Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art

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    Synopsis

    In this 1967 book of poems, the poet, painter and art critic Juan Calzadilla explores the contradictions at work in contemporary Venezuelan society. The book is divided into five sections: Relevo de Guardia [Relay Guard]; Sistema de Conducta [System of Conduct]; Carnet de Enumeraciones / [Numbered Ledger]; Abismo Publico [Public Abyss]; and Un Ojo de Contrapeso [A Counterposed Eye]. Poems like “King’s Crown” and “Legitimate Defense” emphasize the inequities and class distinctions at work in modern Venezuela, while poems like the “Beast” trilogy articulate the connections between creative production and animal energies. A substantial number of poems are devoted to incarceration and imprisonment, both literal and figurative, including “Of the Inmates” and “Sentence”. In general, Calzadilla presents an image of a society that had completely lost its ethical compass, a society whose sense of transparency and intelligence had eroded completely. Figural drawings by Pablo Duran accompany the text and help heighten the sense of bloated, monstrous humanity.

    Annotations

    When Juan Calzadilla (b. 1931) produced Contradicciones Sobrenaturales, the contradictions in Venezuelan society were readily evident. The Social Democratic but nonetheless politically polarizing president Rómulo Betancourt had been voted out of office but the guerilla movements that had strengthened under his regime were still active. The country had undergone intense economic growth during this decade and, while the standard of living had improved, the avant-garde circles of which Calzadilla was a part (most notably El Techo de la Ballena) were heaping intense criticism on the advancement of the country into a state of mindless consumerism and political conformity. Calzadilla’s circle of artists and writers were also in a state of conflict, having lost the command of several main participants. El Techo de la Ballena’s publishing activities increased in the mid- to late 1960s, however, and so did Calzadilla’s output. Urban life in particular was a focus for Calzadilla’s work, and he said in an interview that “the contradictions [within the book were] fairly obvious” and that the apparent “supernatural” quality of those contradictions were actually quite natural, because they were given and evident components of daily life.

     

    Juan Calzadilla (Altagracia de Orituco, 1931) worked across a variety of techniques including painting, poetry, and art criticism. From a young age he dabbled in literatura and in 1953 won the Prize for Poetry from the First National Youth Festival. [For more essays by Calzadilla regarding shifts in Caracas’ art scene, see ICAA (doc. no. 865589) and (doc. no. 1279499)]. He also co-founded the Venezuelan avant-garde group El Techo de Ballena (Caracas, 1961-68) and was heavily involved in the emerging ecosystem of avant-garde galleries in Caracas, including the influential gallery Sala Mendoza. [For more essays by Calzadilla on artists he considered influential, see “Manuel Quintana Castillo: anotaciones para los fragmentos de un muro escrito” (doc. no.1156168)], “La pintura de Armando Barrios” (doc. no.1163238), and “La pintura de Carlos Contramaestre” (doc. no. 868632)]  

     

    El Techo de la Ballena were a group of Venezuelan artists and writers who combined different disciplines—visual arts, poetry, photography, film, performance art, among—to create interrogative and revolutionary artwork during one of the most violent decades in Venezuelan history. Guerilla warfare, far-left ideas, political repression, and problematic city planning helped create a framework for this group’s formation. In painting, sculpture, and writing, they encouraged an informal aesthetic and an ethos of aggression that was meant to combat the dominant paradigms of abstract geometry, landscape, and social realist styles. Their strategies were subversive and often incorporated Dada or Surrealist strategies. Their large editorial production encompassed at least three issues of Rayado sobre el Techo de la Ballena and many exhibitions.