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January 16 - March 13, 2004 at the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, West Hollywood

by Ray Zone

“Carmen”, 1935, oil on
canvas, 27 3/4 x 20 5/8".

“Chola,” 1934, o/c,
27 1/4 x 16 3/8”.

“Paisaje de Chiapas", 1951,
oil on canvas, 27 3/4 x 19 5/8".

“Familia Indigena II", 1980, color
lithograph, 22 1/8 x 31 1/2".
From 1927 to 1936, the Costa Rican artist Francisco Zuñiga dedicated most of his time to painting. He produced a significant amount of work during that period, showing the paintings in exhibitions organized by the local newspaper Diario de Costa Rica and winning awards. These oil paintings of buildings and people are colorful and boldly graphic.

In the words of Ariel Zuñiga, the paintings from this period seem to be "more pretext than portrait, they manifest the painter's internal conflict between what he sees ...and what he is searching to mold onto the canvas." The subjects in the the paintings seem to be "produced more by the painter's power of observation than by the willingness to portray them." There is a reductive simplicity in the images that invests them with qualities that transcend the subject matter.
In 1936, Zuñiga moved to Mexico and began to concentrate on creating sculpture. While Zuñiga continued painting, he exhibited only his sculptures for decades. Many people in Southern California will be familiar with Zuñiga's monumental sculptures, which have been exhibited at numerous local venues.

A unique opportunity presents itself to examine oil paintings by Zuñiga that have never been previously exhibited in the United States. Along with the rare paintings is a survey of the lithographs that Zuniga produced in the later years of his life and a few smaller sculptures.

Titled Francisco Zuniga: Rare Paintings on Canvas & A Survey of Original Graphics, the exhibit is accompanied by publication of Volume II of a Catalogue Raisonné documenting the artist's oil paintings and original prints from 1927 to 1986 and supplemented with essays by Ariel Zuñiga, the artist's son, and Andrew Vlady, a master lithographer who often collaborated with Zuñiga. The previous exhibition here emphasized Zuñiga’s sculpture to time with release of the first volumne of the Catalogue Raisonné, which documented the artist's sculpture.

Zuñiga excelled at painting and sculpting women. The painting Carmen (1935) depicts his subject simply. A young woman sits in a chair resting her read on one of her arms. She looks to the side as if the artist isn't even present. The rudimentary shapes and luminous use of color and shading do a highly credible job of rendering the subject. But there is an implicit modernism in the inherent flatness of the imagery on the canvas. Beyond the efficient replication of the subject, there is an overriding sense of symmetry which seems to be the true concern of the painting, an ordering of mirrored shapes at rest on a flat surface.

Zuñiga's disengaged human subject is at the service of his interest in visual structure. Carmen's arms form three sides of a square which is completed on the fourth side by the vertical slats of the back of the chair. This nearly subliminal design element creates a secondary window within the constraints of the frame itself. It lends the painting a meditative formality which serves to draw the viewer into the work.

Similarly, the painting Landscape With Blue Hills (1951), depicting a village street at the foot of a mountain, subverts the simple subject to put it at the service of Zuñiga's formalist sensibility. After 1972, Zuñiga worked extensively with lithography and a number of these works are also on view. La Novia (1978) is a two-color lithograph in which one woman covers another with a white veil. The image evokes such empathy that it is easy to overlook the work’s formal rigor.

Three bronze sculptures in the exhibition provide a useful counterpoint for the viewer looking at Zuñiga's paintings. Zuñiga clearly relished working directly with three-dimensional form. The bronze Crouching Nude (1970), with its great human warmth, depicts a woman at rest. But, like many other Zuñiga sculptures, this work could also be characterized as an interplay of circularities. That Zuñiga could rigorously pursue his investigations into pure form within the compass of intensely humane representation is one of the great triumphs of modern art.