Night Nurse (deatil) by Marcos Raya at the MCA.
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago has inaugurated the exhibition Surrealism: The Conjured Life. The exhibition includes more than 100 pieces from the movement that was started by André Breton and has influenced artists from all over the world. Surrealism: The Conjured Life includes pieces by René Magritte, Roberto Matta, Remedios Varo, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Gabriel Orozco among others. It also includes the installation Night Nurse by Marcos Raya. El BeiSMan offers an overview of the artwork of Raya, an artist shaped by the streets of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
Marcos Raya was not born to go to school, or to follow the traditions of a society that asphyxiated him. He wanted to be a lumpen proletariat. The mere thought of a classroom curtailed his wings, and stifled him. Perhaps that is why in 1969, Raya left the Academy of Art at Lenox, Massachusetts, and came back to the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago. During the first part of the 20th century Pilsen had been the home to German, Polish, Irish and Czech immigrants. It wasn’t until 1960 that the migratory pattern began to change with the arrival of Texan and Mexican immigrants.
That was the decade when Pilsen saw a downward drift: when its streets were flooded by drive by shootings and prostitutes, as well as byjunkies, winos, and gangbangers willing to kill over a filthy alley. Yet amongst this chaos, some Pilsen residents had glimmers of hope in the idea to build a dream over this debris. This was the Pilsen that Raya returned to with his battered paintbrushes, some pencils and a few sheets of paper under his arm.
However, Raya’s works from back then are not dated. Perhaps it’s because Raya did not marry time. In 1967 he got a bracelet watch as a gift. After he opened it, he deconstructed the small time jewelry. What remained were its bolts, and loose gears trapped between the dial and the drum. For Raya, time circulated around 18th Street, and his idea of time did not have a schedule. He passed his time in the alleys and shitholes in the company of wainos, and tecatos. Back then; these people seemed to him to be the most honest humans in society. For example, in the painting Los hijos de la mala vida, there are 7 characters, seven ghosts that decided to live what could be called the hard way of life. One of them is dead and is having his wake at dawn. No one is staring at the deceased, perhaps because they know he’s gone to a better place. The expression on the dead person is that of a certain satisfaction of having died at his desire.
To be born is not an option, that is true, but for these characters dying is. The dead lies with a crown. He has become king of his own destiny while the others appear to look toward themselves. They seem to know that life is random and the one lying there could be one of the six. What they do have is the freedom to live and die as they please. They chose to live a vile life, and since it was a choice it cannot be called destitution, but rather free volition, or an unrestrained whim. Along the seven drinking buddies there is a dog that watches and is recording that instant. That dog — the artist’s alter ego — is a forlorn wanderer that appears in other Raya’s paintings. These are: Perro nocturno, Años de perro y La enfermera nocturna (The Night Dog, Dog Days, Night Nurse).
Raya began by drawing and naturally jumped to painting, then he went from collage to object d’art, from acrylic to installation and via these various mediums he offers a devastating vision of existence. His work is born from inside as well as from the influence of other works of art. Harold Rosenberg has written in De-Definition of Art, “In reality, however, an artist is a product of art.” And Efraín Huerta was no less accurate when he wrote: “El que/esté libre /de influencias / que tire/la primera/metáfora” (He who is free/of influences/let him/throw/the first/metaphor).
It is enough to see the collage La lección de anatomía del doctor Deijman, (The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman) by Rembrandt. This re-appears three centuries later in a collage by Man Ray, and decades later Marcos Raya composed his own Man Raya. Raya’s input includes different mechanical and digital devices that doctor Deijman is using to dissect the body. If at any moment the body’s vivisection symbolized a category in anatomy, it now represents the creation of a Cyborg, a cybernetic organism. In Raya’s collage, in front of Rembrandt’s dead rises the hope of artificial life through electronic mechanisms and chemical substances. And it’s because in Raya there is a constant worry over technology, and a childish interest to understand machines. He captures and lives the paradox of the practical and diabolical that technology brings. In the collage RSI we look at a person of indeterminate sex whose price for freedom has to be to work long hours at a factory. It’s face is made up of other features, it’s image reflects the face of many others. The eyes we see could be of an aunt or those of an operator in a sweatshop. Up to a certain point, in Raya’s movement of his strokes, human beings have turned into another machine. The time has come to postpone their existence with artificial machinery and replace them with atrophied and prosthetic limbs.
Maybe Raya’s magnum opus will be the installation Night Nurse. This piece includes a series of surgical instruments that will take him into his youth to discover the readings of Salvador Elizondo’s Farabeuf. In the 1970s, captivated by the fetish of pain, Raya let himself walk unceasingly through the streets of Pilsen by the hand of his own demons and alcohol. While playing with the fire of alcohol he burned himself, but even with this daily fluid between his veins he began to give form to a piece that took twenty years to materialize. In Nigh Nurse, Raya dramatically captures an instant in his life. He finds himself totally defenseless laying in the bed in a room. There is no complacency nor physical pain in his face. He is a patient on the border of life and death, and just like the defeated soul of F. Scott Fitzgerald he knows that “in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” It is the layout of the furniture in the installation that spreads the cadences of life that are escaping the body of the convalescent creator. In the small bedroom there is a painting or a window with a view to 18th Street. In the almost deserted Pilsen street one can clearly see the lovers of the night: the beetles, winos, the gangbangers and the drug dealers. In the other side of the room there hangs a portrait of the artist’s alter ego. Beyond that is a tender and brutal nude that Balthus never dared to draw, but always dreamed of. Standing and by the side of his body,it’s an indifferent and cybernetic mannequin of the hidden Night Nurse. Concealed in the glass cabinet there is a classic bust suspended in eternal malady; surrounded by a small arsenal of shots, scalpels and old sharp needles that will dissect and mend the wounds of this endless nocturnal instant.
Raya created one of his finest benchmarks in Night Nurse. He apprehended an endless moment about his life and death. It’s his Borgian aleph. This is the origin of life, and its dreadful culmination. Art and life come from pain. Without pain there is no inner reflection, nor could there be any honest creation that brings us closer to the mystical. And for an instant, the artwork of Marcos Raya brings us close to that state when art invites us to take communion with the spirituality through pain and creation.
Night Nurse by Marcos Raya.
Translated from the Spanish by Leticia Cortez.
Franky Piña. El BeiSMan’s Editorial Director. He has been a co founder of several Spanish literary magazines in Chicago: Fe de erratas, zorros y erizos, Tropel and contratiempo. He’s the co author of Rudy Lozano: His Life, His People (1991). He was the editor of the following art books: Marcos Raya: Fetishizing the Imaginary (2004), The Art of Gabriel Villa (2007), René Arceo: Between the Instinctive and the Rational (2010), Alfonso Piloto Nieves Ruiz: Sculpture (2014).
Leticia Cortez is a teacher, writer, activist and translator. She was born in Mexico, grew up in Chicago and has travelled the art world. She has worked at Truman College, Santa Fe High School, and presently teaches Latin American literature at St. Augustine College.
Surrealism: The Conjured Life
From November 21, 2015 to June 5, 2016
Museum of Contemporary Art
220 East Chicago Avenue