Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Immigrants in the Land of Imagination

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Immigrants in the Land of Imagination

Article excerpt

Jose Alberto Marchi's subjects - nineteenth-century workers and immigrants - inhabit fantastic forests, lofty haystacks, surreal buildings, and travel on roads to nowhere. They draw the viewer into a world of dreams, ambiguity, and symbolism.

Marchi is part of a strong trend toward figurative painting in Latin America, expressed in a range of styles - from the Mexican muralists to the Haitian primitives and from the hyperrealistic approaches of Chilean artist Claudio Bravo to the familiar deformations of the Colombians Fernando Botero and Enrique Grau. To some extent, such figurative expressions grew out of a Latin American idiosyncrasy that inclines more to sensation than abstraction, to sensuality than to intellectualization, and to magical realism than to structural discipline. Among these figurative artists, Marchi stands out because of his disquieting visions of immigrants and workers copied from turn-of-the-century photographs.

Born in Argentina in 1956, Marchi has not yet had time to develop a full career. His first artistic efforts were at the age of sixteen, inspired by his idols, Rafael, Ingres, and Holbein. He studied fine arts in Buenos Aires and at twenty-four decided to exhibit his classical drawings, but he encountered heavy criticism from the vanguard artists who dominated Argentine art at that time. Such criticism caused him to withdraw from the art world for almost ten years, to an advertising office, where he developed rapid solutions to commercial artistic problems, and, to some degree, to financial ones as well. Yet he felt dissatisfied as an artist and could finally no longer deny his vocation. He decided to leave everything else behind and devote himself exclusively to painting and drawing.

Marchi was awarded First Drawing Prize (1986) by the Salon Nacional de Dibujo y Grabado (National Salon of Drawing and Engraving) and recently received the M-AAA/USIA (Mid-America Arts Alliance/United States Information Agency) Fellowship, enabling him to study in the United States at Queens College, in New York. There, among a community of painters and professors, the perfection of his drawing technique and the evocative nature of his images attracted considerable attention. "It seemed to them," says Marchi, "that my painting was very European, not a part of the Latin American canons."

Marchi's Buenos Aires workshop is located in a sprawling, old house typical of the port quarter. Surrounded by books and records, the studio resembles a watchmaker's premises, with strongly focused light, delicate pencils and brushes, and not a streak of color or a trace of disorder.

The evolution of every artist is an ongoing introspection, an inner tension between seeking and finding, and Marchi is no stranger to such anxieties. He even, he says quietly, "tried to paint with my left hand in order to avoid perfectionism."

Regarding the evolution of his personal style, he recalls that "one day, examining some old photographs, I felt strongly attracted to them, as if the pictures themselves were inviting me to develop something that was completely unknown to me."

Sorting through Marchi's enormous portfolio of drawings, one could see how the personification of his obsessions had evolved. "I began to draw the immigrants who appeared in the photos," he says, "the workers who came to America in search of the 'American dream. …

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