José Luis Cuevas (Mexico City, 1934) is considered one of the most important Mexican artists of the second half of the twentieth century, bursting onto to the scene with an express rejection of the two pillars of modern Mexican culture and society: Muralism and nationalism. In this way, realism -not the sort that shows exact reality, but the sort that you find living in the margins, such as crazy people or prostitutes- is the grammar that he uses to create his work.
Two issues from Cuevas’ artistic and aesthetic choices are worth noting, the marginal nature of his protagonists and his inclination for drawing and the techniques of paper itself, such as ink, gouache, watercolours or pencil. The writer Carlos Fuentes points out that Cuevas’ work "is pleased at the choice of figures that have lost their place or have never had a place in the organised world of social relations or they just imitate it in a grotesque manner, while caricaturising and denouncing the flimsy nature of that organisation (...) It is the world of crime, the world has moved outside order and cannot find its own."
The exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia reviews the history of José Luis Cuevas through over one hundred and forty pieces that compose it: mainly works on paper and a set of fifteen unedited sculptures, collected under the title of Animales impuros. The tour starts with a drawing from 1939, which looks like a portrait of an actress turned childhood idol and moves to his series of watercolours La Residencia de Estudiantes (1997), inspired by his memories of stories told by Luis Buñuel about Madrid.
Regarding his themes, the dispossessed and deformed appear from the first moment in his work, in works from the Fifties such as Retrato de una agonizante (1953) or Christ Child offering a prayer (after Mantegna), de 1957. In terms of style, he develops and gives his characters a characteristic appearance of large foreheads and long heads. These features -which by 1958 are a permanent fixture in his work, as in Locos (1959) and in Al Capone and friend (1968)– can refer, especially in the case of his sculptures, to the profiles of Pablo Picasso’s giant female heads from the Thirties, whose huge eyes extend into a prominent nose.
Literature and fictional characters are a constant excuse in all his drawings, as shown by his series and homages to Franz Kafka -and in particular the figure of Gregor Samsa- in works such as El padre de Kafka (1957) or references to Marqués de Sade in Teatro pánico: la casa del Marqués de Sade (1963), among others. The uniqueness of these and other Cuevas’ drawings lies in the appeal of the monstrous and marginal, where spaces and environments are reduced in favour of a figuration of graphic and monumental character.