively color, vivid form and compositions that often suggested taught emotions or chaos. In 1981 there was a landmark exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, organized by the curators Christos Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal, which did a great deal to codify some of the tenets of Neo-Expressionism. Entitled A New Spirit in Painting, this show was a critical success but was at the same time highly criticized by some who saw in the immense scale and dramatic manner of composition and execution an excessive emotionalism that was inherent in many of the works exhibited. A New Spirit concentrated on European and American artists (mainly male) and did not reflect what soon came to be a completely internationalized form of painting, with adherents throughout the world, both west and east. In Latin America there were numerous artists who embraced the large scale as well as the compositional and coloristic freedom that was coming into vogue.1

De Obaldía certainly responded to Neo Expressionism, absorbing and demonstrating in her works of the late 1980s the power of expressive force that had been demonstrated in some of the most well known artists associated with this tendency, such as the Germans Georg Baselitz or A.R. Penck, the Italians Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi or the Americans Julian Schnabel, Jean Michel Basquiat and Elizabeth Murray, among others. However, as art historian Mónica Kupfer has pointed out, the dramatic nature and the implied violence of many of De Obaldía’s works of circa 1989 or 1990 also respond to a very particular set of circumstances occurring in Panama at the time.2

The majority of the artist’s best known works on canvas are products of this convulsive era when the socio-political situation in Panama was virtually at its nadir. Indeed the decade of the 1980s was a moment of extreme stress for Panamanians after Chief of State Omar Torrijos died in an airplane crash in the summer of 1981. The ascent to power of Manuel Antonio Noriega as Commander-in-Chief of the National Guard initiated a conflicted period marked by drug trafficking, increased brutality of the army (many of whose officers had been trained, since the 1940s, by the United States), the murder of important officials and, finally, by 1989, a “state of war.” In that same year Noriega seized control of the government, despite several coup attempts. December of 1989 was perhaps the bloodiest and most disturbed time in the country’s recent history. The United States intervened and invaded Panama. The death toll rose to the hundreds and chaos reigned in the capital and other cities well into the following year. During this time, the Panama Canal was still under American control, although a Panamanian administrator was appointed in 1990, leading to a final handing over of control to Panama ten years later. This extremely sketchy outline of some of the principal events in Panama in the late 1980s and early 90s is simply meant to place into context the work that Isabel De Obaldía created at this time.3 While I am not, of course, arguing that her work be understood merely as a reaction to the difficult moment in her country, the artist was inevitably affected by the tragedies developing around her.

1989-DesterradoSome of the most outstanding paintings in this show display intimations (or even more graphic representations) of pain and sorrow. The imposing 1989 piece entitled Exiled depicts a large figure (neither sex is specifically delineated) whose head is in its hands. A decapitated head may on one hand refer to the terrifying incident that occurred in September, 1985 when the Vice Minister of Health, Hugo Spadafora, was found beheaded in a remote place in the north of Panama. This figure’s right foot is deeply rooted in the ground suggesting a wish to connect at all costs with a place that represents “home” while the other foot floats free and un-connected to the earth. Operation of the same year evokes equally ambiguous and equally agonizing events, as a large recumbent male figure is surrounded by both humanoid and animal figures with menacing beaks and tiger faces. Even the title of this painting gives us pause: does the artist refer to a medical procedure which would result in a cure of an afflicted person, or are we confronted with the creepy aftermath of a covert police activity? The ambiguity is a major part of this and virtually all other of these highly animated, evocative and stunning paintings.

La IslaAt other times natural disasters or events related to the convulsions of the moment provide the basis for some of the most dramatic of these images. The Island (1989) suggests an inundation or mass tragedy in which corpses and mutilated body parts flow past in a body of water. Lifeboat of 1990 evokes the terrifying confrontation with natural forces at their most destructive. From an art historical standpoint this work takes its place among some of the most outstanding images of modern western painting, as artists of such as the nineteenth century Romantics as J.W.M. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich and Théodore Géricault all painted some of their best known pictures employing this theme as a metaphor for universal suffering and salvation.

NaufragioIsabel De Obaldía has always projected her deep association and engagement with the natural world into her art. Her large and small scale glass sculptures often depict animal forms in a way that allows us to understand her deep empathy with non-human creatures. In no instance does she execute work that is decorative or merely descriptive. There is always a deeply felt telluric sensibility in these pieces; an element that provides them with their charismatic attraction for viewers. The same could be said about many of her paintings. In her own house outside Panama City she is in constant touch with nature. Animals, both wild and tamed, are of deep fascination for the artist and the surge and pulse of nature is inevitably felt in her paintings. A perfect example of this is the 1992 Limpiacasas in which a small animal, a lizard or a gecko takes on monumental proportions, assuming grandeur and taking over the field of vision. This creature, known for eating insects and sometimes harmful mites and other bugs (and, thus ‘cleaning’ a household) appears as an ancient totem that climbs about at will through the rooms of a dwelling. Somewhat more enigmatic is the 1993 The Beast in which two humans attempt to contain a hybrid animal by holding it by its front and hind quarters. The creature is defined by brilliant red color. It is in this example that De Obaldía reminds us most definitively of the work of artists, such as Emil Nolde or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in the 1910s (and also, the French Fauves such as the young Matisse working in c.1905) whose example was so crucial for the rise of Neo-Expressionism in the 1980s.

There are few, if any, paintings by De Obaldía that directly evoke her sculptures. One exception is the 1994 Search. In this canvas a massive green figure with yellow slits for eyes stands rigid. His hands are outstretched and from them emanate rays of light or power. On his hands there are painted eyes, making of this figure not so much a human but a totem, a monolith or even a monster. The all-encompassing presence of this creature within the space created for it by the artist can be said to represent a foreshadowing of the grandiosity assumed by her sculptural creations in glass from only a few years later. We return, then, to the theme of continuity, of virtual seamlessness in the art of Isabel De Obaldía. At the start of her career she imagined beasts, monsters, imposing creatures in paintings and in drawings. These were followed by their physical actualization in the glass sculptures. De Obaldía’s body of work is one of great coherence and consistency. She has set out to fashion her own universe and she has succeeded in creating convincing and satisfying works that straddle two and three dimensions.

Edward J. Sullivan is the Helen Gould Sheppard Professor of the History of Art at the Institute of Fine Arts and the Department of Art History, New York University

1 The history of Neo-Expressionism in Latin America has not been sufficiently studied. Mexico in the 1980s and into the early 90s witnessed a particularly strong group of artists working in a way that paralleled their contemporaries in the U.S. and Europe, However, as in other Latin American nations, there was a specific political message in much of their art. See Teresa Eckmann, Neo-mexicanismo. Mexican Figurative Painting and Patronage in the 1980s (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010).2 Mónica E. Kupfer, “Crosscurrents. An Approach to Panamanian Painting in the Twentieth Century,” in Kupfer and Edward J. Sullivan, Crosscurrents. Contemporary Painting from Panama, 1968-1998 (New York: The Americas Society, 1998), pp. 26-27.

3 The chronology of recent Panamanian history published in the above-referenced catalogue (pp. 46-49) is a very useful schematic reference. See also Robert C. Harding, Military Foundations of Panamanian Politics (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2001), Harding, The History of Panama (Westport, Greenwood Press, 2006) and Michael L. Conniff, Panama and the United States: The Forced Alliance (Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 2001).