There is no subway system in Montevideo, but in the center of the city, hidden below Plaza Fabini, there's an underground art gallery. Salon Municipal de Exposiciones known as SUBTE is a public venue with three exhibition spaces labelled according to size - XL, M and SX. This place is one of the cultural hot spots in Montevideo, with an ongoing program of free art exhibitions, musical concerts, lectures, drama and experimental performances.
Descending the stairs that lead from the busy, sunlit plaza to a subterranean, cavernous space is like entering Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole, a transition from reality to fantasy that's heightened by the make-believe world presented by artist Claudio Roncoli in the exhibition "Black Life."
Roncoli uses digital images printed on blackout fabric as the foundation for his works. The photos are appropriated from corporate and institutional documents, advertising and vintage magazine covers. The artist paints over the enlarged black and white photos, dripping vertical lines of bright colour which alter and screen the original. Roncoli's intent is akin to a graffiti artist's; by applying a layer of paint he can disrupt an established order, while poking fun at it. It's a naughty and daring approach. See how a red dot turns a sensible schoolgirl into a silly clown? Look at the kid with the goofy crocodile mask! Roncoli clearly enjoys mark-making as much as a youth with a spray can aimed at a blank wall.
|"Sistemas" 2011, digital print, acrylic on blackout fabric, 200 x 400 cm|
|"No somos todos iguales", 2010, digital print, acrylic on blackout fabric, 200 x 300 cm|
|"Algo Todo Nada" 2011, digital print, acrylic on blackout fabric, 200 x 300 cm|
|Detail "Algo Todo Nada"|
|Installation view at SUBTE|
Education, consumerism, corporations, government and the media - all are subject to Roncoli's scrutiny and his wry, cutting sense of humour. There are visual puns in the paintings that hint at an underlying clever irony: a pie in the face, (pie graphs replace portraits in "No somos todos iguales") eating your words (text fills the refrigerator in "Algo, Todo, Nada") seeing double (mirror images in "Sistemas".)
The fact that Claudio Roncoli grew up in a toy store seems perfectly fitting once you've become familiar with his aesthetic sensibility. His parents owned a shop in Buenos Aires and took to the road with their children in a converted school bus to sell party souvenirs. Play is an activity that the adult Roncoli hasn't outgrown, but that doesn't mean that his work is not taken seriously. He is represented in Buenos Aires by Galeria Praxis , in San Francisco by Gallery 415 , in Miami by Zadok Gallery, and so on, around the globe. You can read more about the artist and his work here.
We leave SUBTE in a buoyant mood, join the crowd on Avenida 18 de Julio and walk down to Teatro Solis. The Allegro Cafe is full of young children, parents and grandparents who have just emerged from a special winter holiday performance of the Comedie Nacional. When our espresso and carrot cake arrive at the table, we are treated to some impromptu live entertainment.
Our conversation goes like this:
Clown 1: "You speak English! Where are you from?"
Me: "I'm from Canada."
Clown 1: "We learned English at school."
Clown 2: "The pencil is red."
Clown 1: "The weather is cold."
Clown 2 "I like hamburgers!"
Me: "You'll do just fine when you visit my country. That's all you need to know."
Sometimes art imitates life, sometimes life imitates art. It's amazing when both combinations happen in the same day.
"Black Life" by Claudio Roncoli continues at SUBTE until the end of July.