The current exhibition at the Centro Cultural San Pablo, “Fugas Geográficas,” gives an insight into the creative process of Oaxacan artist Guillermo Olguín. This is a selection of his smaller, ‘travel-sized’ oil paintings made during recent expeditions. The show presents the transformation Olguín, and his work, go through whilst travelling. An experience that is “simultaneously, encounter, escape, expedition, discovery, return. No matter how many times you do it… momentous.”
I was drawn to this exhibition for various reasons. As a photojournalist, I also travel extensively with work, feeling the push and pull of new influences and aesthetics. But on a more personal level, Olguín actually developed several of these paintings while based at my family home in Oxford. He showed up with a suitcase full of canvases, brushes, and oil paints, ready to begin his painter’s journey that would also include London, Paris, and Napoli.
Olguín describes his work as a collage, as a consequence of both his inspirations and practical method. His pictures are rich with texture. Typically they are begun with a thick layer of oils, defining the base colour of an image. These canvases then gather the marks and happy mishaps of carrying them with him, throughout Mexico and to far-flung countries.
One of Oaxaca’s leading artists, Olguín is a familiar face, driving around the city in his safari-style jeep, giving him the air of an old-world explorer. He often hosts events, opening up his home to other artists, musicians, and chefs, to share their talents with the rest of us.
I met with Olguín in his studio, a beautiful open-plan space, with an enormous canvas propped up under a tree. Things he has gathered from his travels are propped up by stacks of photography books. Surfaces bear the tools of his trade alongside a carefully curated selection of objects.
“I am a collector of beautiful objects, I call them amuletos. They always find their place.” More recently his repertoire includes sculpture, and the kitchen table is covered in new casts. His unique style translates smoothly from picture-making to three-dimensions. Intuitively moulded forms reference the masks and figurines around his studio, while elevating them with a sense of narrative.
I see them as an homage to culturally poignant characters, combining different elements through the medium of bronze. One he showed me in his studio incorporated a tiny mask collected from Chihuahua, with a heavy-set body astride a piece of maize. A favourite of mine was a Juchitecan woman riding on the back of a hare, evocative of the wild unending fiestas I’ve witnessed in that part of Oaxaca.
Olguín is not constrained by making art-for-arts sake, but works intimately with the Oaxacan community on a variety of projects. His style is immediately recognisable in the aesthetic of ‘Amantes,’ an established mezcal brand, mezcaleria, and now, hotel. He designed the bottle and label, while a unique curation of objects – his amuletos – define the decoration of both the bar and hotel.
The tactile quality of Olguín’s work is honoured in “Fugas Geográficas.” The pictures are hung in space, inviting the viewer to look around the image, to engage with the ‘object’ quality of the smaller canvases. His desk has been transplanted into the gallery. His familiar wide-shouldered suit jacket hangs on the back of the chair, a small canvas propped up as if he has just momentarily left. The desk is illuminated by a single spotlight, drawing you in to peruse the amuletos, a still-life made up of books, old photos, figurines, and scraps of poetry.
The collecting of amuletos also applies to the narrative qualities in his work. He draws inspiration from a mixture of his own experiences, as well as stories he hears along the way. “Travelling has always been my food for thought.”
Figurative components in his images are often repeated: goats, birds, a palm tree. Speaking with Olguín, it is clear that painting specific creatures began as notes to a story or an experience. The use of goats through many of his paintings came from when he tended goats while growing up. However, despite a sense of nostalgia in this acknowledgement, Olguín also recounts more recent experiences with goats, describing them as untameable, with undeniable devilish connotations.
Through their repetition, these figures and creatures become symbolic, shorthand to evoke childhood, mischief or the mystical. Olguín told me that some of his earliest series of drawings and paintings would always contain a zanate, to the extent that friends and patrons associated this bird with him as an artist – or even as a person. Folklore describes these birds as crafty, and Olguín seems to enjoy this allusion.
For me, Olguín’s choice of subject, and rendering of these subjects, create a sense of the magical and fantastical. I am reminded of The Witches Sabbath by Francisco Goya or some of the beautiful imaginings of Guillermo del Toro. I am transported by the calligraphic brush strokes, etched into worn surfaces, worn through the miles of travel that have contributed to their invention. They read as ‘found objects,’ imbued with dreams and memories of exotic lands.