Gallery & Studio Magazine, NYC, November/December, 2008

Vincent Arcilesi: Venus and Apollo Revisited in Mexico City

By Ed McCormack

As the ga-ga reaction of an unsuspecting cable TV technician who passed through the artist’s downtown loft the morning we previewed his latest paintings demonstrated, the seduction of the viewer has always been foremost in the art of Vincent Arcilesi. And never has Arcilesi had a more seductive subject than “Pyramid of the Sun,” the magnificent 9 by 18 foot centerpiece of his new exhibition, inspired by a sojourn to Mexico City, as well as by Ingres’ uncompleted mural “The Golden Age,” which depicted “a time when work wasn’t necessary and the world was an Eden peopled by ‘beautiful idlers’.”
Of themselves, beautiful idlers are not a new subject for Arcilesi. Usually unencumbered by clothing, they have long been a staple of his mural-scale canvases, which, combined, constitute a world tour of great cities liberated by the artist’s singularly sensual imagination. Anyone who has been following his career for some time would probably agree that Arcilesi finds his own inner Eden wherever he travels: In Rome, lovers entwined in the sultry night air outside the Colosseum; in London, nude bathers enacted a pastoral idyll in St. James’s Park; in Morocco, a lounging pasha trotted out his comely harem in front of Al Badi Palace, amid a procession of robed Morrocan musicians; in Russia, Arcilesi’s naked legions upstaged the Winter Palace, the Cathedral of the Resurrection, and the statue of Lenin in an imaginatively reconfigured Palace Square.

No previous location, however, has inspired Arcilesi to take more poetic license than Mexico City, where, much to his delight, the artist found that vestiges of  Mayan culture still mingle freely with Catholic iconography. For what could possibly be  more inspiring for an artist who has always combined a reverence for Renaissance figuration with a life-affirming personal hedonism than the city’s unlikely confluence of conquistador-instituted Christianity and indigenous paganism?

The tempestuous marriage of Spanish and Indian cultures is dynamically reflected in the disparate landmarks that anchor the opposite poles of  “Pyramid of the Sun’s” sprawling three-panel composition: a floating crucifixion and the Catedral Metropolitana ( the city’s largest church) on the left and on the right, a frieze of four warriors, adopted from a Mayan mural, hovering in a cloud near the  golden pyramid.

In the first panel, a young man performs an abandoned pre-Lenten dance in a jaguar skin; a small boy executes a jig-like step, sporting spotted body makeup; a little flower girl, resembling  a  modestly clothed  Mexican offspring of Gauguin’s Tahitian muses, prepares to hawk her wares to a beautiful auburn-haired tourist in an embroidered red Mexican dress; and a white-clad Indian couple poses stiffly in the middle distance, as though for a wedding photo.

If not for the visionary apparition of the crucifixion—appropriated by Arcilesi from a painting by Alonso Cano in the Hermitage Museum and set afloat over the cathedral’s white stucco façade—this panel could represent the objective reality of Mexico City during Holy Week, when exotic costumes and ritual dances abound. However, in the next two panels, Arcilesi shifts into full-frontal fantasy mode,with nude figures appearing among others in native dress.

The central nude, described by the artist as “an American Venus,” stands slightly to the right of a Spanish flag on its tall pole, her magnetic, wide-eyed gaze drawing the viewer into the picture space. Crouching at her side in the subordinate posture that many of Arcilesi’s male figures assume in the presence of his ravishing female nudes, is a young “Mexican Apollo.” Hand to bearded chin, Thinker-like, he looks away, as though intent, however hopelessly, on resisting her charms. Quite the opposite attitude is displayed by a bolder youth, done up in the elaborate headdress and loincloth of an Aztec god, who has dropped to his knees and now thrusts out his pelvis like Elvis, as he brandishes a ceremonial plant, as though to capture the attention of a statuesque blond “European Venus.” As coolly beautiful as the young Catherine Deneuve, she stands with her back to him, striking a pose at once aloof and seductive. Although she appears to glance askance over one creamy shoulder at the young man’s macho posturing, who can say what this imperious Venus is really feeling?

The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) eroticism that permeates Arcilesi’s mural-scale travel paintings, amounting to much more than a subtext to their many intriguing cultural symbols, carries over into his smaller oils of imaginary tourists in hotel rooms : a topless woman trying on a sombrero; a voluptuous nude sprawling on a blue cloth; a naked man kneeling before his standing lover with all the wonderment of Pygmalion in the precise second when his ivory statue sprang to life.

The strong red, green, and golden ocher hues of the Mexican flag—a recurring motif, seen blowing in the breeze through hotel windows or crowning architectural compositions such as “Palacio Nacional, Mexico City”—seem to set the tone for a new coloristic heightening that imparts an almost Fauvist intensity to some of these new paintings. And while Arcilesi still retains the tempering grasp of classical draftsmanship that has made him one of our most accomplished contemporary realists, a somewhat looser handling of clouds, foliage and other details imparts unprecedented gestural vigor to his vibrant new paintings.