A creative partnership between Bay Area painters
Andreina Davila and Ytaelena Lopez
By DeWitt Cheng
“Eelos (/eE.l/os/) highlights the potential harmony existing between the environment and human beings. Our goal is to incorporate the Greek concept of Kalos Kagathos, or beauty with purpose. The possibility of two artists working together toward an unforeseen yet beautiful outcome inspires hope and maybe encourages others to explore themselves and their connection with the world around them. /eE.l.os/ aims to connect and at the same time blur the lines between the work of the two artists. One plus one equals many.”—Andreina Davila and Ytaelena Lopez
We in the art world are accustomed to consider artmaking primarily a solitary activity, and artwork as reflecting a single sensibility. In general, that is the case, so we normally scant the idea of artistic collaborations. In the Renaissance, painters learned their craft in workshops headed by master artists. Remember, for example, Andrea del Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (1470-5 or so), with its radiant angel, the contribution of a young Leonardo da Vinci. The creative marriage —or mountain-climbing expedition, depending on which metaphor you find more striking—of Picasso and Georges Braque during the early years of Analytic Cubism is another creative collaboration, producing paintings that, although painted separately, were indistinguishable even to their creators. Picasso also maintained a serious rivalry with Matisse, each painter challenging the other—as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael had, five centuries earlier: collaboration as parallel evolution.
The Venezuelan painters Andreina Davila and Ytaelena Lopez, who met in the Bay Area, entered, in February, 2015, into an artistic partnership, entitled Eelos (/eE.l.os/). The word, a typographical variation of hilos, threads in Spanish, reflects their interest in the question of identity and its malleable relationship to place, natural concerns to immigrants in this multicultural time in this diverse place. The threads also serve, according to the artists’ joint statement, as connectors between people and nature, bridging realms usually considered separate; in visual terms, they connect and unify Lopez’s portraits and animals and Davila’s painterly abstractions, synthesizing drawing and color, opposing aesthetic camps in the early nineteenth century painting, but now, in the twenty-first century, partners. While the paintings, which the artists pass back and forth, sometimes over long periods, have resemblances to their individual works, it’s clear that the partnership creates, in effect, a third artist, and that this tertiary work feeds their solo works as much as they in turn nourish /eE.l.os/.
The product of a long discussion between friends during a long drive, and subsequent brainstorming, the artists’ FAUNA series examines animals’ ability to adapt to changes in their environment, a lesson in flexibility and realism easily extrapolated to humans now facing environmental challenges. Eelos (/eE.l..os/)’s artist statement:
“The subject of this series is the process of transformation where the individual, depicted as an animal, becomes one with the place. The animal becomes the place and the place becomes the animal. For the artists, as native Spanish speakers, the verb “TO BE” can have two meanings: the state of being in a place (‘estar’) and a definition of who we are (“ser”). This duality is central to the dialog that takes place between the environment and the animal. They interact with each other, developing a joint identity, much as it happens in life, where our actions help define and shape us and the environment around us…. Each painting starts with the abstraction of a place. Andreina gives, color, texture and form to the idea of an open, yet inviting environment. Then, Ytaelena imagines who could inhabit here, and, line by line, an animal form comes to life. Last, we weave this interaction between the two different forms: fauna and place become one… In a time when our relation to what we call “home” is questioned by issues like climate change, immigration and gentrification, Fauna represents a break, a moment to breathe and imagine what would be possible. ”
The mixed-media works on panel depict wild animals in natural environments, but they are far from naturalistic, or, at least, merely naturalistic. Ytaelena Lopez’s freely but incisively sketched animals are recognizable, but her meandering black line (which recalls Egon Schiele’s)—complemented by white lines and shades of ink wash—follows realism only loosely, even playfully, carving the picture space into animal form, or perhaps spirit-animal form: the animals are often left white, suggesting absences, or rendered as semi-transparent, with the background coming through. Deer, coyotes, foxes, lions, capybaras, chimpanzees, chameleons, whales — each species is memorialized and commemorated, the living individual being transformed into a representative of its species, perhaps endangered or already extinct. A century ago, the German Expressionist painter Franz Marc depicted animals—spiritual blue horses and yellow cows, famously—as embodiments of purity and instinct, sometimes in harmony with their surroundings, sometimes threatened by invisible forces. (Marc was killed at the Somme, in 1916.) Frederick S. Levine, in his study of Marc, described expressionism as a socially involved art, an art that sought to communicate the depths of its involvement with and concern for mankind….Expressionism sought to reach out beyond the confines of the individual selk and to establish contact with the broad mass of humanity. Indeed, Expressionism reflected an anguished longing for community which, when carried to its extreme, represented an attempt to establish a unified and harmonious relationship between the mortal isolated individual and the eternity and universality of the cosmos.1
I see the innocent animals of /eE.l.os/ as performing a similar service for our endangered and not-so-innocent anthropogenic era. If this sounds overly serious to viewers who resist what George Grosz called Tendenzkunst, tendentious art, or sociopolitical art, the works, like Marc’s and unlike Grosz’s, are visually complex and surprising, and quite beautiful. Ytaelena Lopez’s stylized, semi-abstract backgrounds—large patches of pure color modulated by tones and organic textures to suggest natural habitats, phenomena and processes—offer aesthetic delight and even mystical transport that transcend the current realities of politics and business. The abstract and the figurative merge, just as the artists’ individual personalities merge into the creative partnership, creating a visionary, spiritualized world reminiscent of the peaceable kingdom paintings of the nineteenth-century Quaker artist, Edward Hicks.
The supposed conflict between beauty and seriousness in art that we take for granted nowadays is incorrect: art need not choose between being either eye candy, superficial or sublime, or politically correct propaganda, bitter, but good for you, or, that egregious synthesis of vapidity harnessed to pretentiousness. The art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto wrote, about what he calls our kalliphobia, our fear and hatred of beauty, as inherited from the Dadaists, disgusted by the hypocrisy and waste of the Great War. Unfortunately, the desire to shock and disgust, “to make people scream,”2 in Max Ernst’s words, has now become the established practice taught in art schools; it has been co-opted by the market.
Davila and Lopez cite in their artist statement the ancient Greek term kalokagathos, or kalo k’agathos, “beautiful on the outside and noble on the inside.”3 Carried to extremes, it is a dubious equation, of course; the execution of the homely seventy-year-old gadfly, Socrates, by gym-toned Athenians (considered middle-aged at thirty) ought to make us wary of superficial judgments based on appearance. However, given the current enslavement of contemporary art to market forces, perhaps it is time to acknowledge again, with Keats, that truth can be beauty, and vice versa, and reconsider artworks like those created by that third person, Eelos (/eE.l.os/), that function as beautiful and wise kaloi k’agathoi.
1 Frederick S. Levine, The Apocalyptic Vision: The Art of Franz Marc as German Expressionism, p.5
2 Arthur Danto, “Kalliphobia in Contemporary Art; Or, What Ever Happened to Beauty?” reprinted in Unnattural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life (2005), p. 323
3 Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, p. 234
*DeWitt Cheng is an art writer/critic and curator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes for ArtLtd. Artillery, VisualArtSource.com and East Bay Monthly. He was curator of Stanford Art Spaces from 2013 to 2016.