Mario Perez, in his North

I’m in Horacio Coppola’s Buenos Aires, in an upper floor of a minimalist tower, overlooking the harbor, contemplating a series of paintings that Mario Pérez has brought in a van, so that I could look at them, frorr that flat North of his, at the foot of the Andes, from the Cuyo region, from his native San Juan. It would be perhaps too long to explain the caprices of chance —partly to do with flea markets and street fairs oi Argentina’s capital, but also of Madrid— that resulted in the painter and the writer meeting here, on this cleat morning of the porteño winter, at this office by the River Plate. Later we shall visit La Boca together, the Quinquela Martin Museum, the Proa Foundation and the magnificent exhibition that it’s presenting, on the subject of constructivism in Argentina. We will even run into one another again by chance, that same afternoon, in Barrio Norte, next to Praxis, his gallery.

From that North that he has a hard time leaving, to which —as Nelly Perazzo put it— he is “viscerally” linked and where I promise to visit him someday, Mario P6rez brings us an “other” painting, a painting based on ~ feeling of the landscape, a painting that started out in a more expressionist key and which, today —within thE harshness that characterizes it— has become more metaphysical, but also more endearing, more serene.

That vast America, in Mario P6rez’s painting: an America acquainted with upheavals, and wildfires, and windstorms —he has always been obsessed by the Zonda— with solitudes, with povery, but also with peace with serenity and with the making of its own destiny, with pride. The vast night of America, presided over by the Southern Cross, in Mario P6rez’s painting.

The wide Nochecita estrellada with children’s rings around camp fires, on the wonderful silkscreened cove of the 1996 catalog to his exhibition at the National Halls of Culture, which carried the meaningful headline My environment and its heartbeats: Cosmovision of my place. Works such as these show that Robert C. Morgan is right when he asserts that “his paintings overflow with a childlike wonder”, and that Paul Klee’s talismanic name insinuates itself along those lines.

The night and the trains —the importance that the railroad has had in 19th and 20th Century art is well known. When he shows me the first of those old-time nocturnal convoys that he paints— a convoy being pulled along by a smoking locomotive —l am impressed by the truth that the image conveys, and I’m reminded of thai unforgettable “Nocturno”, almost a haiku, by Oswald de Andrade, in his Pau Brasil, lying open now on m~ table in Madrid: “Out there, moonlight endures / And the train divides Brazil / Like a meridian”. Or those other trains of America, that Santiago Ganduglia, the forgotten authority on Martin Fierro, used to sing about. Hk poem “Impression” seems written for the painter: “Its wheels loaded with infinity / The train lays the countryside naked before the gaze / Grey haciendas, humble homes, trees / But mostly the distance / Like a strong and simple earthen melody / The roads spew dust on the song of the march. / Grey haciendas, humble homes trees / And always the distance”. The night with horses roaming in its immensity.

The night, alive with fishermen, with cyclists of the 1 BOOs; with trucks with their lights turned on. Solitary little one-story houses with their illuminated windows. A symbolistic image in the vast night c America. A couple kissing, and, all around it, the night of a romance out of Lorca.

A circus goes by, bearing its burden of illusions. A fairground is set up. Under the Tough sky —“Cielo Bravo’ a title that is frequently repeated in this body of work— the melancholy that oozes from that pityful circus c that night time fair that Mario P6rez paints —under precarious light bulbs, and with no less precariou loudspeakers; with merry-go-rounds, ferris wheels, orchestras— is a melancholy that has to do with th one that dominates some of Fellini’s scenes. The melancholy of a wedding, in the night of the plains. The melancholy of a bullfight in that same dry flatland, which is to say, in no place at all: that solitary Matador, that picador. The melancholy of the scarecrow.

Always, in the plain, a precarious altar, with faded out saints. Or a Tower of Babel, ochre as the plair themselves, as though it were, yes, its earthen melody. Or some military men — they bring to mind tales b~ Julien Gracq, or Dm0 Buzzati — occupied in manouvers incomprehensible to the outsider. In the night, places with names like Hollywood Park, Francis Park, Truko Center Park... This last one: a circlE of playing cards, which reminds me of another one that Mario P6rez quite certainly doesn’t know about, painted in the Valencia of the late 20s by the “Iberian” Genaro Lahuerta, one of the first to assimilate the teachings of magical realism in Spain.

Barrels turned into tall houses with something of De Chirico’s red towers, and others in which paper boats float. The jump to the three dimensions, as a temptation: barrels turned into architecture once again, and yet again playing cards creating an enclosure. A Trojan horse with something of Torres Garcia’s toys, or a reminiscence of those humble objects that Armando Reverón used to build, in Macuto. Anachronistic ships like the ones we’ll later see in La Boca…

Ultimately I think that Mario P6rez, who put on a one man show, in 2000, at the National Museum of FinE Arts in Buenos Aires, and who is about to do the same at the Palais de Glace, succeeds in saying, with ~ succinct and personal style, issuing out of his place and of his night, things that are very much his own, yel which touch us all. Something that makes me think, far away and long ago, about homegrown poetics that are dear to me; poetics of the universalizers of the local, like those of Pedro Figari, Ricardo Güiraldes, the above mentioned Armando Reverón, or Enrique Amorim. And here I deliberately mix together painters and writers, because in Mario P6rez, ever the painter, there is also a poet.

A song of harmony


Mario Segundo Pérez was born in San Juan, Argentina in 1960, the second of seven children, the son of a housepainter. The minute he was oíd enough he began to spend his vacations helping his father. He liked being a painter's assistant, but even more, he loved watching the paint splatter on the drop cloth, tracking the drips as they accumulated from Job to Job until finally the colors and the patterns became more beautiful than the freshly painted walls. Years later, upon seeing his first reproduction of a Jackson Pollack painting, he smiled, remembering the pleasure of working with his father. From the beginning Mario was a child in love with pictures. Not particularly good at soccer, he was inevitably sent to be the goalkeeper. However, in those childhood games the ball seldom managed goal, so to while away the time he would draw in the dirt. It wasn't long before he became known throughout the neighborhood as El Dibujito, the little drawer. In the classroom he was the one put in charge of making posters for whatever needed to be celebrated: The Day of the Tooth. The Day of the New World. The Day of Reading. He made portraits of his classmates; he painted his family. Then, as is often the case with a child destined to become a serious artist, a wonderful adult spotted his talent and made its nourishment her business. She was his teacher and she was redecorating her home. She needed new paintings. So she bought art supplies and took twelve-year-old Mario home with her. Seven paintings later he finished his Job. They were all to be framed. He was so proud, and the wise teacher sent him home packing all the left over materials. But his parents wanted him to study engineering, a sound choice for a twentieth-century young man growing up in the outskirts of a provincial Argentine capital. Mario was not convinced. Engineering was alien territory. Then, while still in his teens, he entered a mural contest celebrating one hundred years of local government. He won first prize. He would study art at the National University of San Juan. He would become an artist. His parents capitulated.

A song of harmony
In Mario Pérez's world there is a famous wind, the wind of August, the Zonda. It comes out of the northwest, across the Andes Mountains, leaving in its wake great storms. It announces itself in advance. Even as a child Mario could taste the mounting tensión. The horizon would darken; the mountains become blurred with dust. Quickly, everyone would run to the house, slam the doors and fasten the windows. To the child it was as if a monster was coming. Once safe inside, he glued himself to a window, compelled to watch. Then the wind would arrive, having made its chosen way through the Zonda District into all of San Juan. With it carne such dust the child could barely see the length of his arm.

The wind would blow itself through, replaced by either a haunting stillness or San Juan's other wind, cool, fresh, spawned by the South Pole. To Mario, the earth had been cleansed, the air clarified. He could see things sharply, in a heightened way. His skin felt more alive. The whole planet seemed to sing. Years later, when he became a painter, he found himself seeking this heightened visión in his paintings, this moment of fusión when one can catch very subtle nuances.

Mario Pérez's paintings opérate on several levéis. As important as any is his search to paint the landscape of his home place, the desert plateau of San Juan, located in the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains. This is a place ruled by light, dominated by sky. And always, this artist is interested in light. By day the skies of San Juan are usually clear, born of a dryness that negares clouds. By night diese same skies come alive, ordered by the Milky Way, Orion, the Southern Cross and Sagittarius. Scientists from around the globe gather at the Observatorio Astronómico Félix Aguilar for here there is no humidity, no manmade pollutíon. One can see forever. Mario Pérez delights in juegos de luz, or the movement of light as it plays with itself, especially during autumn. He watches how the light of mid-day flattens the earth, leaving only the shadows of a scrub tree or a small house to define the desert world. He recognizes the vibration of heat across the surface of the plains as it catches the eye in its shimmering mirage, blurring everything, especially in December and January when the earth is at its hottest. He observes the intense blue of a twilight sky as it is swallowed up by the darkening earth, leaving a strip of grayish green on the far horizon. And sometimes the stars descend to the earth in the form of fireflies. His paintings are informed by this astute observation of his natural environment.

Mario’s world is colored in three ways: with the blues of the night, the tans of the desert day, and the greens of lush foliage introduced into cities and villages by settlers. Only the first two interest him. He paints the desert day in all of its shades of tan and chalky white. These are the vistas of the rocky foothills to the west, and the great desert plains to the south and the east, where the earth blends imperceptibly into sky. Here he examines how one sees intense heat. Here he struggles to transfer the texture of stones onto the canvas. He creates his night paintings from every shade of blue that grows out of tubes of aquamarine. Because the soil of San Juan is almost white, the earth appears transparent, readily absorbing the blue of the night. When moonlight washes across the whole scene, one is reminded of the Ischigualasto, or the Valley of the Moon a geological "place out of time" two-hundred kilometers northwest of San Juan.

The artist simúlales the movement of light with both his choice of color and his methods of applying paint. Using a slender pallet knife, he builds up layers of oil paint at least six or seven. Standing in front of his canvas, pallet on one arm, he lays in stroke after small stroke, in this direction and that. If one comes cióse to the canvas, one sees that the blues are played against strokes of black, or brown and red, or purple, and sometimes green, just as the tan paintings are built up with all the shades of brown plus touches of green, black, red, pink and gray. The colors become unified on the pallet; blending and fragmenting as they do on the canvas, emulating the way the human eye sees light.

If Mario were to stop at this point he would have created an abstraer painting, richly textured, all over in form. Instead he places figures in his canvases, establishing scale and identifying the painting as a landscape. The figures come from his childhood, from his youth, from the 1960s and 1970s. This is the world that will mark him forever, just as writers often find in their early years the subject they will pursue for the rest of their creative lives. When Mario was five years oíd he moved with his family to a house on the edge of San Juan. Across from their home was an open field with a pond where horses carne to drink. Unlit by the city, the field became a showplace for the stars and a stage for nightly frog concerts. Mario would walk into the darkness and look back on the magical lights of the city of San Juan. The tradition then and still today in Oíd San Juan was to string a light between two poles, most often at an intersection. This became a public space, filled with children on their bicycles, mothers chatting at the end of the day, lovers drifting into the shadows. Because the lights were not cióse together, most of the neighborhood remained in darkness. These singular lights sparkled gloriously, reminding young Mario of a fair, a celebration, or a party.

In rural áreas the ordered life of the village also was centered around an open space for public gatherings. This later grew into the plaza that lies at the heart of most good urban design. Over and over Mario Pérez paints such night scenes in his blue canvases. Celebrations take place. Entertainments are arranged. Young people come and "lovings are born." These moments are deeply sought by the people for they break the momentum of quietness, of endless calm. Marios intímate scenes take us back to an earlier time when the lights of the city and the lights of the sky were in perfect balance. Still today, in Oíd San Juan and the surrounding countryside, humans have not yet blocked out the night with their ever increasing demand for more and more artificial light. One can still see the stars. Sometimes Marios scenes include a third source of light, a fire.

Because the fishing season is in winter, che fishermen make fires for warmth. Or villagers light fires at the center of a celebración, or simply for cooking. Whatever its use, the fire draws the eye immediately into the canvas, a magnet in the painting as in real life. It also adds to the sense of warmth and harmony that is at the heart of all Mario Pérez paintings. San Juan province is awash with butterflies, having over ninety different kinds. The fires in Marios paintings sparkle with flecks of red and cream paint, reminding one of butterflies. The butterfly, always in search of light, ultimately finds its death in the heat of the fire. That is also the order of the natural world. For reasons the artist only intuits, he paints from an aerial point of view. One is always looking down into the events taking place on the canvas. The artist, however, does not stay detached but puts himself into the drama. Sometimes he is the watcher standing on the sidelines, leaning against his bicycle, his back to the viewer. At other times he is a small child, holding a parental hand, again passively watching. Sometimes he is in the wind itself. Only the real-life viewer watches the scene from above. The aerial view magnifies the landscape, reinforces its vastness. It also opérales in a Cubist manner, allowing the painter to present more iníbrmation than would be available if one looked frontally into the picture plañe. The perspective is not only from above, very often the curve of the earth is exposed. When questioned, the artist spoke of the insular environment of the people he paints. They cannot imagine any world existing beyond this, their own. Because they so valué this quiescent place, they live in it with harmony, with dignity. If you happened into one of their small brick or wooden homes, they would treat you as the most honored guest. The best food would be prepared; the table covered with their finest cloth. When they join their friends and neighbors to celébrate, they wear their Sunday or "going downtown" clothes. Theirs is a fully contained life, resting comfortably within the curvature of the whole earth. Mario Pérez structures his paintings in a classical or formal manner. The eye of the viewer usually enters the painting at some point of light, for example, a fire or a street lamp. It then circles around the center of the painting, picking up information, befóte returning to the original point of entry. This circular movement is reiterated by such pictorial conventions as the arching horizon, by a curling line of sparsely placed fence posts, or by the configuration of the scenes within the painting. Be it a circus, a series of fishermen strung out along the river, or a village scene, it is almost always circular in structure. This reinforces the artist's quest for balance, both in his subject and in the form the painting takes. Upon occasion the artist will choose to introduce tensión into the painting by counterbalancing his circular forms with manmade geometric elements. For example, the eye moves from the foreground, to the mid-ground, and finally to the far horizon, traveling along the straight lines of houses in the foreground, to a squared-off wheat field or a corral walled with fence posts in the mid-ground. Then it continúes on to the far distance, often marked by a line of poplar trees, a stand of scrub bushes, or a geological formation. Sometimes Mario abandons the circle and formulares his fíat desert paintings along a single line caused by a train or a string of little buildings. Here he introduces a human element to provide the counterpoint, the encompassing or encircling experience, in truth, the warmth central to his work. (Cielo Bravo, page 14) Only in his charcoal and pastel drawings does Mario Pérez adopt the modernist convention of the fíat picture plañe where the action of the painting continúes in the space beyond the canvas (Carrera, page 21). The drawings are pictographic studies of the same scenes that occupy his oils. Por example, a recent series was based upon bicycle races. Usually the drawings differ from the paintings in that they are monochromatic; color only enters as an occasional highlight or embellishment.

Viewers mistakenly assume that Mario Pérez's oeuvre is nostalgic. Rather, his is landscape painting, acutely observed, and deeply rooted in a specific place. The houses are small, one-story dwellings that hug the earth, not because the people are poor, but because San Juan is earthquake country. In this century alone massive earthquakes struck in 1944 and again in 1977. More people died in 1944 even though the 1997 quake was stronger. Each time the city is forced to rebuild, more has been learned about countering seismic conditions. Today San Juan is a city of low, single story buildings, laid out along broad streets lined with Plátano or plañe trees, and dotted with parks. At the center is a lovely plaza that is heavily used by its million and a half people. The neighborhoods that now exist at the beginning of the twenty-first century are not unlike those that appear in the microcosm of Marios paintings (Pescadores, cover). In those neighborhoods, as in Marios paintings, brides still emerge out of the dark in the most unlikely places, surrounded by a few friends, having their pictures taken. If the painting is full of people, it is probably Sunday. Bicycles are used by everyone from kids to oíd people. An occasional one-horse buggy passes by, boxers and soccer players appear, and modest motor cars fill the streets. Drive-in-theaters are set up in the desert, first by Mormon missionaries, but also for Hollywood movies. Dogs run around, pleasing themselves. Although Marios scenes have their génesis in his childhood, the past Uves on in the everyday life of San Juan. For it remains the artist's deepest belief articulated by Tolstoy that the truer you paint your village, the truer you paint the world. When Mario was a child his mother and father kept a cióse eye on him. He was not allowed to run making mischief with his friends during the afternoon nap hours. Rather, he sat at the window, imagin-ing their lives much fuller than his own. The habit of imagining, of dreaming, was acquired early. Maybe it was a gift inadvertently given to him by his parents, and maybe it accounts for the sense of myth or mystery that permeates his art. Sometimes he travels back in time, leaving the people of San Juan, to reimagine older myths. The Trojan Horse moves on wheels across the fíat desert plain; Adam and Eve are expelled from Marios desert garden; Noah's Ark sails the blue of the painter's night world; the Tower of Babel, made from local clay, grows into the San Juan sky. Dearest of all to him is a sanctuary not more than twenty kilometers from the city of San Juan: the village of Vallecito where the people have built a shrine to Difunta Correa. According to popular history, Difunta Correa carne home one evening to find her husband gone, conscripted by a passing army regiment. Intent upon joining him, she tucked her little son under her arm and set off into the desert. But it was not to be. Instead, she was found —on this site to which she will be linked forever— expired of thirst. Miracu-lously, the baby was alive, still suckling his dead mother's breast. Today people come from across the continent to pray, to give thanks. The hillside is covered with tiny models of houses acquired with Difunta Correas assistance. It is plastered with license plates of people who survived terrible automobile accidents. Others bring candles, flowers, pictures of their loved ones, and most of all, jugs of water. Three times Mario has painted the shrine, each one constructed from the actual details one finds there today a large Coca Cola sign, a water truck given to Difunta Correa, a series of shops at the base of the hill that service pilgrims and tourists. But always he paints the power of human belief made evident in this world-famous but absolutely local shrine. His over-riding subject is the spirit of both the place and the humans who inhabit it.

Clearly Mario Pérez paints the stuff of magic. Most magical of all is his absolutely perfect sense of color. Light becomes blue and pink as it illuminates the darkness around a door stop. No matter what the combination or the hue, the desert is made to sing. His clear reds and blues and pinks and purples bewitch and enthrall. Here is a master colorist at work. One looks at his paintings and one is charmed, one is transported to another place. The artist has achieved his larger goal: to provide us, the viewers, with the means to get out of the bodies which encapsulate us, for only then do we feel free.


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