Beatriz González eschews labels like “pop artist” and “political artist,” which must be tiresome since most people’s first reaction to her brightly colored work and images of political figures is to call her both. Born in 1938 in Bucaramanga, Colombia, the painter and printmaker has spent her 60-year career employing a biting sense of humor in her eye-catching images. Some of her best-known pieces are also the most peculiar: furniture painted with religious and political iconography, screenprinted curtains, and images embedded in cemetery walls.
One particularly compelling aspect of González’s work is her use of reproduction as a means of protest—specifically in pieces where lo-fi production creates a sort of inside joke, as if the work is pretending not to be as smart as it is. In 1983, for example, González reproduced over 500 copies of two images—Zócalo de la tragedia (Baseboard of Tragedy) and Zócalo de la comedia (Baseboard of Comedy)—and pasted them across Colombia’s capital of Bogotá. In a recording for MoMA, González said she chose street posters because it put her work in the public eye. The averageness of the medium was key to its success, as well as to fulfilling her philosophy of finding the universal in daily life. It’s also hard to beat the democracy of a sign post, which serves neither government nor algorithm, and these inexpensive printing methods offer a visual lingua franca and a ready format for resistance.
Roughly 40×27 inches, both images are based on pictures sourced from the local newspaper; comedia depicts President Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala bestowing an honor on a diplomat while tragedia shows the limp bodies of a husband and wife after a murder-suicide. Unlike the garish and cheery hues found in many of her other works, these images are made up of wide stripes of a violent red and black.
“Lo-fi production creates a sort of inside joke, as if the work is pretending not to be as smart as it is.”
This pair of striking images called into question Turbay’s opulence in midst of heightened violence in the early ’80s as a result of increased drug trafficking, guerrilla organizations, and corruption—and the narrative he projected of all being well despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Throughout Turbay’s presidency, González frequently included him in her work and referred to herself as the “court painter,” inspired by Francisco de Goya. While Zócalo de la comedia shows Turbay in a moment of celebration, one could be forgiven for thinking he’s strangling the diplomat instead. The title “comedy” is less about identifying humor than it is calling the government a joke. “Using these images was an aggressive, biting commentary,” González told MoMA, “about politics, the country, and power.”
The artist’s penchant for reproduction—or reinvention—was due to the fact that it could both reference the events of daily life and serve as a philosophical response to the limited access of many Colombian artists. Artists relied on magazines with poor print quality to learn about art history and what was happening in the arts—not just in the world, but even among artists in their own country. “I was asking how art history reaches us,” González said during a panel with Art This Week. “At that time, the images we received were poorly printed.” When the artist came across “the most exquisite Vermeer painting,” in a sex education brochure she found on the floor of a train station, she “reached a theory that [this was how] we were receiving art because we were an under-developed country.”
The fact that her paintings often look as much like prints as her prints do—whether wild translations of European masters or newspaper clippings of gruesome local events—was a way of saying inaccurate reproduction is how art reaches people in the margins. As Tobias Ostrander wrote in Beatriz González: A Retrospective, the poor print quality of newspaper clippings abstracted the details of the images, and lent themselves to the artist’s style as well as her objective.
Fittingly, the idea of reproduction appears in González’s work over and over again. One of her most iconic works is the massive screenprint Decoracion de Interiores, in which an image of Turbay and friends singing at a party repeats across 460 feet of curtain. The figures are celebrating, but there is something both alluring and sickly about the palette of yellow and green. It’s a funny thing—this giant curtain of singers—but it’s far from arbitrary.
“There’s a strong political background to all of this,” González said of the print during her panel with Art This Week. “Because these people…are celebrating…the military officer who passed the security law that caused Garcia Marquez and others to flee into exile.”
Over time, local politics played an increasingly important role in González’s work, which developed a darker hue. After the Palace of Justice siege in 1985—when members of the guerilla group M-19 held the Supreme Court hostage—González felt the reality of Colombia’s issues had been revealed in a way that made them impossible to ignore, and her objective became to convey grief.
Perhaps nowhere in her oeuvre is this achieved with as much formal cohesion as in Auras anonimas (Anonymous Auras)—an installation of nearly 9,000 screenprints set into the niches of four defunctionalized columbaria in a Bogotá cemetery. Eight images were created from newspaper clippings of men carrying bodies, and these repeat across new enclosures, sealing the vacated spaces and holding in the auras of those who once rested there—many of them people who had died in Colombia’s violent political struggles between the 1930s and 1950s.
“I immediately imagined that these tombstones would have images,” González said in an interview with the Colombian art magazine Carma, “based on those from graphic reportages… I came up with the name Auras anónimas, recalling, on the one hand, the war going on at that time in Colombia, and, on the other, the many families that had lost relatives and had never been presented with a body.”
As a result of this massive installation, the defunct cemetery has been designated a national heritage site, thwarting the mayor’s plans to tear down the columbaria and replace them with a skate park. For González, though, this is neither a monument nor an anti-monument. It is a place to grieve. Which is to say, a place to resist the narrative that everything is fine. A place to go about one’s daily life.