2.8.17 — Carnival in Nicaragua

Farley Aguilar works from found photographs. His gallery even speaks of them as antiquated. By the time he is through, though, they may feel ripped right out of the headlines, a graphic novel, or a textbook history of modern art.

Farley Aguilar's Boys in Line (Lyles & King, 2016)But which? The sheer elusiveness of his images contributes to their punch, at Lyles & King through February 12. So, too, do their ravaged surfaces and eclecticism.

How could I not pin down the seated mother sewing a flag, child by her side? It looks so comforting, like her old-fashioned sofa and print dress. It could be an emblem of family and patriotism, but from what war? The theme appears in posters back in World War I, and Americans have been fighting over the flag ever since. They fought over the war in Vietnam, back when the police were “pigs,” and the word pig appears above the painting on the gallery’s Web site, with double exclamation points—scrawled on the wall in a jagged oval like the ones used in comic strips for pow, zap, and bam. In the climate of wars now, left over from George W. Bush, defenders wield images like this as a sucker punch.

Aguilar’s favorite subject packs another kind of punch—kids or adults, mostly male, lined up against a wall. They could be showing off or hanging out. Aguilar could be speaking to racism and reconciliation in that mother’s interior as well. A painting above the sofa shrouds a couple’s heads in black hoods, like the Ku Klux Klan in reverse. A painting beside it marks another couple with X‘s and O‘s. They bring love and kisses, but also tokens of a game with no winners.

The lineups could come from anywhere, from a carnival to a criminal investigation. So, too, could Aguilar’s technique. He slathers on graphite, oil, and oil stick before scratching into them. Lines and layers compete for attention, as marks of painterly comforts and raw violence. They serve his actors for showing off or as masks. They also add fragments of text—although, like everything else here, difficult to read.

The carnival has deep roots in art history. It comes close to quoting James Ensor, although the agonies and the comedy have ancestors in Edvard Munch, German Expressionism, and Otto Dix as well. It verges, too, on George Baselitz and Neo-Expressionism, but less portentous and right-side up. The show’s title, “Bad Color Book,” may evoke a coloring book as well. Then again, it could refer merely to the bright colors and postmodern boasts of “bad art.” Either way, it is broken English, another token of border crossings.

How did an artist from Nicaragua end up in northern European art? Maybe through events at home, and the tastes of street culture and violence could refer to civil war there. Maybe, too, through the United States, and he has settled in Florida. My first impulse is still to see American themes and American cities. Aguilar moves across cultures without hiding his estrangement. He knows that too many of the divisions lie within.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.