Between 1965 and 1967 Jorge de la Vega spent a year in the United States as a guest professor at Cornell University, going back and forth to stay and work in New York City. During that year his art underwent a transformation and he abandoned the neo-figurative expressionism he had developed since 1960 alongside Luis Felipe Noé, Ernesto Deira and Rómulo Macció, known as a group after their August 1961 Otra Figuración (Other Figuration) exhibition in Buenos Aires. These artists had reassembled the human figure from a gestural and material jumble they had inherited from informal art, which had fragmented and subsumed the human figure in chaos, trapping it, just like man in contemporary society.
In the following years De la Vega enriched the expressiveness of his characters by introducing outside materials in his canvases. He turned collage into a resource with which he shaped, defined and contextualized a bestiary, where animals that could be both ferocious and ridiculous did not refrain from betraying human dimensions: love, humor, pain. The accretion and combination of possibilities based on speculation which he developed in his Conflictos anamórficos (Anamorphic Conflicts) already displayed how formal and technical means, employed with great freedom and originality, can uncover the facets and ambiguities of an individual, the multidimensional existence of a subject caught between internal drives and external pressures.
From 1966 on, largely due to the overwhelming appeal of the media in North American culture, and to the assimilation of some of the modes employed by Pop Art, De la Vega decided to abandon his mythological and monstrous iconography in order to devote himself to figures of men and women, derived from their representations in advertising campaigns. Dwelling on this moment of inflexion he commented: "North America is such a powerful and artificial world that man acquires dimension by contrast. I abandoned collage and dedicated myself to paint Americans' happiness."(1) This happiness consists of orthodontist smiles but of deformed bodies: stretched, softened, lumpy, intermingled, piled up, squeezed and muddled up, a universe later replicated in his song Densidad. This "density" from the society of the masses is translated into numerous ink and acrylic paintings, which culminated with the 1970 Rompecabezas (Jigsaw Puzzle), a multi-panel mural.
The paint is applied flatly. Rich blacks are thickened and thinned out, modulating the figures and imbuing them with volume, which is quickly negated as if by a transparent glass edge, which squashes the bodies and allows their expansion and malleability to become evident, because of the "pressure" applied to them. Only in some compositions that are associated with psychedelic iconography does color appear in rainbow gradations. His work on illustrated magazines as a surface allowed him to seize the model of ideal and stereotypical figures, which he then intervened with special pencils he called "efasages" that erased the printed image the moment they colored it.
In 1968, already back in Argentina, De la Vega painted Billiken (Billiken) one of a reduced number of pieces directly based on old documentary images from the World War II era. These images appear as if subjected to a high contrast photo filter, so that gradations are annulled, as he achieved them by pushing them towards extreme black and white values. The scene refers to a triumphant parade of troops--their uniforms apparently that of the British Army--in front of a crowd, which jubilantly greets them. La verdadera historia (The True History), painted that same year, is very similar to the first piece, and helps to make sense of it. Ironically speaking, the "true" history --the one we know--is the one transmitted at school and illustrated by a magazine for school age kids such as "Billiken," a publication that was read by Argentine school children for various decades and which surely also nourished the imagination of the artist.
The main characters in these paintings belong to the generation that gave rise to the "baby boom". De la Vega portrayed its members as the "amassed" components of mass society in the pieces begun in North America. Neither Billiken (Billiken) nor La verdadera historia (The True History) allow for the possibility of exposing any of the horrors of World War II. The characters represented here, as well as their children, are willing to smile for the camera. The artist uses the classic device of the orthogonal grid--in Billiken there are traces in pencil--so as to enlarge what is surely a small illustration. Still, if he does not deform the bodies, he unifies crowds by making every individual appear in the same picture plane, forcing them to share contours and blank zones that resemble burned film. In 1968--an explosive year for culture and youthful rebellion--the artist sought the origin of the social phenomenon that enveloped him. He was in the midst of it, and refered to it in caustic remarks throughout his paintings and spectacles, to which he dedicated himself as a singer/songwriter from this point on.
Billiken re-appears after many years of invisibility. In April 1970 it was shown in an exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, 24 artistas argentinos (24 Argentine Artists). Then, a jury headed by the critic Aldo Pellegrini, selected work by a group of prestigious artists among which were, besides De la Vega, Deira, Macció, Juan Carlos Distéfano, Juan Grela, Manuel Espinosa, Roberto Aizenberg, Martha Peluffo and Clorindo Testa. The First National Bank of Boston, sponsor of the show, collectively acquired their work and destined the pieces for its new Boston headquarters. In the case of De la Vega they also acquired Mil calorías por cm2 (2) (A thousand calories per cm2) (1967) and Hendrix Guru (1968), all from the black and white cycle.
Adriana Lauria, Curator, Centro Virtual de Arte Argentino, Buenos Aires.
1) A. Garsar, El pastorcito mentiroso de la Vega, citation by M. Casanegra, J. De la Vega, Buenos Aires, Alba, 1991, p. 12.
2) M. Casanegra, Op. cit., p. 116.