"Where Imagination Resides: Alfredo Gisholt's Canto General" by Leah Triplett

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Alfredo Gisholt on view at CUE Art Foundation January 30 - March 8, 2014. 

Alfredo Gisholt’s paintings are never one thing. Like the 20th-century Moderns preceding him, Gisholt resists precise categorization of aesthetic, conceit or even nationality. His work, ranging from figuration to hyper-abstraction and back, is marked by a transformative restlessness fraught with literal and symbolic forms.

Born in Mexico City in 1971 of Mexican and Norwegian ancestry, Gisholt traveled as a teenager to Europe and the United States, where he began his studies in art. When he was 20 years old he went back to Mexico City, enrolling in the San Carlos Academy to continue his training, but returned to the United States to complete his undergraduate education. 

In 2000, he received an MFA in painting from Boston University, and ten years later Mexico City’s Recinto Project-Room organized Barrancos de Escaleras, or Ravines of Stairs, a mid-career retrospective that included paintings, drawings and prints. 

While expressed in an abstract idiom, the works in Ravines of Stairs were highly figurative, suggesting narrative through symbolism. Their aesthetic and process were aligned with the work of John Walker, Gisholt’s mentor at Boston University, whose abstract paintings are rooted in the specifics of a particular place. 

Gisholt effectively emptied his studio for this show, and afterwards he began experimenting on a smaller scale with hyper-abstraction. However, he ultimately realized that the abstractions were no more than conceptual ideations without a base in reality. “I couldn’t recognize myself,” Gisholt says about these works.

The paintings in Canto General, Gisholt’s exhibition at CUE Art Foundation, were all created in 2013. Departing from pure abstraction, these paintings instead renew the mid-century debate concerning the validity of figuration in avant-garde painting, a debate at the core of Abstract Expressionism. These works challenge abstraction’s parameters, but more specifically, they investigate its ability to adequately describe the multiplicity of contemporary life.

The exhibition takes its title from Pablo Neruda’s 1950 book of poetry published in Mexico City. Gisholt first read the book, which presents a history of the Americas, when he was a young art student. “[It] set a standard for me—a kind of ambition— and always reminds me of the responsibility one has as an artist and human being,” Gisholt explains. “It is also a place where imagination resides—an imagined fiction that becomes real.” The imagery of the Canto General paintings shares the primary motifs of skulls, lambs, and ‘piles’ that Gisholt explored in Ravines of Stairs. There are parallels in both shows’ titles as well, in that Ravines of Stairs is also drawn from a poem, “The whistle of affirmation in the village” written in 1934 by the modern Spanish poet, Miguel Hernández: “Difficult ravines of stairs/Quiet waterfalls of elevators-/What an impression of emptiness!”1 Hernández’s poem speaks to the nothingness of everything, and correspondingly, in both Ravines of Stairs and Canto General, Gisholt’s paintings contend with the refuse of excess. 

In Canto General, Gisholt has evolved familiar motifs into more liminal forms that occupy a space between the real and the imaginary. The ‘piles,’ which are almost always central to his compositions, are accumulations of human and abstract forms, evoking rubble as much as abundance. The piles might be indeterminate in substance, but they nevertheless imply decay in our society due to overindulgence and violence alike. 

The images of skulls and lambs are augmented by the recurrence of three trees that combine short strokes of “thorny” black lines with electric green biomorphic shapes. Certainly the skulls, lambs and trio of trees in these paintings recall Christian themes and the narrative of Christ’s crucifixion. “They are symbols, but they are also real forms,” says Gisholt. “When you put a real form next to something that could be a shape or just a color, there’s a tension. By putting that shape or form there, it’s almost like a key.” 

Gisholt’s use of Western art historical references (taken from works by Goya, Picasso and Matisse) echoes this insistence on ambiguity. These references aren’t literal transcriptions or quotes, but rather homages articulated in Gisholt’s particular aesthetic. His style could be characterized as “New Casualist” in that he “take[s] a meta approach that refers not just to earlier art historical styles, but back to the process of painting itself,” as Sharon Butler first defined New Casualism in her 2011 Brooklyn Rail essay.2 After the 2003 Iraq invasion, Gisholt felt compelled to study Picasso’s Guernica in earnest. He made small, careful sketches of Picasso’s 1930s prints and drawings and began to understand the pile as a vehicle through which he could explore the plastic and political potential of his painting. 

In Guernica, Picasso exploits Cubist formalism in his preoccupation with the Spanish Civil War, yet his motifs—the terrorized, anguished victims—are universal. And while Goya’s mounds of people are also crowded masses, his figures aren’t reduced, but tethered to dark, indistinct backgrounds. Considering how both Picasso and Goya court abstraction in figuration with their respective ‘piles,’ Gisholt began incorporating his own piles into his large-scale paintings. 

The Canto General paintings are established in reality. Gisholt initiates a painting with a theme or idea, depicting a tangible object or placing a color or shape somewhere on his canvas. He then works through the idea or theme by playing with narrative, allowing his forms to mediate between lived experience and fantasy. 

Drawing and printmaking are mediums through which Gisholt investigates his themes or motifs. He keeps a small black notebook with him at all times to sketch in pencil or gouache.  He also collects intriguing plants, animal bones and other specimens found in the vicinity of Brandeis University where he teaches printmaking, taking them back to his Waltham, Massachusetts studio to draw. These works on paper, which are almost uniformly small-scale, exhibit a tightness of form and line that is never literally transcribed into a large-scale painting. Instead their motifs are translated into painterly language. “It’s a way to liberate the painting,” Gisholt says of his drawings, which display a particularly compact tension between Gisholt’s abstract and literal aesthetic. This distinguishes Gisholt’s small works from his large-scale paintings, which exhibit more liberal gestures. 

While he reads poetry and often titles his works from poems, Gisholt doesn’t directly borrow from folklore or literature. Instead, he endeavors to suggest a moment that may elicit the viewer’s own personal narrative. “I want all my paintings to feel like real places, whether or not we may recognize them as real places,” says Gisholt. “They aren’t paintings of the air, or in the air.” 

Indeed, Gisholt’s paintings aren’t simply reflexive expressions, nor are they heroic machinations of psychical struggle.  As evidenced in Canto General, they instead reflect duplicity and refute singularity. While Gisholt rigorously considers his painterly antecedents—from Goya and Picasso to John Walker—he ultimately refuses to indulge in the rigidity of rhetoric. Rather, Gisholt’s works are wholly invested in communicating a vision rooted in the nuance of his own experience. 

Leah Triplett is a Boston-based writer and editor specializing in modern and contemporary art. As an editor of the art webzine Big, Red and Shiny, she oversees the publication’s award-winning blog. Triplett was accepted to the Writers’ Room of Boston as a finalist for its 2013 Emerging Writer Fellowship. She graduated from the master’s program at Christie’s Education with recognition for excellence in contemporary art connoisseurship.

Mentor Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer, and filmmaker as well as co-editor of the online critical review Hyperallergic Weekend. His paintings, drawings and videos have been exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and elsewhere, most recently at Norte Maar, Centotto, Studio 10 and Schema Projects, all in Bushwick, Brooklyn. In addition to Hyperallergic, his essays, interviews and reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Art 21,Bookforum.com, ART HAPS and NY Arts. He is also the co-editor of the book On Curating: Interviews with Ten International Curators (DAP, 2009). He holds a BFA from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania.


Miguel Hernández, “The whistle of affirmation in the village,” as quoted by Federico Márquez Padilla in “Ravines of Stairs,” Recinto Project-Room and Pascale Zozaya Tinoco, May 2010, pp. 20. 2 Sharon Butler, “Abstract Painting: The New Casualists,” The Brooklyn Rail, June 2011.