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by Marge Bulmer

“Untitled 3”,
photograph, 1998.



“Untitled 1”,
photograph, 1998.

“I feel there is much to be said for the belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in. . .an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so are effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison.”
Marcel Proust

(Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood) Guatemalan photographer Luis Gonzalez Palma declares that he tries “to portray the soul of a people.” His portraits and images not only succeed in acknowledging his cultural heritage, they also communicate universal psychological overtones and contemporary sociological, political issues. Symmetrically organized, frontally posed, his portraits become still life that paradoxically reveal more, not less. The arrangement of his compositions have a quietude that convey an internal power, articulating strong emotions and evoking serious narratives. It is classically formal and echoes Victorian portrai-ture. The people fill the foreground, demanding attention. They are individuals and at the same time symbols. The objects become metaphors for life, death, resurrection, and other levels of abstraction.

The quiet portraits penetrate the viewer with either a steady, confronting stare or a sideways glance. In Untitled #1 a beautiful, dark-eyed woman with full lips, flowing black hair, and a perfectly formed face stares out at you. She wears a woven, beaded ethnic tiara. Her expression lacks joy or anger. There is no smile, but no evidence of weeping. She seems to have no expectations, no hope. Yet within is an endurance and a deep commitment to survive. Here is a woman who is at once herself and an icon. Her haunting, expressionless countenance is at once accusative and accepting.

Unlike the woman of Untitled #1, with her mature inner strength, the young girl in Untitled #3 is vulnerable. Hands behind her back, she stands, front and center, wearing a white, lace, flared skirted party dress. She is obviously posed. In the background is a fake sky of puffy clouds. This is a celebration, as though she is being presented at communion. But there is no smile, no delight. Her expression is solemn, and as you examine her face a puffiness around the eyes and mouth, suggesting sadness, becomes apparent.

Palma’s photographed objects, like the portraits, are poetically layered with connotations. Autocrato is an image of a clown’s shirt. Stretched out and pinned to the wall, the arms hanging limply at the sides, it has three huge black buttons down the front and on one sleeve. Because of the uniformly balanced arrangement, one’s eye immediately notices that one button is missing. With this bit of subtlety Palma forced me to contemplate Guatemala’s disappeared and the pain endured by the people due to that country’s lengthy political upheavals and repressions. On another level, the garment belonged to someone, now gone, who brought life and laughter to others. The humor is gone; what remains is the pathos. Yet the costume brings back the life, for whomever wore it is thus remembered. Also, choosing a clown’s shirt speaks of existential absurdity.

photograph, 1998.


“Recuerdo de Infama”,
photograph, 1998.

Recuerdo de Infama serves as an effective metaphor for life, death and resurrection. A large, leather, high-topped man’s shoe, its lace dangling, holds a feather. The show is hardly worn, set in a darkened space while light dances off of the feather, which wants to float away. By combining in this image a shoe--a symbol of grounding and commitment--with a feather--a symbol of flight and release--the artist communicates his core theme: he makes us consider the soul of a people.