Category: Fernando Botero

War & Empire Opening in San Francisco

The Meridian Gallery

[ The Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, California. Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

All three floors of the beautiful turn-of-the-century Beaux-Arts building that houses the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, California, were packed full of people during the September 4th, 2008, opening reception of the Meridian’s War & Empire exhibition. As the show runs until election night on November 4th, consider this pithy article to be merely the briefest of updates on what has truly turned out to be a landmark show.

War & Empire poster

[ War & Empire - Official poster for the Meridian exhibit. Designed by artist Juan Fuentes and based upon his original linoleum cut. ]

I drove up to the San Francisco Bay area from Los Angeles to attend the exhibit as a participating artist and also to assist the gallery in producing a short video documentary on the show - which should be available on my web log sometime by mid-October. As part of the video project I talked to a number of the exhibit’s other participating artists, including the co-curators of the show, Anne Trueblood Brodzky, Art Hazelwood and DeWitt Cheng, who eloquently spoke of the exhibit’s history and purpose.

Paintings by Fernando Botero

[ Abu Ghraib # 54 - Fernando Botero, 2005. Oil on canvas. 12" x 14". Collection of American University Museum, Washington, DC. "A refined painterly quality reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix." Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

I also conducted interviews with the Director and Curator of the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., Jack Rasmussen - as well as with the respected art historian, author, and former curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Peter Selz. Both of these gentlemen offered tremendous insights on the subject of contemporary political art. In the weeks to come I will also be writing a review of the War & Empire exhibit to be published on the Foreign Policy In Focus website. That illustrated article will present an overview of the Meridian’s exhibit, as well as interviews with participating artists Sandow Birk, Guy Colwell, Art Hazelwood, and Juan Fuentes.

Painting by Guy Colwell

[ Abuse - Guy Colwell. Acrylic on canvas. 2004. Colwell’s controversial painting depicting the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. jailers while held in Abu Ghraib prison. Photo by Ken Duffy. View Duffy’s photos of the Meridian opening on Flickr. ]

For those who thirst for press reviews of the exhibition, here is a short blurb from ArtBusiness.com, a website that covers exhibit openings in the San Francisco Bay area of California. Reviewer Alan Bamberger wrote that the War & Empire show: “(…) cries out in opposition to the catastrophic domestic disasters of recent years including war, reduced personal freedoms, the concentration of wealth among the few at the expense of the many, environmental degradation, and more. Three floors of overwhelmingly well-placed outrage exemplify freedom of speech at its finest - take advantage of it while we still have it.” Of course Bamberger is correct, but even his exclamatory remarks fail to convey the depth and breadth of this extraordinary exhibition.

Artwork by Rigo

[ Helicopter - RIGO. 2002. Push pins on wood. 45" x 45" Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim. The portrait depicts Geronimo (Goyathlay - or "one who yawns"), the famed Chiricahua Apache leader who led his people in fierce armed resistance against white settlement of Apache land in Arizona and New Mexico. Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

In War & Empire, one is treated to the humorous and Zen-like figurative minimalism of maverick William T. Wiley, the ominous metal and glass sculptures of Bella Feldman; which seem like the malevolent war toys of children from some militaristic alien race, and the raw and inflamed Abu Ghraib canvases of Fernando Botero; which up close possess a refined painterly quality reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix. There are many handmade prints in the show, running the gambit from Fernando Marti’s marvelous color etching, Poppies; a meditation on the linkage between the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan on the proliferation of heroin-producing poppy fields in that country - to Art Hazelwood’s devastating Fallujah, an expressionist-like woodcut that depicts massacred civilians beneath the rubble of that unfortunate war-ruined city in Iraq’s Al Anbar province.

Sculpture by Bella Feldman

[ War Toys - Bella Feldman. 2003 - Present. Installation with metal and glass sculptures. "Like the malevolent war toys of children from some militaristic alien race." Repeated text is incorporated into the installation, reading; "Weapons of Mass Destruction, Daisy Cutter, Water Boarding, Embedded, Neutralize, Enduring Freedom, Surgical Strike, Carpet Bombing." Photo by Mark Vallen. ]

What makes the War & Empire exhibit singularly astonishing is that it so easily encompasses a diversity of aesthetic styles from artists who would ordinarily not be exhibiting together; from those whose works embody the rarified high concepts of the “fine art” world, to those “street artists” and illustrators whose works are primarily aimed at a mass audience. The exhibition unflinchingly incorporates installation, sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography to great effect, with the entire endeavor being of the highest quality and held together by a grand thematic vision - the yearning for a better world and revulsion for the way that things are. That dissimilar artists of all ages who have disparate cultural and ethnic backgrounds, working in a multiplicity of techniques and approaches, can so successfully make a collective statement regarding current political realities, indicates a new and vibrant social engagement in American art.

War & Empire opened on September 4, 2008, and runs until the evening of the U.S. presidential election - November 4, 2008.

Print by Eric Drooker

[ Slingshot vs. Tank - Eric Drooker. Undated digital print. Photo by Ken Duffy. View Duffy’s photos of the Meridian opening on Flickr. ]

War & Empire at the Meridian Gallery

Coming this September, 2008, San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery will present War and Empire, a group exhibition that has as its theme the state of democracy in the U.S. - as well as the continuing military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. I am delighted that my own art has been included in the exhibit, since being able to show with a notable collection of artists that I fervently admire is no small thing. For the next few weeks I will abstain from posting to this web log, giving me the time to write an article on the War & Empire show for Foreign Policy in Focus.

Drawing by Mark Vallen

[ Not Our Children, Not Their Children - Mark Vallen. Pencil on paper. 2003. To be displayed at the upcoming War & Empire exhibit at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery. ]

Famed Columbian artist Fernando Botero will have two paintings from his powerful Abu Ghraib series included in the War & Empire exhibit. On loan from the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., the paintings will most assuredly be a focal point of the exhibit; but I am equally excited over a number of the other artists included in the show - Gee Vaucher, Sandow Birk, and Patrick Oliphant to name but a few.

Painting by Fernando Botero

[ Abu Ghraib #72 - Fernando Botero. Oil on canvas. 2007. To be displayed at the upcoming War & Empire exhibit at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery. ]

Painter Guy Colwell will also be a participating artist. When Abuse, his canvas depicting the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. jailers was displayed at San Francisco’s Capobianco Gallery in May, 2004, rightist thugs physically assaulted gallery owner Lori Haigh, and through a campaign of unrelenting threat and harassment forced her to permanently close her gallery. Colwell essentially went underground in order to avoid harm. Triumphantly, Colwell’s controversial painting will be shown at the Meridian Gallery exhibit along with This Is Not Torture, the artist’s latest drawing on the subject of waterboarding.

Drawing by Guy Colwell

[ This Is Not Torture - Guy Colwell. Pencil on paper. 2008. To be displayed at the upcoming War & Empire exhibit at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery. ]

War & Empire is part of the Art of Democracy project first conceptualized around two years ago by San Francisco printmaker and painter Art Hazelwood, and Stephen Fredericks of the National Arts Club of New York. Art of Democracy gelled into a nationwide coalition of artists and venues who will be mounting art shows across the country in the run-up period just prior to the 2008 election. The Meridian Gallery exhibit opens on September 4, 2008, and runs until the evening of the U.S. presidential election - November 4, 2008.

The full listing of the artists whose works will appear in the group exhibit are as follows: Scott Anderson, David Avery, Will Barnet, Jesus Barraza, Sandow Birk, Fernando Botero, Mark Bryan, Enrique Chagoya, SF Print Collective, Guy Colwell, Francisco Dominguez, Eric Drooker, Ala Ebtekar, Kevin Evans, Bella Feldman, Stephen Fredericks, Juan Fuentes, J. C. Garrett, Art Hazelwood, Frances Jetter, David Jones, Hung Liu, Roberta Loach, Mary V Marsh, Fernando Marti, Doug Minkler, Claude Moller, Malaquias Montoya, Patrick Oliphant, Ariel Parkinson, Francesca Pastine, Patrick Piazza, Phyllis Plattner, Gary-Paul Prince, Rigo, Favianna Rodriguez, Ben Sakoguchi, Jos Sances, Mark Vallen, Gee Vaucher, Mary Hull Webster, Howard Whitehouse, William Wiley, Bruce Yurgil.

Abu Ghraib: Botero exhibit in Berkeley

Painting by Fernando Botero

Fernando Botero’s suite of paintings and drawings depicting the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of their American jailers in Abu Ghraib prison, will at last be exhibited in an American museum. An exhibit of 24 paintings and 23 drawings by the 74 year old Columbian master, will go on view at the Doe Library, located at the University of California, Berkeley.

Drawing by Fernando Botero

In September of 2006, I wrote of the difficulties Mr. Botero was having in getting his Abu Ghraib series of artworks exhibited in the United States. Botero’s distinctive reputation as an artist notwithstanding, and despite the fact that his works had been shown in museums all across Europe - not a single museum in the U.S. offered to show his works. Finally the Marlborough Gallery in New York became the first American venue to showcase Botero’s Abu Ghraib series with an Oct./Nov. 2006 showing - but the Berkeley exhibit will be the very first museum exhibition in the U.S. The show is sponsored by the U.C. Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies.

Drawing by Fernando Botero

The exhibit of Botero’s works will open at the U.C. Berkeley campus Doe Library, on January 29th at 6 p.m., and the show will run until March 25th, 2007. Hours for the Doe Library exhibit are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. A map to locate the on-campus library can be found here.

[ UPDATE: Jack Rasmussen, the Director and Curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C., announced on his web log that Botero's paintings will be exhibited at the American University Museum from November 6th to December 30th, 2007. ]

Botero: Abu Ghraib

A little more than a year ago, I wrote an article titled “Fernando Botero Paints Abu Ghraib.” The piece was about what I referred to as the Columbian artist’s “masterwork, a suite of 50 large oil paintings depicting the horrors perpetrated by Americans at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison.” Readers of this web log are by now most likely familiar with Botero’s Abu Ghraib cycle of paintings, but now Americans, at least those in New York City, will have an opportunity to view the works for themselves.

New York’s Marlborough Gallery will present, Botero: Abu Ghraib, an exhibit to run for one month only from October 18th to November 18th, 2006. Marlborough Gallery has represented the artist for twenty years, but none of the 45 paintings and drawings to be displayed will be for sale. However, a beautiful exhibition catalog with text by Art in America editor, David Ebony, will be available at the gallery - or you can purchase the book online from Amazon.com.

Exhibit catalog for, Botero: Abu Ghraib

[ Exhibit catalog for, Botero: Abu Ghraib. ]


While it’s good news that Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings are to be exhibited in the U.S., there is an ominous side to the story. Despite the critical acclaim the works have received, and regardless of their being exhibited in 2005 at Italy’s Palazzo Venezia, Germany’s Wurth Museum, and plans to show them in 2007 at Italy’s Palazzo Reale in Milan and at IVAM in Valencia, Spain, come 2008 - not a single American museum has come forward with an offer to exhibit the paintings. So much for the “liberal” U.S. arts establishment.

The Art Newspaper of London, quotes Botero as saying an exhibition of his Abu Ghraib paintings was “proposed to many museums in the U.S., but after six months there was no interest.” Botero asked Arts Services International, the group that organized the artist’s North American traveling retrospective due to begin in January, 2007, to help find a museum willing to exhibit the controversial works - but ASI also came up empty handed. Only then did Marlborough courageously step in to offer Botero their gallery as a venue - and hurrah for them! With the U.S. Congress voting to legalize the Bush administration’s policies of torture and indefinite detention without charges or trial, Botero’s artworks are more significant than ever. That American museums are unwilling, or afraid, to show these challenging artworks only adds to our collective shame.

[ UPDATE: Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings and drawings will be exhibited at the Doe Library, located at the University of California, Berkeley, from January 29th to March 25th, 2007. Click here for more information. ALSO: Jack Rasmussen, the Director and Curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C., announced on his web log that Botero's paintings will be exhibited at the American University Museum from November 6th to December 30th, 2007. ]

Fernando Botero Paints Abu Ghraib

Many people are familiar with the artworks of famed Colombian artist, Fernando Botero. Even those who have never paid a visit to a gallery or museum have most likely seen Botero’s paintings reproduced as poster prints and postcards. His characteristically joyful landscapes and scenes peopled with contented individuals have won the hearts of millions around the world. The 73-year-old artist is considered a modern master of Latin American art, and his lighthearted magical realist paintings featuring voluptuously inflated people and rotund animals have graced museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri. His monumental bronze sculptures have been exhibited at New York’s Park Avenue, along the Champs-Elysees in Paris, and on Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills California. Botero describes himself as “an artist from the Third World, or better put, an artist who was not born among museums.” His style is deeply influenced by pre-Columbian art (especially his sculpture), as well as the colonial and folk art of his native country.

Botero is a successful artist who has achieved popular acclaim as well as recognition from the art establishment. But lately his cheery and mild-mannered paintings have suddenly turned into works of profound and biting social commentary. Six years ago he began painting the bloody reality of his native Columbia, and just last year he exhibited paintings in Colombia’s capital of Bogotá that focused on his nation’s 40-year-old guerilla war. However, Fernando Botero’s latest paintings go beyond anything he’s ever created in the past. He’s completed his masterwork, a suite of 50 large oil paintings depicting the horrors perpetrated by Americans at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

“I, like everyone else, was shocked by the barbarity, especially because the United States is supposed to be this model of compassion.” The artist was so upset about what the US had done in Iraq that he set out to create a series of paintings that would forever etch the crime upon the collective consciousness of humanity. What Botero has achieved is nothing short of a contemporary equivalent to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the masterwork painted in outrage over the aerial bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War. Said Botero, “No one would have ever remembered the horrors of Guernica if not for the painting.” And no one will ever forget the vision of hell Botero has committed to canvas with these startling oil paintings. Each work is titled Abu Ghraib and given a number from 1 to 50 to set them apart. Not that they need to be differentiated, because each oil is a unique and bone chilling representation of what US soldiers did to their prisoners behind Abu Ghraib’s silent and impenetrable walls.

The horrors committed at Abu Ghraib prison came to light last year when “trophy photos” taken by US soldiers became public. The explicit photographs showed US soldiers humiliating and torturing their prisoners. To date, seven US soldiers of low rank have been punished for their role in the abuses, however, it’s doubtful that upper echelon commanders or politicians will ever be brought to trial for the outrages. But Botero’s paintings are not so much inspired by the appalling photos as they are by the written descriptions of the cruelty. In one painting the artist shows a US soldier savagely beating a defenseless blindfolded prisoner, in another a naked prisoner is handcuffed to his cell wall as though crucified -with women’s underwear left on his head like a hood. Yet another of the forbidding works depicts three naked, hooded and trussed Iraqis heaped in a pyramid. All of the artist’s paintings in the series are based upon actual testimonies that came out of the prison scandal, and Botero’s paintings are imbued with an unflinching and indignant moral outrage.

Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib series is part of a larger exhibition of 150 of his works slated to open in Rome on June 16th of this year. The show then travels to Germany, and in 2006 the exhibit is scheduled to come to the United States. Botero has said his Abu Ghraib paintings will not be included in the US show -unless museums specifically ask for them. Given that the owner of the Capobianco Gallery in San Francisco was assaulted, threatened with death, and run out of business in May of 2004 for showing a painting by Guy Colwell that also depicted US soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib -it might be wise of Botero to exercise caution when exhibiting his masterworks in the US. Threats from reactionaries notwithstanding, I hope the arts community will rally around Botero and find a way to convince exhibitors that his important new works must be shown in the United States.

[ UPDATE: Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings and drawings will be exhibited at the Doe Library, located at the University of California, Berkeley, from January 29th to March 25th, 2007. Click here for more information. ALSO: Jack Rasmussen, the Director and Curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C., announced on his web log that Botero's paintings will be exhibited at the American University Museum from November 6th to December 30th, 2007. ]