Born in Juchitán to a Zapotec family, Francisco Toledo has for over fifty years rekindled the original primitive feeling of his Oaxacan roots in his work. Like Rufino Tamayo and Rodolfo Morales deeply imbued with the psychic mysticism of the Oaxacan universe, Toledo has drawn deeply from the pre-Hispanic mythos, populating his images with sagacious and otherworldly anthropomorphic beings. His paintings celebrate the animistic spirituality of this indigenous world, depicting fantastic creatures in myriad states of metamorphosis and in intimate rituals of creation and consummation. Animals were privileged and miraculous beings in Zapotec legend, the "connecting link between nature and society, mediators between man and the sacred energies of the natural ambience," Erika Billeter has explained. "Animals were the real character of the myth, the sublimation of a whole cosmic imagination." Toledo's work swarms with the fauna of the natural and the phantasmagorical worlds, from the Borgesian insectarium to the primeval panther and earthly cow. His animals inhabit a charmed reality and have become, over the course of the artist's career, an extended metaphor for the supernatural mysteries of life and of creation.
"Toledo's work offers us an interpretation of reality that is not rational," Jorge Alberto Manrique has remarked, "but rather a world perceived by way of sensations produced by that reality and the relationships between the different figures that appear to be joined or fused into a single one." That suspension of reality, one in which the body of a red cow might plausibly coalesce with a sea of multiplying crabs and marine life, undergirds Toledo's fantastic zoology and the syncretism of his natural universe. Crabs and cows have allusive associations with women, and their conflation and ubiquitous presence here lend a numinously feminine aura to their ruddy, sand-specked environs. A correlated masculine presence is intimated in the outline of a toad, swimming away from the heels of the eponymous red cow, and in the phallic bodies of snakes descending from the upper reaches of the canvas, both potent symbols of fertility. This playful eroticism underscores the evolutionary desire that rests at the heart of Toledo's animistic worldview, spun here across a watery habitat brimming with amphibious life.
Toledo describes this exuberant scene with intensely luminous and saturated color, swirling rich tonalities of reds and oranges with fine deposits of sand to characterize an integral space of genesis and teeming creation. The textured, richly pigmented surface recalls the painted Paleolithic caves of Lascaux, and Toledo's diverse and improbable menagerie suggestively conjures both a primal moment and an ancestral connection to a shared prehistoric and universal past. In the present work, the variegated patterns etched into the surface resemble a form of primitive drawing, imprints of an ancient history and a visual abstraction of nature itself. The commingled bodies of cow and crab suggest a visceral reciprocity between them, an animistic kinship firmly grounded in the materiality of the canvas surface and an embodiment of the holistic oneness and vitality of Toledo's universe. Painted on a monumental scale, Vaca roja celebrates the cosmic and capricious natural world, portraying an allegorical sea of creatures in a surreally intimate and profound moment of origin and incredible life.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park.
1) Erika Billeter, "In the Cosmos of the Animals -- The Adventure of the Fantasy," in Zoología Fantástica: Toledo, Borges (México, D.F.: Prisma Editorial, 2003), 25.
2) Jorge Alberto Manrique, "Toledo: The Joy for Life," in Francisco Toledo (Los Morales Polanco, México: Smurfit Cartón y Papel de México, 2002), 20.