First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 33

NAÏVE ART: THE FIRST PHASE OBSERVERS COMMONLY refer to Luis Méndez as a naïve, or “prim- itivist,” artist whose paintings betray many elements of his lifelike draw- ings in Highlights of Ophthalmology. Méndez portrayed rituals, villages, and daily life in a style suggestive of a self- taught artist—not that of the prolific producer of highly technical, medical drawings. Indeed, his acrylic creations are very different from the images that appear in that journal. Less dependent on multidimensional perspectives, his paintings are more characterized by their lively colors, rich details, balance, and vibrant arrangements. Coconuts, canoes, thatched huts, and molas clutter the bright and patterned foreground and rarely fade into a luminous distance. A pair of scarlet macaws appears in most of his canvases. Méndez depicts the ocean as a steady swirl of octopuses, sharks, coral, sea rays, and turtles. Sometimes a fisherman casts his line into the jumble. The vigorous, whirling images earned their creator a measure of domestic and foreign recognition, as Méndez participated in national and international exhibitions and won a series of competitions organized by the Xerox, Palmolive, and Colgate corpora- tions. His paintings especially attracted tourists, whose numbers were increasing in the 1970s and whose growing influ- ence in the Caribbean was fueling the rise of naïve-style painting. US Canal Zone residents became particularly good customers. The Zonians had long benefited from Guna labor, and they had become some of the most dependable buyers of molas. Stevens Circle, located in front of a Canal Zone post office, had functioned for many years as a mola marketplace. Anthropologist James Howe notes that US citizens were also some of Guna Yala’s earliest visitors and wrote a plethora of amateur ethnographies. He suggests that Americans became intrigued with Indigenous culture as a result of racial/ethnic anxieties arising from the process of modernization, and their fascination with Guna endogamy. Méndez became his country’s first Native American studio painter, whose busy canvases helped to set the trajectory of Guna visual production over the following decades. above Olonigdi Chiari (Guna, 1949), Nele Kantule, 1993, acrylic on canvas. This painting hangs from the ceiling of the Usdup meeting house. SPRING 2019 | 31