Behind the murky palette lurks a master of deadpan whimsy.
Behind the murky palette lurks a master of deadpan whimsy.

Degrees of Separation

Uruguayan artist Ignacio Iturria works with such a dramatically diminished palette that you could be forgiven for wondering if his local art supply store has run out of paints, forcing him to concoct his own pigments from dirt and ashes. His color scale ranges from dark, muddy browns, grays, and blacks to... well, lighter shades of muddy browns, grays, and blacks. He also makes judicious use of dingy whites, and from time to time, he even works in a few small blue and red accents, which largely serve to emphasize the near-monochromatic quality of his output.

Iturria's imagery is similarly limited in scope. Again and again in the paintings included in "Ignacio Iturria: Everything Has a Face," now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, he fixes his (and our) gaze on anonymous apartment or condo buildings featuring floor after floor of identical balconies and/or big picture windows. Sometimes, these spaces are empty, but usually a single person or animal, occasionally two or more people, can be seen. Often, these tiny figures are posed in such a way that they seem to return our inquisitive gaze, as if to ask, "What are you looking at?"

Other times, the artist takes us inside these uninviting urban structures. Some of the paintings are like cross sections of living quarters, with portions of three or four side-by-side rooms visible, along with the people inhabiting them. Or the rooms may be empty except for a piece or two of furniture, with perhaps another bare room in the distance, glimpsed through a doorway.


"Ignacio Iturria: Everything Has a Face"

Boca Raton Museum of Art, Mizner Park, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, 561-392-2500.

On display through November 7.

For his sculptures, Iturria turns to roughly life-sized, mixed-media reproductions of items of rickety-looking furniture. There are tall, narrow pieces, usually with drawers half-open and cabinet doors ajar, as well as tables pocked with little compartments. These works too are sparsely populated, self-contained worlds, with more of the artist's tiny people occupying their spaces like drifters claiming squatters' rights. A few of the tables are blanketed with "pop-ups," portrait panels that fold up from the surface.

Iturria seems especially fond of ordinary cardboard -- could there be a more mundane medium? -- for the paintings and the sculptures. (The covers of the exhibition catalog are cardboard.) He likes to let the corrugated surface show through the paint, and even when he's working on canvas, he frequently uses the paint to mimic the look and feel of cardboard.

All of this might suggest a grim scenario in which an artist of desolation and despair sets out to capture the solitude and alienation of contemporary humanity: faceless individuals trapped in their own interchangeable cells, unable to connect, locked into boredom and meaningless gestures. Indeed, I entered "Everything Has a Face" with a grimace and a shudder, bracing myself for what at first glance promised to be a relentlessly bleak show. (It originated at Toronto's Power Plant Contemporary Art Center under director Wayne Baerwaldt, who's guest curator of the current incarnation.)

What a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that behind the murky palette and the seemingly melancholy subject matter lurks a master of deadpan whimsy. I don't think it's too far-fetched to suggest that there's a strain of Buster Keaton running through Iturria -- a stoic heroism in the face of a world that's indifferent at best, hostile at worst. In this case, the artist becomes a sort of gallant, droll existentialist, acknowledging the isolation of humanity while dismissing it with a shrug. The only meaningful response to such an existence, he seems to imply, is a sense of humor, perhaps tempered with an undercurrent of philosophical speculation.

Iturria's wit is most evident in his handling of organic matter. Get past his initially daunting physical environments and you'll see that he peoples his spaces with comically crude, exaggerated figures. (Disproportionately large hands and heads aren't uncommon.) There isn't much detail, because he's portraying not individual personalities but specimens of humanity. And they're engaged, for the most part, in amusingly ordinary activities.

Take the denizens of one of those high-rises, for instance. A man clad in formalwear peers over his balcony, perhaps awaiting the arrival of a taxi or his date for the evening. Meanwhile, a neighbor one floor below appears to be fidgeting with the remote control of his television set, and another neighbor a few floors up peers out from behind a sliding glass door as if hiding.

In Hogar Dulce Hogar ("Home Sweet Home"), an interior with its fourth wall and ceiling peeled away, a range of behavior is on display, from the commonplace to the downright bizarre. To the far right, in a section of a room dominated by a white chair, someone peeks over the top of the wall. Just left of the painting's center, on a sofa bathed in white light, a woman wearing either a bikini or her underwear seems to be putting the moves on a fully dressed man. And in the adjacent room to the right, which is incongruously furnished with a bathtub and a nightstand, a gangly man in black apparently flies a toy helicopter attached to a wire or a string.

In these and other pieces, Iturria has a specific technical approach to his characters. As described in a catalog essay by Wendy M. Blazier, senior curator at the Boca Museum, "Iturria's figures are not so much painted as built from paint -- smeared browns and umbers, in great rich globs." This technique gives the figures a fleshiness that belies their anonymous lack of detail -- it imbues them with specificity, makes them substantial.

It's telling that Iturria emphasizes this fleshiness, just as it's significant that he draws on such an earthy palette. Aside from a decade spent in the artistic haven of Cadaqués, in the Catalonia region of Spain, he has lived most of his life in Montevideo, where he was born in 1949. His choice of colors is inspired by the silty waters of the Rio de la Plata, which empties into the South Atlantic between Monte-video and Buenos Aires.

Iturria's characters may be comical, but they're also grounded in an earthiness that can seem at odds with their urban surroundings. And it's in this tension that they attain a strange dignity, even a grandeur of sorts. Beneath their surface whimsicality, they seem to be striving, reaching outward and upward. At some point during my visit to the show, it hit me: These malleable little creatures would be perfect candidates for clay animation. I imagined them emerging from undifferentiated clay, struggling to take shape, and once I got that image in my head, I couldn't get rid of it.

And maybe it makes sense to think of Iturria's characters as, to borrow from Blazier's description, "great rich globs built from paint." The artist himself has commented on his anthropomorphic tendencies: "I have always liked to humanize objects and things. It is my way of incorporating them and loving them." Everything has a face, indeed.

In some of the works near the end of the exhibition, Iturria achieves his most poignant embodiment of such sentiments. It's there in Cada Uno con su Cruz ("Each One with Its Cross"), a large frame hanging from the ceiling and holding a grid of wire and cardboard that consists of 96 double-sided panels, for a total of 192 miniature portraits. The title and the way the piece is constructed suggest a kind of tortured individuality, burdens born in isolation. And yet there are those wires, thin strands running from each individual to his neighbors.

If additional affirmation of Iturria's tentative sense of hope is needed, look no further than the show's final piece, the oil painting Todos Juntos ("All Together"), which is composed of 96 portraits on panels linked by wire. We may all be different, the artist seems to insist, but we're also alike -- separate but also undeniably connected. That's the glorious paradox at the heart of Iturria's work.


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