Damn few. Right off the bat, the two Georges -- Dureau and Dunbar -- come to mind, but beyond them the list quickly becomes short and dim. But, you may ask, what about that Spaniard, Jose-Maria Cundin? Wasn't he around back in the days when this city's serious galleries could be counted on the fingers of one hand? Indeed he was, and if Cundin isn't a higher profile figure today, it's probably because he has a habit of perambulating here and there, hanging out for a while in Miami, Latin America, his native Basque country in Spain and points beyond. But New Orleans is home, and like so many others, he always comes back.
For the past few years, he has lived in Folsom, where he paints in his rustic studio -- a far cry from his former spread on Fontainebleau Drive. His painting style, too, seems a far cry from where he started out in the mid-1960s, exhibiting his ironically humorous little figures -- Botero-like munchkins -- at the venerable Orleans Gallery on Royal Street.
While superficially comparable to the work of Colombian painter Fernando Botero, Cundin's figures were more expressionistic and sardonic, more European in tone. The oldest and most expressionistic of this bunch is Felipe IV Y La Ursalina, an interior occupied by an exotic peasant couple, a stout little man who is gesticulating animatedly and his more stoic wife, who stands passively by. We don't know what they're up to, but it doesn't matter -- their gestures suggest a painterly short story. By 1990, his current palette appeared in works such as La Nina de La Nava de La Asuncion, a painting of a portly woman dangling the lifeless form of a green tropical bird from a string. She wears a pink dress and a gauzy floral bonnet, but her expression recalls a grizzled trucker who has suddenly lost his wages on a bet gone bad.
His abstract oil paintings are more mysterious, and his 1993 Apocryphal Portrait of L. Rofocale displays the same luminous pastel hues that we have seen in his work over the past few decades. Here abstract forms tinted in tones of ivory, salmon, violet, baby blue and pale emerald seem to float in a zero-gravity zone where they are either coming together or coming apart -- it's hard to say which. He has called them "organic compositions in a quest for a function," and if some look solid while others appear rolled up like paper, all glow as if from a softly reflective light source. His 2006 sequel, Apocryphal Portrait of L. Rofocale II, is essentially very similar if a bit more vertical and cooler in tone. It would be easy to call it another exercise in profoundly mysterious squiggles á la the great Spanish surrealist, Joan Miro, but that's not it. Look again, and Cundin's colorful forms are somehow just as animated, or even as mischievous as his sardonic little figures. They are pulsating with playful aggression and we can only wonder how colorful patches of paint can have so much personality. They can also be beautiful, basking in the glow of their contrasting yet complementary colors. The same might be said of his occasional later figurative pieces, ironic commentaries such as his 2003 Mona Frida tribute to the iconic Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, as a kind of Hispanic Mona Lisa. Here she of the formidable eyebrows and tartly intriguing expression stares out from an altar-like wooden frame. Mona Frida not only displays Cundin's flair for glowing pastel harmonies of jade, mauve and turquoise, but also his love of visual puns, a predilection common to many Spanish and Latin American artists.
This is evident in sculptural works such as his Psychological Portrait of Georgia O'Keefe, 2005, a meticulously crafted reclining female figure on a neoclassic divan. Slender and shapely, she wears modern shoes, but her head is a cow skull of the sort found in so many of O'Keefe's paintings -- a classic Hispanic surrealist touch. In Cundin's work, no matter how abstract or representational, the surreal social commentary is never far away.
- Mona Frida is Jose-Maria Cundin's tribute to the iconic Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, as a kind of Hispanic Mona Lisa.