“Art says things that history cannot.”
“Art says things that history cannot,” said Beatriz González, an artist recognized for her appropriation of popular culture images from newspapers and magazines. Her career unfolded amid social and political turbulence following the 10-year period known as La Violencia (1948–58) in her native Colombia. Collaborating closely with the United States as part of its Cold War project to exterminate Communist activity, the Colombian government encouraged modernization projects that promoted a narrow concept of Latin American modern art as sophisticated, international, abstract, and, most importantly, apolitical.
After González’s first solo exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá in 1964, critics portrayed her as the epitome of an international modern artist whose work could circulate abroad. They praised her for her use of abstraction and, more tacitly, her seeming political neutrality. However, González soon shifted her focus to contemporary Colombian life. In her second solo show in 1967, she showed 14 new paintings based on images she had collected from newspapers and magazines, marking her turn toward the incorporation of vernacular culture. In particular, Rionegro, Santander (1967) evokes a sense of nostalgia both in its reference to the region where González’s went on holiday, and because the corners of the painting recall the fasteners in a family photo album.
In the early 1970s, González began to collect furniture from local markets. Her body of work from this period, which includes Lullaby, features enamel paintings of images from popular culture; the artist executed them on metal sheets, which she then mounted on furniture. Because of her appropriation of images from the media, as well as her interest in everyday subject matter and materials, she has often been mentioned in discussions of Pop art, a movement made famous by Andy Warhol. However, as art historian Esther Gabara explains, while the Pop art of the US is most associated with the idea of consumer culture, artists from Latin American often demonstrate how, in their context, consumerism cannot be separated from the history of colonialism, the extraction of natural resources, and the extreme discrepancy between poverty and wealth. González’s incorporation of pop culture imagery was often labeled cursi—a Spanish word that roughly translates to “corny” or “overly sentimental.” This did not seem to bother her. When asked why she stopped using furniture, González responded, “Because people started to like it.”
In 1979, González turned her focus to the recently elected President Julio César Turbay Ayala, whose Statute of Security gave the military increased power to interrogate, torture, and ultimately disappear civilians suspected of subversive communist activity. During the first two years of Turbay’s four-year term, every day González made stylized, simplistic drawings based on images of Turbay in private and political life. This body of drawings includes the satirical Turbay Skiing (1980), which meditates on the idea that Colombian politics had morphed into a mass media spectacle.
González has also worked extensively with printmaking. In 1983 she conceived of Zócalo de la tragedia and Zócalo de la comedia, two related series that feature images from the press. The former is based on an image of a man who killed his friend's girlfriend and then committed suicide, while the latter shows Turbay bestowing a state honor on a diplomat during the last days of his presidency. Speaking about Zócalo de la comedia, González explained, “The purpose was to ridicule [Turbay]. It was a bit of a mockery. I wanted the public to call into question the presidents and what Colombia represented, how presidents used power.” Collaborating with a print workshop, she reproduced these images, which she saw as representing two facets of national identity: violence and the decoration of national heroes. The prints were intended to be posted on the sides of buildings throughout Bogotá, but were quickly censored by the government.
González sees 1985—the year of a tragic confrontation between the guerrilla group M-19 and the Colombian military—as a turning point in her work. As she explains, this was the moment in which she thought, “I can no longer laugh,” and she began to focus even more critically on media images of drug trafficking, paramilitaries, and massacres. For one of her most recent works, Auras anónimas (2007–09), González covered the niches of former graves in Bogotá’s Central Cemetery with silhouettes that reference workers who clean up the corpses resulting from Colombia’s ongoing violence. With this work, she continues her project of rethinking the images we are confronted with daily by incorporating them into new and unexpected contexts.
Madeline Murphy Turner, The Marica and Jan Vilcek Fellow, The Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.