Alejandro Puente began to observe minutely the forms and object of prehispanic art in the early 1960s. This obsession arose, by his own account, through examining the broad repertory of Peruvian indigenous art. Puente describes his encounter with the material heritage of the past as a "deeply stimulating aesthetic experience," a sort of jolt in the presence of a set of objects whose symbolic dimension was hitherto unrecognized. This first approach, marked by a synthesis between contemplation and uncertainty, would, in the decades to come, become one of his main lines of artistic investigation. Puente turned that initial emotional impact into a sculptural reflection of the materials and constructive forms of the prehispanic art found in ancient cities of the American hemisphere.
￼￼￼Puente's beginning in the sculptural exploration of the material repertoire of the prehispanic past coincides in time with the rise of new methods and technologies for archaeological excavation. In the background of such advances were transnational economic agreements and an active exchange of knowledge between specialists scattered over various latitudes in the Western world. In this historic period, better known as the Cold War, art historians such as George Kubler and archeologists such as Robert Heizer formed extensive work teams in order to locate ancient monuments, teams that tested and proved new hypotheses about the authentic foundational cultures of contemporary society. Their discoveries of massive Olmec heads in archaeological areas of southeastern Mexico were emblematic of their digs and the material basis for devising alternative narratives to previously established ones concerning indigenous roots. Put in this context, Puente's oeuvre may also be seen as an argument that sought to reformulate the notion of "primitive" origins. Taking off from various artistic media, Puente introduced the question of how the potential of native art could reemerge in an era significantly marked by the forces of sophisticated technologies of building, high-speed transportation, urban expansion and intense speculation about the use and propriety of this heritage. In order to elucidate Puente's inteventions in this cultural framework, I shall explain three of the strategies the artist used: appropriation, systems, and structure.
Appropiation refers to the use Puente made of materials belonging to the plastic language of the indigenous, such as feathers. From the early '60s up until the mid-'80s, Puente created a series of untitled works using feathers on sackcloth. In appropriating such materials, he created a series of thresholds to the indigenous past, also summoning up the mythic meaning that art with plumage contains. Originally, the main functions of this artistic vein were the representation of deities associated with the air, pointing to specific social standings and contributing to ritual practices. In summoning up such connotations, Puente recalls the potential of primitive materials to rouse the imagination in the direction of the past. It is starting from extremely fragile, and perhaps fairly uncommon, materials, in the ancient history museums, that Puente sets out to reestablish a link between our contemporary era and remote civilizations.
Systems refer to the geometric and chromatic patterns Puente recovered from indigenous art and reshaped in his own pictorial art. In pieces such as Unku (1973), Pachacutec (1979) and Yayahuala (1978), he establishes a repertory of grid-like codes present in objects of ancient art, such as textiles, ceramics and architectural edifices. In taking up such compositions, Puente performs a dialectical operation: he brings to the present visual repertories from the past and, with it, articulates, over a current-day horizon, the reticular vision that existed in the artistic communities of the legendary past.
￼Finallly, the notion of structure alludes to constructive forms present in pieces such as Kathino (1989), Luan (1994) and Uculla (2000). These works instantly bring to ind both the massive temples in ancient monumental cities and the natural landscapes that surround them. Nonetheless, it is possible to draw an analogy between the creative process of these pieces and the building methods native societies used to devise their constructions. At the outset, both Puente's painting and the archaeological edifices that served as their source of inspiration proceeded from some initial geometrical structure as the basis for composing the rest of the work. Puente thus establishes another sort of link with the artistic procedures used by the architects of the ancient realms. Although this architecture lay hidden away for various centuries, archaeologists and artists have, for various decades now, taken it upon themselves to reveal their building methods of out of their structural layers and tectonic textures.
Beyond seeking to unite two seemingly opposite temporalities, Puente comes up with a pictorial dimension in which the tool for conversing with the contemporary present are profound historical roots. Such a symbolic practice places Puente among those Latin American artists who as creators embraced an expansive notion of history: the spaces and objects of the past are not part of some static moment. Quite the contrary: they are an instrument able to enrich and problematize our perception of the present.