Think­ing in­side the box

Vic­tor Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez’s ex­hibit Retab­los: A New Voice

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Retab­lista Vic­tor Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez

When a woman in the Peru­vian town of Ay­acu­cho com­mis­sioned Vic­tor Huá­man Gu­tier­rez’s fa­ther to con­struct boxes for her fam­ily retab­los, nine-yearold Vic­tor came along for the jour­ney to Peru’s cen­tral high­lands. Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez re­mained for three months, help­ing make the boxes, and was inspired by the retab­los he saw — so dif­fer­ent from those of his own vil­lage, where retablo fig­ures were made from molds. “They im­pressed me a lot,” Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez, who does not speak English, told Pasatiempo through a trans­la­tor. “For the first time I felt an in­com­pa­ra­ble hap­pi­ness. I wanted to be bet­ter than this guy. My idea at nine years old was to be the best in the world.”

You may have seen Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez’s works for sale at this year’s In­ter­na­tional Folk Art Mar­ket, and his con­tem­po­rary-themed retab­los are on view in the ex­hibit Retab­los: A New Voice at Wil­liam Siegal Gallery through Tues­day, July 28. This is the first time his work has been rep­re­sented by a U.S. gallery, and the mar­ket was his first ex­pe­ri­ence selling his wares in such a venue. “I met him nine years ago in Peru,” said Santa Fe res­i­dent and Folk Art Mar­ket vol­un­teer Shelly Batt. “He was about to stop work­ing be­cause he couldn’t make any money. He used to par­tic­i­pate in na­tional con­tests, but they’re kind of like a scam, be­cause who­ever pro­motes the con­tests keeps the works, and the win­ners get very lit­tle pay in ex­change. The last con­test he par­tic­i­pated in — for which he cre­ated a bril­liant piece of art about the wars in Peru, with 15 retab­los de­pict­ing the In­cas up to the present day — they gave him money, but it was noth­ing near what he de­served, so he stopped do­ing that. He couldn’t sup­port him­self.” Batt, who hosted Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez while he was in Santa Fe, is also his bene­fac­tor. “I started buy­ing his stuff so he could keep work­ing,” she said.

Un­like the san­tero tra­di­tion in New Mexico, in which artists cre­ate re­li­gious- and con­tem­po­rary-themed bul­tos and retab­los, carved from wood by hand, Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez crafts the mul­ti­tudi­nous fig­ures that in­habit his pieces from a tra­di­tional mix­ture of flour, gyp­sum, and wa­ter. The works de­pict elab­o­rately de­tailed scenes of life in mod­ern Peru. Peru­vian retab­los typ­i­cally have three tiers built into boxes with hinged, hand-painted doors, of­ten dis­play­ing flo­ral de­signs. Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez uses this struc­ture for satir­i­cal com­men­tary on the dif­fer­ences be­tween ur­ban and ru­ral life. “I’m mak­ing cul­tural com­par­isons be­tween the small town where I live, which is about 5,000 peo­ple; to a town the size of Santa Fe, which is like Cusco, which is a 40-minute bus ride; and to the cap­i­tal, Lima, which has mil­lions of peo­ple,” he said. A piece ti­tled Mar­kets, which can be seen at Wil­liam Siegal, un­der­scores the dif­fer­ences. The bot­tom tier shows a ru­ral, moun­tain­ous land­scape, where vil­lagers in tra­di­tional dress and bur­ros laden with packs carry their pro­duce. It’s a sharp con­trast to the top sec­tion of the piece, show­ing a typ­i­cal su­per­mar­ket with pro­duce neatly stacked on shelves and sig­nage an­nounc­ing its cost. In all three sec­tions, a dog ap­pears among the crowds of peo­ple, but only in the top sec­tion is the dog col­lared and leashed.

Among Batt’s col­lec­tion, a smaller retablo called The Myth of the In­dige­nous Peo­ple de­picts tourists in Cusco at a dance, where paid dancers stomp and twirl,

beau­ti­fully dressed in full cos­tume. Above, the scene is starkly dif­fer­ent: Dancers in a vil­lage off the beaten track for most visi­tors to the re­gion are dressed in ragged, dirty cloth­ing, un­der­scor­ing the poverty in which they live. But if you ask Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez why they smile de­spite be­ing poor, he an­swers, “Even though we’re poor, we’re happy in our hearts.” A work called The In­va­sion of China: From Slaves to Own­ers is a nar­ra­tive piece in which the poor work the mines, ex­ploited by bu­reau­crats who line their pock­ets with money made off the for­mer’s toil and sweat.

At first, Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez was im­pressed by the retab­los made by his brother. “My brother stopped go­ing to school to work on his retab­los,” he said. Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez is pri­mar­ily self-taught, with a nat­u­ral eye for anatomy and vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tion. “I didn’t have ma­te­ri­als, so I made my own.” To­day Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez still man­u­fac­tures his own brushes and tools. He made his first brush us­ing the hair of a burro af­ter the Ay­acu­cho retab­lista told him it was a good source for bris­tles. “We didn’t have a burro, so I went to my neigh­bor and asked if I could buy the hair of his burro,” he said. Other tools used to shape and form the fig­ures are also made from nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, gath­ered by hand, such as cy­press wood. He hand-col­ors each fig­ure with a wa­ter-based tem­pera, the same type of chil­dren’s paint he started us­ing when he first de­cided to be­come a retab­lista.

Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez lives with his el­derly par­ents in the town of Quinua, never leav­ing for more than a few days at a time. He has left Peru only once — and that was dur­ing his visit to Santa Fe. But most of the works at Wil­liam Siegal have al­ready sold. You might see him again at the Folk Art Mar­ket, where in­ter­est in his work out­shone that for other Peru­vian artists work­ing in the retab­lista tra­di­tion. “I would love to come back,” he said. “I hope that life will per­mit me to come back.”

Vic­tor Huá­man Gu­tiér­rez: The In­va­sion of China: From Slaves to Own­ers, 2015; top right, Mar­kets,

2013; op­po­site page, top left (de­tail), The Shin­ing Path, 2013; all wood, flour, wa­ter, and tem­pera

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