Was Julio Galán the best painter of the 1980s? Has there been any figurative painter since whose work has equal pictorial and emotional power? Making grand claims for Galán’s work may sound eccentric now that he has been largely forgotten by the artworld outside of his native Mexico, but the paintings, as I remember them, especially in an 11-year survey I saw in the artist’s hometown of Monterrey in 1993, seem to justify even the most extravagant estimations.
Although rarely identified as such, most of Galán’s paintings are self-portraits, centered on a pale youth in stylized, self-dramatizing poses. A few paintings portray Galan’s two sisters; there are also some still lifes and landscapes. Every painting is a tour-de-force of pictorial invention, weaving together Surrealist visual conundrums, pastiches of antique styles, calculated defacements (holes cut into canvases, stuff like jewels and leather belts attached to them, obliterated details, marginalia) and a languid polymorphous eroticism that gives every image and mark a palpable presence. This arsenal of painterly devices is placed at the service of Galán’s obsessive restagings of (in Eleanor Heartney’s words) “frustrated desire, impossible love and sublimated guilt.”
After some New Wavy early paintings in 1982-83, Galán opened his work to the full range of Catholic iconography that has long permeated Mexican culture. Where a less inspired artist would use such images to signify national or ethnic identity, Galán deploys the language of ex votos to delve into his own psycho-sexual imagination. He also freely mixes religious imagery with a bestiary of animals that seemed to have escaped from Freudian fairytales.
Among my favorite Galáns: El Hermano (niño berenjena y niña Santa Claus), 1985, a diptych of a big-eared boy partially encased in a giant bleeding eggplant and a red-suited girl cradling in her hands a smeared band of crypto-images; Roma (1990), also a diptych, is one of Galán’s most audacious paintings: measuring 160 by 419 centimeters, it depicts a young man lying in an impossibly elongated bed that is covered with apiece of white embroidery whose meticulously painted pattern, as it nears the foot of the bed, dramatically breaks down like one of those chaotic webs spun by a spider on LSD.
How does his work compare with more recent figurative painters dealing with psycho-sexual content? To my eye, his astounding pictorial imagination and depth of feeling makes John Currin look like an academic copyist with emotion-phobia, and Marlene Dumas like a painter who never progresses beyond the preliminary sketch stage. Closer in feeling to Galán are the painterly narrative hybrids of Kerry James Marshall and the weird, lushly painted bedroom tales of the underrated New York painter Dennis Kardon. Oddly, it is outside the medium of painting that one finds more affinities: Cindy Sherman, for instance.
In the years before he died (Aug. 4, 2006, at the age of 46), Galán was already fading from the scene, in part because his later work didn’t sustain the amazing level of the decade 1983-1993, but also because artworld fashions turned away from the Neo-Expressionist painting with which he was often identified. At this point, probably few people outside of Mexico have had a chance to see his paintings for themselves. Qué lástima!