Luis González Palma – 2001

luis-gonzalez-palma-essayThe Olson Gallery | Bethel College
Luis González Palma | 2001

The Language of Visibility in the Photographs of Luis González Palma

I live in a country where there is so much mysticism and so much violence at the same time,…where as you are enjoying nature, the helicopters are flying overhead and you know they are going to bomb some region; where you know that as you are working, someone is being killed or someone is being baptized.
–Luis González Palma

Luis González Palma’s art works are made of photographs and other materials–rich fabrics, embroidered symbols and words, Guatemalan tin jewelry, small religious books.  These are combined in such a manner that they constitute a unique genre of portraiture.  That is, they are portraits of individuals, but they are also expressions of the social meanings and contexts that define individuals.  The titles of his works do not name the individuals portrayed.  Yet the works would lose their soul if these people mattered only as types.  What the titles name are conditions of being which are both social and personal.  For example, America II, Destino II, Ms. Exotica, or more internally, Arráncame el miedo  (Take Away My Fear), Viviendo en silencio  (Living in Silence),  Post-emotion, or La plegaria  (Noon Call to Prayer).

Sometimes the combinations of photographs and found materials can be poignantly spiritual, almost fragile, as in, La  plegaria.  Here, an accordion folded series of photographs, overlaid with a transparent material bearing fragments of latin prayers, flows like a fold-out from a well-used missal.  Through the transparency, which is like a veil of spirit murmuring prayers, we see small cut-out photographs, presented like frozen moments, mounted onto a running “ground” of larger, soft-focused photo fragments.  At the risk of over-simplifying, in a sample of moving from frame to frame, we see and read a multi-layered flow:

Virgin…sancto…sine  (these words laid over a soft-focused close-up of a woman’s eye)/  a heart-shaped wedding photo with bride and groom (seen through the words)/ ora pro nobis  (and mounted beside a wallet-size photo of a young woman), behind which is another large, out of focus fragment of a woman’s eye/ nos, Deus, misere…mundi…ora pro nobis (through which is seen a blurred photo of watches, time’s passing)/ a family snapshot of a young boy standing in a dirt floor courtyard.

This many-layered set of images and prayers issues like a spiritual narrative from the side of the prayer book, as if the unfolding of life and spirit were a collage released by faith.

Othertimes, the combination of photograph and object is ominous, as in Viviendo en silencio.   Here a young woman’s veiled face hovers in a field of black tones, while through her veil we see that her skin, as it were, is a piece of official looking paper, perhaps a document required to prove that she exists or to defend herself.  In another work, Post-emotion, the imagery is split into halves.  On the right, we see a photograph of a solemn and beautiful young woman wearing a silver crown, looking directly at us.  The left half is a piece of elegant, gold cloth with stripes.  Embroidered on it in crimson thread and graceful script is the work’s title.  With a nice irony, the warm pulse of gold and crimson is chilled by the title’s content, just as the warm beauty of this woman’s face turns into sorrow through the deadpan silence of her expression.  Across the work’s surface, polka-dots of red, yellow, blue, and green are scattered in a celebratory riot like party balloons or confetti, even as their random pattern is equally reminiscent of the spraying of bullet holes.

In America II, a handsome young man bears a tattoo-like insignia of a heart-shaped American flag with an unfurling ribbon reading, “AMERICA,” across his forehead.  Beside him is a bold red square of fabric and a silver, tin-work crown; beneath him a field of silver leaf.  Is he an illegal alien, a religious saint, an economic victim, or a martyr?  In Ms. Exotica, the left panel is a photograph of a beautiful woman’s face which bears the ® trademark of a registered commercial product near her left temple, while the center panel shows her as beauty queen wearing a bathing suit and sash reading, “Miss Exotica.”  The right panel is a sumptuous piece of cloth with three embroidered silver crowns, one for the state, one for a queen, and one for the church.  Is she a person, a commercial product, or the property of a society in which secular and spiritual powers conspire?

The viewer can see for her or himself how in every work here a convergence of elegance, beauty, and symbol intersects with a brooding silence, sorrow, and repression.  These are portraits, not simply of individuals but of souls and their living conditions within González Palma’s native Guatemala.  The artist himself has described his country as a place where mysticism and violence cohabit, and where being killed and being baptized are simultaneous events. González Palma’s willingness to acknowledge both beauty and suffering together, without resorting to sentimentality or propaganda, makes for a hard visual poetry full of resonance.  Writer and poet, John Wood, has called González Palma the “poet of sorrows” whose photography simultaneously celebrates, chronicles, and grieves.

Wood’s idea of photographer-as-poet is worth lingering over.  Photography speaks several languages, most of which are about information, not poetry. It is a language of documentation, of facts and official proofs of identity as in passports and death certificates.  Photography is the language for recording private life, as in family snapshots and portraits of relatives.  It is the language of photojournalism, of evidence about what happens to victims and perpetrators.  Such images, of course, also become the information by which political regimes identify and hunt down their enemies and their dissident citizens.  But such images also stand as evidence by which citizens register accusations when their loved ones disappear.

The other language of photography is that of the artist.  It is when the language of the artist and the language of information converge that poetry becomes possible. Wittgenstein said, “Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”  Just so, the artist bears witness to violence but does not allow it to eclipse beauty and mystery, or to be reduced to mere information.  Although the artist may be outraged by political events, he or she merges the language of aesthetics with the language of information in order to create a larger statement. Even more, the artist does not allow violence or beauty to be defined as separate worlds.  Rather, the artist struggles to ask how it is that murder and baptism are part and parcel of the same social fabric. Luis González Palma understands this intuitively.  He takes photography’s several dialects of information and subverts them, without falsifying them, into a language of the soul and its politics of suffering and beauty.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the first large work encountered as the viewer enters the Eugene Olson Gallery.  Here one finds a work divided in half.  On the right is a crimson square of cloth with a brocaded pattern of flowers.  At its warm center, embroidered in elegant script with gold thread, is a man’s name, Juan.  The left half of the work is a portrait of the man in brooding sepia and black tones.  His face fills the frame and is slightly larger than life-size, equal to us.  He looks at us with a silent, unblinking gaze.  His consciousness is physically palpable.  The lens used brings him so close that our personal space is invaded, whether through intimacy or confrontation is for each viewer to decide.  This man is of native Guatemalan descent.  In Guatemalan society, Indians do not look directly at people of European descent.  They avert their eyes and step off the sidewalk when passed.  But here we experience a meeting of eyes so intimate that we can count his pores, mole, and crowsfeet.  In an astonishing way, this man is both utterly visible and yet inscrutable.  We meet him in a pool of loaded silence, pitched against the throbbing field of crimson and gold that so eloquently gives him a name.  If this photograph documents marginalized, anonymous persons in this society, it also asserts absolutely their individual existence and dignity.  His gaze bears something ancient, something of the deep racial memories of a people of dignity and a people who have suffered oppression.  He seems, simultaneously, tender and hard, about to speak and resigned to silence, expectant and sorrowful.

The viewer might leave this work thinking its title would be Juan.  And although it certainly could be, it is not.  The work is titled, 80mm, ƒ 5.6, and is taken from his headband, which somewhat surprisingly bears the camera settings: 80mm, ƒ 5.6, 1/30th sec..  These settings are the conditions through which photography articulates its many languages.  It is by the lens chosen, the exposure selected, and the specificity of an individual moment in time, that the photographer makes his sitter visible.  It is by ƒ stop, shutter speed, and frozen moment that the photographer “names” the human person before him.  And it is by these means that the photographer-as-poet evokes the most essential need of all human beings.  That is, the need to be recognized as valid, to see and be seen, to bear a name and to have it pronounced.  It is in the exchange of names and gazes into each other’s eyes that we acknowledge each other as persons with souls, not as mere information, social property, or political objects.  The photography of Luis González Palma is a language that gives visibility.  It regards violence in unblinking honesty, but it also affirms the inextinguishable soul of beauty, which lives in the faces near the margins of darkness.

Wayne L. Roosa
Professor of Art History
Bethel College