Julio Galán died in 2006 at the tragically early age of 46. Born in 1958 to a wealthy mining family from Muzquiz, Coahuila, in northern Mexico, he grew up in Monterrey. As a child, the artist spent a good deal of time on his grandfather's estate in the country, near one of the largest bear preserves in the world. Galán studied architecture from 1978 to 1982 at the University of Monterrey. However, he was already committed to painting and first exhibited his work at age 20, in 1980, in art dealer Guillermo Sepúlveda's Monterrey gallery. In 1984, Galán moved to New York. In 1985, the artist presented his work at the East Village gallery Art Mart and began to exhibit in Europe. Paige Powell and Edit DeAk showed his paintings in SoHo in 1986. By 1989, Galán had attained critical acclaim. He was the only Mexican to be included in the watershed exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and was featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art blockbuster, Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century, in 1993. A survey was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey in 1994 and 2007 and he was included in the 1995 Whitney Museum of American Art's Biennial. Galán was working with Amsterdam dealer Barbara Farber, with Gian Enzo Sperone in Rome, and in New York with Annina Nosei, Ramis Barquet and Robert Miller (where he had his last solo show in 2001) at the moment of his untimely death.
Galán's eclectic, romantic, yet strong style emerged through the confluence of Mexican and Euro-American artistic influences. On the one hand, his work was clearly indebted to the intimate, surrealistic self-portraiture of Frida Kahlo and her successor, Nahum Zenil. On the other hand, Galán's imagery also evoked the collage-like, fragmented aesthetic and dreamlike suspension of Neo-expressionist painters such as David Salle and Francesco Clemente, who themselves were influenced by the German master, Sigmar Polke. Galán's work can be considered part of the Mexicanista art current of the 1980s, in which explicitly Mexican subject matter--the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Sacred Heart, milagros--is utilized in an almost postmodern Symbolist style. His large canvases are ripe with lushly-painted flowers, carefully depicted pottery, textiles, and furniture, shining tiles and jewels. They combine ursine animals and strangely malevolent dolls with weeping and bleeding eyes, floating hands and serene heads. Mixing folk imagery in an almost Pop vein, Galán employs both references to his childhood with homoerotic allegory. His paintings are often oneiric, nostalgic dreamscapes in which the protagonist/self-portrait is both a cartoon boy-hero as well as the dandified, effeminate artist.
In these paintings, Galán cultivates a hothouse of disturbing juxtapositions. Magazine Toloache Boy is a strong example of his oeuvre. Galán portrays a vision of the sickly self and its other, its lover, in a narcissistic embrace. Love clutches need, blooming in a twilight of murky green. Toloache is a poisonous flowering plant. Its name is derived from the Nahuatl word, "tolaotzin" from "toloa" (incline the head) and "tzin" (reverential). Its scientific name, Datura innoxia, includes plants such as angel's-trumpet, and is sometimes called Sacred Datura (from the Hindu word "dhat", or the eternal essence of God). Native to Central America, all species have long been used--as a tea or tobacco--by the indigenous peoples of the Americas in ritual cultural ceremonies, to cast or break hexes, and to induce dreams. Datura contains toxic hallucinogenic alkaloids, and can cause permanent psychosis. Datura's effects include stimulation, anxiety, nausea, dilated pupils, disorientation, loss of memory and of time, delirium, profound sensitivity to light and noise, uncontrollably emotion, and hallucinations. A psychoactive preparation is made from its ornamental, white, trumpet-shaped flowers. Sold in Mexican markets, toloache is used as a love potion by many who believe in its potent powers to atract would-be lovers.
Just like the feverish, spotted twins in this painting, Datura's stems and leaves are covered with short and soft grayish hairs, giving the whole plant an ashen appearance. The plant emits a foul odor when crushed or bruised, and has a distinctive, spiny, egg-shaped fruit. Sacred Datura blooms at night and is pollinated by nocturnal visitors, such as moths. According to Hernández, the Aztecs used this plant long before the Spanish conquest of Mexico, although they warned against madness and "various and vain imaginings." One of the plant's most prominent users is Don Juan Matus, the Yaqui Indian shaman and lead character in Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan. Don Juan refers to variations of the plant as jimson weed, yerba del diablo (devil's weed), Mescalito, or Toloache. In Magazine Toloache Boy, this netherworld of addiction is pictured. As one larger figure nestles the smaller, he wraps his hand around to the private region, clutching a burning cigarette in the manner of franker sexual gesture. Dressed in old-fashioned clothing, a vision glimpsed in a long-outdated glamour publication, Galán's portrays the love of the self or its reflection as a poisonous but persuasive temptation.
Deborah Cullen, Director of Curatorial Programs, El Museo del Barrio, New York.