Start With a Nucho

For confirmation of the idea that bigger is not necessarily better, look no further than the Boca Raton Museum of Art, where two exhibitions that vary dramatically in scale vie for visitors' attention. The main first-floor galleries are taken up by a splashy crowd-pleaser, "Conflicting Currents: Aspects of American Art 1920-1950," which features more than 120 paintings, drawings, and prints from the museum's sizable permanent collection.

Down at the far end of the first floor, however, is a smaller but to my mind much more satisfying show, "Guillermo Trujillo: Panamanian Master." It consists of only three dozen or so works, most of them acrylic paintings, supplemented (and complemented) by a few graphite drawings, but the exhibition feels more complete, more fully fleshed out, than its sprawling cousin down the corridor.

The press materials for Trujillo bill him as "Panama's most important artist of the 20th Century," which probably comes as news to most of us. I don't know much about the Panamanian art world, and I suspect I'm not alone. Even in South Florida, it's Haitian and Cuban artists who, for most of us, represent Latin American and Caribbean art. And indeed, Trujillo has some affinities with artists from the islands. (In its own weird way, bordered by two oceans and bisected by a canal, Panama even seems like an island of sorts, and the islands off the country's east coast exert a strong cultural influence.)

Superficially, at least, Trujillo's art is deceptively simple, falling into two basic categories: landscapes and group portraits, with the two often overlapping. But there's much more at work. The artist draws on his country's rich traditions of ritual and romance, summoning up images that carry considerable cultural baggage.

Trujillo was born in 1927 in Horoncitos in the rural province of Chiriquí. As he says in his succinct artist's statement: "My work has always been about Panama, the complex tiny country of the Caribbean with a very large history. I am fascinated with the indigenous peoples and their extraordinary spirituality, and the objects they create to communicate to a pantheon of nature deities. Their design aesthetic has become an inspiration for my work, and I have invented my own modern technique with many of the same elements. Panama is a verdant landscape with islands and sea of great beauty. I pay homage to this land of my birth."

It's been a while since I've run across an artist's statement so free of self-importance and pretentiousness. It's also an unusually accurate statement. What Trujillo really does is to take something as simple as his native landscape and transform it into images of vibrant green life. He doesn't go in for a lot of detail but emphasizes atmosphere instead. His landscapes feel lived in, experienced.

A few of the landscapes — most notably the lush Paisaje de Verano and Erosión de campo — are unpopulated, and there's a strange grandeur to their emptiness. But more often Trujillo inserts angular, elongated forms inspired by the nucho, the magic wand or wooden baton used by indigenous Panamanian shamans in the performance of rituals. Such artifacts were originally carved in the shapes of birds, animals, and other creatures, although in Trujillo's canvases they became stylized forms that seem to dance through the landscapes, sometimes earthbound, sometimes through the air. The artist senses and tries to capture their energy and power, which were such that a nucho could only be put to use a single time.

In some of the paintings the nuchos are clearly totemlike forms that retain their origins in the realm of animals and other mythical creatures. In other images they seem to be morphing into more human shapes, evolving before our eyes from primitive to more sophisticated forms. And in other works the metamorphosis seems almost complete, with only traces of the nuchos remaining in their human counterparts.

Even when Trujillo turns to painting actual human beings, the influence of the nucho remains. The artist portrays people as elongated, impossibly tall and lean, as if stilts are hidden beneath their colorful, richly patterned clothing. It's a technique that lends the subjects an elegance as well as, occasionally, a faintly comical demeanor.

These glorious garments are also linked to the folk tradition of mola panels, in which items of used clothing are repeatedly cut up and reassembled. For Trujillo the concept is a treasure trove he plunders to outfit some of his characters in outrageously overdesigned get-ups. (He's just as likely to present people only partially clad or even nude.)

Regardless of their specific content, Trujillo's paintings emphasize the connection between the land and the people who inhabit it. It's as if he can hardly conceive of humans ensconced in buildings instead of the great outdoors. In one of the show's most potent images, Los Relieves de mote obscuro, a grouping of people seems to have literally merged with the landscape, although it's impossible to say whether the figures are growing out of the ground or being absorbed into it.

The exhibition catalog includes a brief essay by guest curator Carol Damian, an art history professor at Miami's Florida International University, who points out that when Panama was "discovered" in 1501 it already boasted more than 60 indigenous tribes, each with its own rich cultural history. Although most of these cultures are long gone, she sees Trujillo's art as incorporating vestiges of them.

Stylistically, Trujillo appears to have adapted some of the techniques of pointillism and impressionism for his own uses. His pure landscapes, in particular, have been created through the accrual of countless tiny dots and daubs, while other images make extensive use of a sort of crosshatching.

This appropriation of such established techniques is, for Damian, "more about a modern approach to Panamanian traditions than a reinvention of the European." I'm not so sure. It could just as easily be seen as an acknowledgment that Panama, despite its own indigenous traditions, is also inextricably linked to the traditions of the Europeans who colonized it. Such a reading suggests that Trujillo is keenly aware of his country's convergence of cultural influences.

However you want to interpret the art of this Panamanian master, there's no denying that his exotic, colorful world is irresistibly seductive and that our knowledge of Latin American art is enhanced by our exposure to it.

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Michael Mills