Alejandro Colunga's Fantastical, Disquieting World

Article excerpt

Pedestrians on their way to the renowned Orozco murals at Guadalajara's Hospicio Cabanas are often drawn to an ensemble of large bronze sculptures on the stone esplanade in front of the Cabanas' right wing. The Sala de los Magos is an open-air living room that entices passersby like a group of giant magnets. It was installed in 1993 by Guadalajara's most illustrious living artist, Alejandro Colunga, and displays the whimsical, weird figures and quirky details for which he is known.

The Sala is centered on a low rectangular coffee table, with two chairs and two couches arranged around it. These aren't just any couches; both have meticulously dressed men built into them. On one, an uplifted head connects to a monumental crest that extends the length of the couch. The second sofa is the expanded body of a man in a lapelled jacket and neatly buttoned shirt, but with a small, fanciful bird perched on his head. Colunga's inspiration for this piece came while staying in a friend's New York apartment. The friend's ancient grandfather lived there and was almost permanently seated on the couch, glued to the television. "One day I was standing in the kitchen looking at him there, as he always was, and I sketched the silhouette of what became The Man Who Turned into a Couch."

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Colunga later installed Los Magos Universales, seven interactive bronze figures that front the Cabanas' left wing. These strange, captivating creatures, all with seats, are arranged in an open semi-circle, the two tallest in the middle. A third sculpture group in Guadalajara is part of a large circular fountain in the Plaza del Sol shopping center. Each of the five pieces has a nose that functions as an intermittent faucet, often wetting the children who clamber onto the seats.

I met Colunga at his Guadalajara workshop, a modest house not far from the city center. I was to learn that each of his pieces has a story behind it, often originating in experiences from his childhood. He grew up in the 1950s and 60s in a large old house in the Nueve Esquinas neighborhood near Guadalajara's historic center, the youngest of eight children. His oldest brother Miguel was a painter and another brother Bernardo was a musician. Young Alejandro hung out in their workshops. "I was a pest," he explained. "I'd cry, 'I want to paint.' 'I want to play.' The only way to keep me quiet was to give me a paintbrush or an instrument. I've known since childhood that I wanted to be an artist."

Lifelong friend Francisco Barreda, now Director of Visual Arts for the state of Jalisco, says that young Alejandro drew or painted on any surface available. By his late teens, he was obtaining commissions to decorate the walls of local restaurants or passageways. Colunga attended the University of Guadalajara to please his family, studying first architecture and then music. He rarely attended classes, however, and instead spent his time painting and playing rock 'n roll. Eventually he left school. He is a self-taught artist and credits the Mexican painter Rudolfo Nieto as an important influence.

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Mice are among Colunga's favorite subjects. His brothers made a sport of killing the neighborhood mice and hanging them on a line in the patio. Alejandro felt sorry for them and fed them. He became enamored of the Disney characters Tarzan, Tin Tan, and Houdini and of pop culture in general at the Jalisco Theater down the street from his house. His religious family regularly attended mass, and Alejandro also found himself in neighborhood churches as the designated chaperone when his older sisters met their boyfriends there. Bored and left alone among the paintings, statues, and reliquaries, his imagination took flight. The circus and the airport were favored family amusements. Colunga mixed everything up. "I imagined the church as if it were a circus," he explained, "or an airport." "I put crazy heads on the saints and animal faces on people. …