Today’s blog post comes from Sharifa Lookman, an undergraduate student in Art History at Wesleyan University and summer intern at the New Mexico Museum of Art.
Something old, something new, and something borrowed: the definition of New Mexico’s marriage of artistic traditions. I have always been curious about the origins and influences of New Mexico’s pastiche of artistic styles. Does the art predominately derive from one sect, or is it a breed all its own? In a recent art history seminar I studied the arts of Northern Europe, Spain in particular, an introduction that subsequently influenced a parallel between Spanish sculpture and the sculptures of 20th century New Mexico artist Patrocino Barela. The styles are superficially antithetical, the former being hyperrealist polychrome and the other abstract expression, and yet through different means the structure and form of both lend to the emotional and spiritual experience of the viewer.
Our Lady of Hope (Maria de la Esperanza Macarena)
early 17th century
Basilica of Macarena, Cathedral of Seville
Spanish polychrome sculpture of the 17th century boasts life-size renderings in hyper-realistic detail. By definition polychrome is the “practice of decorating three-dimensional elements in a variety of colors”, and in historic Spanish polychrome sculpture, Encarnacion, the goal was to be as realistic as possible in an effort to translate the figures’ emotions to the viewer. In Pedro Roldan‘s Our Lady of Hope (Maria de la Esperanza Macarena) from 17th century Spain, the piety and sorrow of the Virgin Mary as she grieves for her son is emphasized in its extensive details. The figure is frozen in time in a moment of sorrow: her teardrops hesitate on her palpable flesh as she moves her rosaries to touch her breast with one hand, a handkerchief in the other. It is a universal action that is involuntary – the act of crying and grieving. The viewer resonates with the figure through empathy and experiencing its very same pain onself. This is the devotional goal integral to Catholic iconography dating from the Middle Ages: the viewer is meant to engage with the figure on a spiritual and emotional level and embrace its piety.
Gift of Mrs. Ward Lockwood, 1969 Private Collection
With this breed of devotional art examined, the religious work of Barela can be appreciated in a new light. Viewed together Our Lady of Hope and Barela’s abstract rendering of the Virgin Mary and Angel Gabriel in The Annunciation are similar in iconographical subject matter, though antithetical in style. The forms of the Virgin and Angel Gabriel in Barela’s work are simplified and abstract in form. In contrast to the ornate aesthetic of Spanish polychrome sculpture, they are stripped of any embellishment, specificity, and color. In another Barela work of spiritual context, Untitled (Spiritual Figures), housed in the NMMA collection, the abstraction of the religious sculpture is furthered to the point that the figures are interconnected. Absent in both of Barela’s works is the narrative and temporal specificity of Spanish polychrome sculpture.
Barela’s denial of such decoration is a sophisticated simplification that lends itself to the evolution of iconographical imagery. One doesn’t need everything perfectly illustrated in order to resonate with the figures represented and understand their emotions. The details in The Annunciation are few, but they have specificity: the closed eyes, straight mouth, and crossed arms are all representative of the Virgin’s calm piety, a theme integral to the Annunciation scene. The narrative may be vague when viewed without the title’s context, but the power and emotions of the figures are undeniably present. Barela created the sculptures out of a single piece of wood in the belief that the “inherent power of the saint might be better represented through a single piece of wood.”
Barela’s work does not illustrate how the viewer should feel upon looking at the piece, thus inviting a freedom of emotion. I posit that Spanish polychrome sculpture can be viewed as a precursor to Barela’s sculpture, no in aesthetic similarities, but through the iconographical spirituality and emotion. Barela is defying all aesthetic components of Spanish polychrome sculpture in size, structure, color, and detail in favor of creating a religious experience that is equal parts specificity and interpretation. He is not telling the viewer to feel as though a tear is rolling down your cheek, but rather creating the emotional foundation. He is introducing a new way of viewing iconography that derives from Spanish polychrome sculpture in concept, though it differs in execution. Barela’s work is not an imitation of Spanish iconographical sculpture, but rather a derivative that has undergone his own personal interpretation and expression. This case study provides a look into the many external influences on New Mexican art from antiquity to today.