"Paisaje: Ixchel", oil on masonite, 32 x 25 3/4", 1996.

by Marlena Donahue

(Latin American Masters, Beverly Hills) The conflicted identity of Mexican painting from the 1930s to the 1950s, when that art tried to locate a distinctly Mexican voice, is part of Latin art lore, "lore" being critical notions that are referenced often and superficially.

The tiered tensions--psychological, formal, spiritual--housed in that identity crisis animate and render comprehensible work as diverse as that of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Manuel Alvarez Bravo--and Gunther Gerzso.

Twenty-five paintings by Gerzso dating from the 1960s to the present are on view in the current exhibition.

Born in 1915, Gerzso initially made his career not in art but set designing and art directing for film. His late entry into painting during the 1950s makes the depth of his body of work the more noteworthy.

The issue for Gerzso was how to honor an essential Mexican world view he almost couldn't help but voice--reaching back to the Mayans, forward to Zapata--while partaking of the European avant garde, with all its inroads into formal theory, clarity of structure, expression via abstract markers like color, gesture, line, etc.

Politically left artists like Rivera resolved the issue by becoming stauch social realists. That this cultured, cosmopolitan with Delacroix watercolors in his boyhood room could not bring himself to that solution is not surprising.

The tensions in Gerszo between European modernism's hunt for platonic structure, the resonant edge, some universal order in art to hold off time, set as they are against the expressive fervor, erotic and mystical ambiguity, Mexican preoccupation, comfort with the mystery of life and death give these canvases their power.

Not only was Gerzso committed to abstraction via influences like Corbus-ier, Braque and Klee; he came into his own when people like Breton, Carring-ton and Bunel were bringing the ideas of French surrealism to Mexican art. There is in this work a comfortable but inventive confluence between surrealism and the Mexican preoccupation for life as a dream time, for the thin but impenetrable veil between this world (time) and the next (timelessness).

The works on view use a superficially European rectilinear language, softened and kneaded to very expressive ends. A closer look will reveal a remarkably subtle polyglot aesthetic that in the best works, such as Aparicion (1960), is too inventive and personal to be called derivative.

In Verde, Azul (1989) cubistically receding geometries sculpted from reined-in color are covered over and compressed by large "walls" of opaque hue. Broad areas of light and hue aren't strictly planar. They mound up and dip in like a navel on soft pelvic skin, they are ripped by small, expertly
drafted scars, they bend and break off oddly to suggest dried mesas.

There is not a calavera in sight here, yet Gerzso gives us the same timeless, eternal churning of eros, the fecund promise hidden in parched land, life as some walking dream, themes from such disparate respositories as the Mayan goddess of death, the hallways of de Chirico, the prints of Posada, and the early poems of a young Octavio Paz.