Art / by Jack Ruttan

Alejandro Mendez - The Labyrinths of Existence

at Galerie Art et Arte until November 30, 1992.

Artists in Montreal, listing the disadvantages of working in this city, don't generally include the danger of disappearing into jail. Artists in Latin America do. Such a thing happened to Argentine painter Alejandro Mendez in 1977. For three of the six years he spent in prison, no one had any idea where he was. He might as well have been dead.

"You need to be Argentine," says gallery owner Lilian Rodriguez, to understand the reasons for Mendez's imprisonment. In part it was because the university he attended was known for left-wing political activity. Mainly, it was because his name was found in the wrong person's address book. It happened a lot in those years. When the military dictatorship lost power in 1983, Mendez and hundreds of other political prisoners were released. A sampling of his most recent work has found its way to Montreal.

Looking at Mendez's paintings in the quiet, tiny gallery on Saint Hubert Street, it's easy to imagine those six years in prison. Unusual for watercolours, a medium often used for decorative, sentimental subjects, these pictures are bleak and psychological. Like a lot of prison art, they are closed in on themselves. Part of this is a result of the artist's stated theme, which is labyrinths and mazes. It's also because of the dark tones, and the jumble of compositional elements.

Mendez's pictures (all untitled) show a system in collapse. They are fantasy urban scenes where every division in society is broken up and mixed together, while the all-invading labyrinth imposes itself on everything. Junkyards empty into private studies while in behind, bank buildings are turned upside down. People are shown like earthquake victims actually trying to conduct their lives on top of the labyrinth. While an imaginary object, the labyrinth is as substantial as anything else in the picture. It's made of smooth, speckled material not unlike that used for trim in shopping malls. Besides painting, Mendez was trained in architecture.

The fact that lives are still going on in this painterly chaos is the single optimistic feature of these paintings. In one, chairs are set up as if for a meeting, saying that even though the world has gone to hell, people are still trying to do things about it. A lonely figure shows up in two of the pictures, probably that of the artist himself. He looks out sadly at the fragmented landscape. He also sits in his study with the junkpile welling up beneath him. Here, the labyrinth is imposed over his head, showing perhaps the state of the mind from which these pictures came.

Argentina is a mainly barren and mountainous country, without a native population to give it an artistic tradition. According to Rodriguez, who is a specialist in Latin American art, the country is unique in South America for having the most European style of art. Alejandro Mendez typifies this approach. Part of that tradition, especially as it applies to his chosen medium, may hinder his work's effectiveness as psychological statement.

Watercolours also have always been regarded, even by many artists who use them, as somehow not as serious or important as other kinds of painting. Paintings on paper are by nature small and delicate, needing protection under glass, while paintings in oil or acrylics can take up whole walls to shout out their messages. To hear what these pictures say, maybe you have to listen more closely.

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