Raul Conti’s works, both paintings and sculptures speak volumes through symbols universal to man. Although he often employs Pre Columbian elements, these works have a proto-historical perspective common to the whole race. Raul Conti was born in Morteros, Province of Cordoba in Argentina, in 1931 and became a USA citizen in 1997. Beginning in his adolescence, under the tutelage of Alfredo Lazzari and Juan Grela, Conti studied throughout Latin America and Europe. His interests have long been centered on the resolution of plastic compositions through the austerity of a palette based on earth tones. Later, he sought the luminosity of forms through the contrast of complementary colors using saturated dyes. He blends the saturated dyes with their complementary producing grays of colors that have evolved in his works. He is committed to the seemingly contradictory worlds of meaning and emotion, expressing basic impulses that appeal to a distant faculty.
Raul Conti’s travels and many exhibitions through Latin America, allowed him to explore the symbolic subject matter of Pre Columbian Art. As Hector Cartier pointed out “going beyond that, Conti perceives that modern art after centuries of illusionary visualization , has penetrated (allowing an opportunity for a more significant encounter with those vital roots) into the core of archaic imagery: Images generally born of an image- conjuring world impregnated by mythical and sacred impulses”.
His life and work have been divided between his studios in Hells’ Kitchen Manhattan (where more than 100 works are available) since 1977 and Buenos Aires, Argentina where more than 600 works can be viewed by appointment. A prolific artist at 83, he is now in the process of completing his second retrospective book which will be available this year.
“I have lived many years in the South, in the North, in Buenos Aires, in New York, weaving dreams and hopes, imaginary worlds and present realities, knowing the dryness of the pavement, the grey of the walls, and the outbreak of cities without refuge, security and no salvation. In the biting cold and the hot savageness of the climate and its people, in spite of all this, Edith, with her quiet gaze, discovered the enchantment of a flower; she made me feel the slow and deep rhythm of the soil’s crop. She helped me think, leaving aside, momentarily, the reality, and with aesthetic judgment, she immersed herself in the pictorial world and she surrendered to the exercise of giving titles to my works as if they were born for her. I would choose some and we would celebrate the finding, she was my friend. I believe that is Art: to live and transform, transform and live.”[i]
This quote expresses the importance of life to art and art to life found in every work Conti creates. A celebration of life glows within each painting and drawing in this exhibition. This love of art and life comes from his childhood in Argentina and its past, both European and indigenous, and continues into the present and the future. Conti’s artwork echoes the words of Octavio Paz: “life as art, a return to the mythic lost unity of thought and body, man and nature, I and the other.”[ii] Conti does not limit life to his own image, but extends it to his world, both natural and constructed. We see life as art in the still lifes, the landscapes and the figures, and the abstractions, especially in works such as La Garza de tus Suenos 2013.
Argentina is a strong presence in Conti’s work – a blend of tradition and modernity, European and indigenous, language and culture. This amalgamation creates his identity and voice. Argentina has seen itself as a nation of European descent with Buenos Aires as the Paris of South America.[iii] Recent political and social transformations have heralded a celebration of their non-European heritage. As Conti says “The more I accumulated works, the clearer the idea became that prompted me to try to find the origin of my identity, the essence of the soil where I was born, and to arrive at the source, the fountain of the Indo-American spirit.”[iv] The inspiration of Huaca and Paracas textiles seems particularly strong in Conti’s work. The abstraction of hands and hair, the use of steps and checkerboards is startlingly effective in line, color and composition.[v] By claiming Pre-Columbian heritage, a very few Argentines have constructed a new identity incorporating indigenous elements, freeing them from the dominance of the West and European Modernism.[vi]
“In a very particular manner of seeing things and according to the time or place, infinite images arose, shapes that were almost always inscribed inside a rectangle and trapezoid, in serial and alternated, frontal forms, producing rhythm; frequently, the spaces between forms become another form. Straight and curve lines extend synthetically creating enclosed surfaces, and when the curves undulate and the straight lines zigzag, this creates ornamented levels. These ancestors of the Pre Columbian era knew about the significance implied in each form, and about its geometrizing representations of the human figure, animals, vegetal, and from the soil, they expressed, in symbolic images, feelings that belonged to their inner rhythm and collective memory.”[vii]
The introduction of Pre-Columbian elements brings another note to the work of Raul Conti – the magic realism of Latin America. The alchemy of nature, myth and the past melds the intimacy of private life with origins and history creating allegories of interpretive experience. Meanings evolve from visible and hidden spheres. Elements are blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality. Rather than explaining reality using natural or physical laws, magical realism creates another reality. The transformation and transcendence of magic realism is revealed in Conti’s works through anthropomorphism, zoomorphism, the refusal to be specific, illusions of similarity and difference and a projection of utopia. For instance, in Un Tema, 2013, we see a mythic scene evidently depicting an artist’s studio in the woods along a stream. Clearly more is happening here than the surface reality and it is our pleasure to investigate the figures and objects and interpret the story.
New York has also influenced his art in significant ways. The artwork of Raul Conti manages to be figurative, abstract and symbolic all at once. It is a visual poetry in repose and silence. Its classical compositional principles make it philosophical and universal. He is a clear thinking, conceptual painter with a material feel for the surface of the work. The presence of the material is never forgotten – the large color fields enlivened and varied by his meticulous brushwork. He is a splendid scion of European modernism and the New York School. Conti’s power of invention is exemplified in his shifting and juxtaposition of styles. He is always adventurous and never complacent. For precedents, we might look at the playful Cubism of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Paul Klee.[viii] Conti’s simplified forms combine with the shimmering color to layer intellectual mystery and visual pleasure.
Part of this universality is the prominence of woman as in the poetry of Pablo Neruda. “Traditionally, love poetry has equated woman with nature. Neruda took this established mode of comparison and raised it to a cosmic level, making woman into a veritable force of the universe.”[ix] Conti gives us heroic women, as in Serenidad, 2012, infused with femininity and strength. They are surrounded by symbolic flowers and the apparatus of art creation – the essence of creation is all its aspects. The combination of the Pre-Columbian goddess image of earth, motherhood, fertility and love with Conti’s own great romance with his wife Edith, mentioned in the quote above, surrounds the viewer with creation, healing, compassion and life.
“I took my brushes and sculptures straight on without a predetermined plan, and I felt that the light of that submerged past was spreading over my works blending in the labyrinth of the times we lived.”[x]
[i] Raul Conti, 2014. This essay was kindly lent to me by Mirian Conti.
[iii] Schneider, Arnd. Appropriation as Practice: Art and Identity in Argentina. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
[iv] Raul Conti, 2014.
[v] Conversation with Michael Bogin, Professor of Art, Hobart & William Smith Colleges
[vi] Masiello, Francine. Art of Transition: Latin American Culture and Neoliberal Crisis. Durham, Duke University Press, 2001.
[vii] Raul Conti, 2014.
[viii] Conversation with Michael Bogin, Professor of Art, Hobart & William Smith Colleges
[x] Raul Conti, 2014.