Barberena: Master Prints
El BeiSMan, PrESs, 2016, 114 pp., $25.00, ISBN 978-1540698469
Karl Marx once paraphrased Hegel to say that historical events occur twice—adding that the first time they occur as tragedy and the second time as farce. Today in the U.S. we are living a process which seems both tragedy and farce at the same time. The situation has been different in Nicaragua and maybe we can draw a lesson from that difference as it emerges in Franky Piña’s wonderful edition of the work of Carlos Barberena.
In Nicaragua, the farce of Daniel Ortega’s return as president brought on a new wave of resistance to official Sandinismo. But this time the resistance came not from U.S.-funded or local right wing elements, but from disillusioned but still progressive Sandinista elite and not-so-elite sectors, some (like Sergio Ramírez and Ernesto Cardenal) fighting from within, others (like writers Daisy Zamora and Giaconda Belli) forced or otherwise pushed to migrate and exile themselves, still representing and sometimes participating in homeland matters while simultaneously looking out toward the larger world beyond.
Like those who may be forced or choose to leave the U.S. now, Carlos Barberena is a clear example of those Nicaraguans who expressed their resistance to the emerging Farce through departure and a creative life elsewhere. Born into a family of artists dating back at least to the 19th Century, Barberena left for Costa Rica, but to our great fortune, arrived in Chicago to become one of the few Central American artists to find his niche in our community, and to produce, within a few short years, a remarkable body of work that has established himself as one of the great graphic artists to emerge here.
Through the pages of his online journal, El BeiSMan, and now through his new edition of Barberena’s prints, Franky Piña has been an early and persistent champion of Barberena’s exceptional talent. His wonderful introduction to the edition, which appears in Carolina Herrera’s fine English-language translation in the book and in El BeiSMan, spells out many of the reasons why, and constitutes a modelic treatment of a still-developing artist, illustrating the influences of Dürer, Kollwitz, Goya, Guayasamín and, adding satire to his growing pool of talents, Posada, and then explaining how he amalgamated all of these influences into his own style.
But the work itself is what rightfully calls our attention and deserves some independent, if not superficial, comment.
First, the reproductions are superb and enable us to fully appreciate Barberena’s achievement. No expense seems to have been spared in the publication process, while many of the pieces are in black and white, we have what color there is in all its sharpness and expressive power. In general, we may say that Barberena is a wonderful printmaker of bold line and striking concept—ranking well, I believe, with other Chicago and national Latinx artists (Artemio Rodríguez of California comes most to mind), and with the entire graphic tradition as I, at least, have come to know.
His early graphic work, portrayed in Chapter I, Transmutations, seems to draw on his experience as a painter. "Innocents" (2002) seems to echo “Guernica;” his early Silence seems to borrow its contours from impressionism, while the bold mouth points to later expressionistic forays; and his gasmaked "Transmutation II" points to horrendous modernity that he will subsequently delineate in more dramatic graphic lines. Sure enough, the next series of works, dated around 2008, show a stark, iconic and dramatic style in which his vision becomes more focused and probably clearer to most viewers. Hardly anything could be louder than his second "Silence;" hardly anything more stark than his second Innocents; hardly anything more heart-wrenching than his portrayals of hunger, child soldiers, mothers of disappeared children—the tortured, the wounded, the orphaned.
While these stark and violent works draw on Kollwitz and Goya, the next series (Years of Fear) plays with iconic art works of Europe and beyond. Magritte’s playful series “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” is represented by a pistol, setting the tone for the rest; his version of Gaugin’s “Ofrenda” is a remarkable transmutation; “La McMona” shows us Da Vinci’s masterpiece with a bright yellow McDonald’s blim; Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” strikes the eye and funny bone. “Calavera cañera (after Posada)” is a tribute to Nicaragua’s killer Flor de Caña rum. Other works plays with Lam, Golub and other artists.
Finally, Master Prints strike me as just that—the culmination of a full transmutation—beginning with further elaborations of the Western artistic tradition. Botticelli’s Venus rises Barberena’s trademark gasmask in place; Munch’s over-quoted Scream appears here backed by the mushroom cloud that was implicit in many post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki parodies; Barberena quotes Posada, but forgets to credit Chicana Esther Hernández’s "Sun Mad"; there is an inevitable Goya, an improved Lam, a wonderful Haring, a great Zúñiga in color, a simple and striking “War is War,” super-complex tributes to Dürer and Doré, as well as simpler tributes to Posada, Leopoldo Méndez and others.
Less focused on parodying or appropriating other art works are his great tributes to Guatemala’s Ríos Montt, to a Palestine Mother, to Central American refugees, and one of his most striking images, “McShitter”—a brilliant portrayal of a ‘McDonaldized’ culture with a ‘McDonalized’ man sitting in a ‘McDonaldized john, eating as he shits the shit he is eating. This final image concludes a virtual “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” preparing us for a still greater visual trajectory into the future. But “McShitter,” dated 2013, is perhaps also a visual prophecy, predicting where we are at now, on the eve of 2017, with "McShitter" ready to sit on his throne surrounded by all the little shitters he is in the course of dumping upon us.
This great little book shows how redemption can come out of the farce of Daniel Ortega’s return. Can we expect any redemption from the tragic farce in which we now find ourselves immersed? Barberena shows us the way to resist through humor and art. May we learn from him and other transmuters to do the same.
Marc Zimmerman. Emeritus, Latino and Latin American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, director Global CASA/LACASA Chicago Books. Commentator and contributor to El BeiSMan.