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"Mujer con Las Manos Cruzados"

Francisco Zuniga
Strength of Character
Originally Published in the Santa Barbara News and Review,
 Circa 1978


By Dan Gheno

ART, LIKE DRUGS, can be dangerous. A smattering of both can either calm you down or exhilarate you —too much and you can OD; people who try running through the massive collection at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in one day frequently complain of jumbled stomachs and jangled eyes.

For this reason, it may take several visits to safely appreciate the new one-artist show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art featuring the sculptor Francisco Zuniga from Mexico City. The museum’s front court is jammed with eight life-size bronzed sculptures. Inside are 12 more statues, some in marble, and 16 large conte drawings.

Intoxication comes less from the volume of this prolific artist than the intensity of the emotions he portrays. Superficially, his stocky, third-world subjects seem pathetic or intensely grim. They’re rendered in a frighteningly realistic manner that cant help but remind us of Rodin’s sculpted figures, distorted by anguish.

And yet the figures do not fight their plight with exaggerated gestures and contorted grimaces as in many of Rodin’s pieces. They stand silently and firm, their gaze directed inward, sustaining themselves with staunch indifference. They refuse to put on a show for us, but they also refuse to be humbled.

In "Mujer con Las Manos Gruzadas," Zuniga places a madonna-like figure into a Buddha-like seated posture. Her stiff veil drapes from her head and wraps her entire body, leaving only trace glimpses of her pounded and battered flesh. We focus in on her eyes, which are closed in stoic meditation, and we examine her mouth contracted in dire concentration. Still, nowhere do we see her forehead furrowed in sadness.

Although Zuniga has studied in museums around the world, he finds his passionate subject matter at home. Even as a child, Zuniga spent many-hours studying the remains of pre-hispanic art almost totally destroyed by the conquering warlords of Spain.

Zuniga explains, "I detest, in modern life, its alienation, its wastes and its injustices."

Zuniga mirrors decades of Mexican artists trying to reestablish cultural roots. According to R. Kuchta of the Everson Museum in New York, this class struggle "is partly a desire to protect themselves from what they may feel to be a cultural imperialism from the north, and partly an inclination to be true to their distinct feelings and humanistic orientations."

More Intense Sensation of Living

TO THE CENTRAL AMERICAN Indians, before they were invaded, sculpture was often a form of religious worship. It was a solemn mode of spiritual procreation. They avoided the coy, intellectual games we westerners often play in our intellectualized visual arts.

"My work reveals neither moralistic nor sociological tendencies," asserts Zuniga, "but produces in me a more intense sensation of living."

In light of this, it’s understandable why Zuniga ---from his point of view--- condemns the "uselessness of artistic teaching which is oriented within a vicious circle of ancient or modern academic thinking." A professor of art in Mexico City from 1938 to 1970, Zuniga devotedly believes that art students only learn "naturally, within the framework of his social conduct, from the realizations of one’s own work and the motivation of one’s inner life."

Now 66, Zuniga likes to spend much of his time alone exploring his own artistic potentials. The truth of his contentions and explorations literally come alive in his sun-baked bronzes, poised in the SBMA courtyard. As our hands glide over the surface of his pieces, we collect warmth in our palm, gradually intensifying the sensuousness of the encounter. Moving to the shadow areas of the hard metal, our hands regain tactile sensitivity and coolly glide across the minutely detailed form. The hard metal almost seems to ripple under our hands like malleable flesh.

‘The ductile sensuality of clay pleases me," Zuniga affirms. Since the bronze statues are cast from this soft material, they all possess the values he most admires—the direct imprint of touch, the expression and the motivation of internal life which fire or bronze will harden."

Without this direct, gutsy approach, Zuniga’s sculptures might otherwise seem oppressive or officious, like most imposing monumental art objects. Instead, the sculptures automatically assert themselves on a human level, synonymous with our own. As a result, the outside show continually attracts a parade of curious pedestrians who would probably ignore the museum.

The milling crowd, in fact, contributes to the veracity of the statues. The sculptures stand at eye level and their flickering highlights give them a kinetic movement that almost loses them among the real humans. They also share the same cast shadows as the crowd, and so they appear to actually intermingle with "our" environment.

In short, they exist. And whether they please or disgust, they fulfill Zuniga’s purpose. They transmit the noble exasperations and exhilarations found in "the dignity of common man."