Born in 1958 to a wealthy mining family from Múzquiz, Coahuila, in northern Mexico, Julio Galán grew up in Monterrey. He studied architecture at the University of Monterrey between 1978 and 1982, but was committed to painting. Galán first exhibited at age 20 in 1980, in art dealer Guillermo Sepúlveda's Monterrey gallery. In 1984, the artist relocated to New York. Within one year, he exhibited at Art Mart, an East Village gallery, as well as in Europe. In 1986, Paige Powell and Edit DeAk presented his paintings in SoHo. By 1989, Galán's work received critical acclaim. He was the only Mexican to be included in the watershed exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre, at Paris's Centre Georges Pompidou, and was featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art's 1993 blockbuster, Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Monterrey, organized a Galán survey in 1994. He was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art's 1995 Biennial. Galán was exhibiting with Amsterdam dealer Barbara Farber, 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. Julio Galán died in 2006 at the tragically early age of 46.
Galán's work is clearly indebted to the intimate, surrealistic self-portraiture of Frida Kahlo and her successor, Nahúm Zenil. He can be considered within the lineage 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. In this sense, the artist's imagery also evokes the collage-like, fragmented aesthetic and dreamlike suspension of Neo-expressionist painters of the 1980s, including David Salle and Francesco Clemente, who themselves were influenced by the German master, Sigmar Polke. Julio Galán's eclectic, romantic artistic style emerged through this combination of Mexican and Euro-American artistic influences. Mixing folk imagery in an almost Pop vein, Galán's large canvases are ripe with references to childhood as well as homoerotic allegory. His paintings are often oneiric, nostalgic dreamscapes in which the protagonist is both the artist's self-portrait as well as a cartoon boy-hero. The Black Pearl is an intriguing example of Galán's oeuvre.
A shorn child kneels on all fours precariously on a small raft, adrift at sunset on the waves of a deep ocean. Wearing a red velvety suit, pearls encircle the child's neck and wrist. At the child's foot, an affixed fragment from an embossed, gilt-edged chromolithograph offers a glimpse of the elaborate hem of a Virgin's robe. The window offered by this mass-produced devotional card implies a strong identification between the child and the reproduction. Next to the hesitant and awkwardly perched figure, a giant egg-like shape shines and bobs in the water, suggesting the setting sun itself. This could be a pearl; when questioned; Galán confoundingly noted that the black pearl of the title was "behind the white pearl." Across the face of this intriguing image, a sash of actual cloth is pulled through the painting's punctured surface. Stretched across the canvas's face like a bandage, it drapes down in two strips, tied and ruched in a manner that alludes to the body, or its absence. Beginning as a white, silky ribbon, the swath's shape starts by alluding to the swaddling worn by Christ. However, at the work's bottom edge, it is tied into a deep purple fabric which conjures the royal cloth, or that lavished by the Catholic Church during Lenten celebrations. Nearly black in a certain light, knotted and looped in a meditative and deliberate fashion, it invokes mourning.
The entire scene is ripe with archetypal, religious symbolism. The water on which the raft jogs is traditionally a metaphor of rebirth. An egg symbolizes fertility and pearls indicate virginity. Art critic Eleanor Heartney has interpreted the child as a girl who reaches towards the pearl. However, it is actually only the eyes of the young acolyte that are averted warily towards the giant orb. Perhaps an alternate reading is that the child serves as an ambiguously gendered version of the young artist himself. His hand held up in an open greeting, almost a signal of peace, he signals to the viewer in the frame formed by the ceremonial draping. The Black Pearl plays with various levels of depiction, while questioning the conventions of both visual and verbal representation.
Deborah Cullen, Director of Curatorial Programs, El Museo del Barrio, New York.