‘post tenebras spero lucem’
after darkness I hope for light
—Miguel de Cervantes, “Don Quixote”
Marcos Bontempo’s painterly universe seems to emerge from the timeless space of dreams and nightmares. His images possess the lingering immediacy of apparitions and the malleability of poetic language. Forms often wrestle the latent possibility of disintegration, never losing their mysterious presence as markings on a surface, they remind us of the spellbinding power of the artist’s hand; of alternate worlds emerging out of thin air. Exorcising pain and summoning beauty are here inextricable, yet they meet bravely in a dance where wonderment is preserved intact. “Light and Dark,” presents a selection of Bontempo’s recent body of work reflecting the symbolic role of these two extremes in the artist’s practice, where recurrent themes (kindness and brutality, presence and emptiness, entrapment and freedom) all stem from the fundamental dichotomy of life and death. Somewhere in between, creativity occurs as a kind of active chiaroscuro, where the artist contends with his obsessions through phases of lucidness and uncertainty.
Bontempo, the fourth of seven children, was born in Córdoba, Argentina in 1969. His family migrated permanently to Ronda, Spain in the mid-1970s, following the Argentine coup d’état that would drive the country into an era of neo-fascist military dictatorship. The artist’s strict Catholic upbringing—where lessons were enforced through patriarchal violence and deeply rooted notions of guilt—is a conceivable underpinning of his restless visual reverie and impulsive output. Bontempo is, in fact, a kind of present-day Romantic character, so vitally implicated with his work we could dare visualize that in addition to rarified chemical reactions and electrical signals, his mind is made of his working materials: ink, acrylic paint, oxidized iron, and shimmering salt. Days and nights revolve around the artist’s studio, which is the nucleus that connects him to the world and to himself. Congruently, the work tends to synch with these cycles of light and dark.
The breadth of daytime inspires Bontempo to represent the bucolic geography of Andalusia, in landscapes resembling storybook vignettes seen through the teary-eyed lens of memory. The setting there evoked is where the artist takes daily walks with his dog Calma—a hyperactive mixed breed pincher, ironically named “Calm,” that’s otherwise always in the studio nested in her chair and chewing on a blanket. Bontempo’s elongated silhouette guiding the leashed pet has become a graphic fixture for the city’s locals. When nighttime obscures the striking backdrop of Ronda, Bontempo brings to life the compelling iconography for which he is best known for. His works then become dynamic sites, hosting an array of humanoids, animals, hybrid and amorphous beings or their parts, and mythological beasts. These figures are generally unencumbered by backgrounds, yet they invoke complex psychological moods with a supreme economy of means. Bontempo has a sophisticated, nearly musical, grasp of forms in movement within negative space, his individual works are hence self-contained dimensions, but they are also part of a master symphony that is Dionysian at heart—where the artist’s individuality morphs into the pathos and ecstasy of his visions.
Bontempo paints on the floor, crouching down over the work in progress. He has always preferred paper as a surface over the stiffness of canvas, a fact that echoes the spontaneity and gestural swiftness of his process. His lyrical command of brushwork and color (sometimes bold and free-flowing, other times scrupulously precise) and his use of visual and material texture conjure figuration as seamlessly as they break it. On one level we see shapes and figures: poised in an expressive stillness, warping and stretching, falling and floating, skipping or swaying in distress. Yet, on another level it’s all purely abstract matter. In his larger works, Bontempo utilizes a nearly expressionistic technique; leaving unpredicted negative spaces between vigorous strokes. In his smaller works, his creatures seem stencil cut from lace-like constellations or mineral formations, enclosing delicate flourishes and quiet bursts of color. The artist’s preoccupation with shape and corporeality vis-à-vis the intangible and spiritual spheres of experience thus creates a hypnotizing tension. For Bontempo, painting is like thinking out loud, his work a genuine persuasion into the quixotic notion that the artist’s experience is, in essence, one and the same with his output and that the wildest fictions transport us to the deeper truths.
“On nights like this
acrobats emerge beneath the waves
the sky rises
calming my being...
On nights like this
injured birds fly
and I find comfort
looking at the sky
On nights like this
my shadow seeks to throw itself
my soul seeks to rise
On nights like this
life flows like a river
and I let go
until the sun comes out and wakes me…
and my eyes open
to tell me that I have not dreamed." (Marcos Bontempo)
With special thanks to Gloria Cohen and Guillermo Pinilla