Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Victor Cartagena’s Sugar Face at the San Jose Museum of Art guest post by Pablo Almazan

This post is on a series of twelve faces cast from sugar and water, works of art inspired by Cartagena’s relationship with the United Farm Workers Foundation in his earlier life and the brutal story of sugar beet farming in California. Prior to Cesar Chavez’ labor rights movement, laborers had little to no rights or recognition. They were the invisible figures that no one took account of when consuming food or produce. The workers often chewed on sugar beets to acquire enough energy to get through a day of picking the cash crop. The maltreatment and neglect of these workers led Cartagena to collaborate with Maurilio Maravilla, a Mexican immigrant who worked alongside Chavez during the fight for labor rights. Cartagena cast a mold of Maravilla’s face with sugar, the cash crop he worked so hard to harvest. He created twelve molds of Maravilla’s face to represent the Last Supper. This reference is meant to create a relation between farm-workers and the fact that they are the ones who put food on the table. In the work, Cartagena purposefully uses sugar to refer to the struggle in the sugar beet harvest. He also used it to create the molds because eventually the sugar molds will melt away because of the heat lamp pointed at each one. The works will essentially become non-existent because of this process. The eventual non-existence of these works symbolizes the farm workers who, at one point, were also invisible and non-existent to their employers and to consumers.

The story behind Sugar Face evoked strong emotion in me because I have family members who are farm laborers who experienced the struggle of having few rights. They relate to the pain and inhumanity felt when they were made invisible by employers and consumers alike.  The story Cartagena tells in these works is resoundingly similar to the stories I have heard my aunts and uncles recount of the times they worked in the fields. Experiencing works of art that I could relate to on such a personal level unlocked a sensation that brought ease and tranquility but at the same time evoked pain and anger. Looking at the molds of Maurilio Maravilla’s face was similar to a face to face interaction because the molds were so realistic. I could make out the creases in Maravilla’s skin and his sagged features. His face revealed a life of pain due to unfair treatment in the agricultural labor force. This is the aspect of the work that evoked pain and anger in me. I felt the pain and anger that Maravilla experienced while simultaneously feeling the pain my family endured in the farms. The life-like busts made the connection even more intense because I felt like I was experiencing a genuine human interaction. I felt as if Maravilla was one of my own family members. Overall, I was moved emotionally by the realistic features and the story behind Sugar Face.
Sugar Face has a unique story and appearance in comparison to similar works such as those of ancient Greek masks. The works evoked such a strong emotion in me, compared to similar works, because the features in these works were so life-like. I had never felt a deeper connection to a similar work because I never understood the symbolism of past works I experienced. I also valued the aesthetic experience and the aesthetic emotion that these works uniquely evoked in me. Time stood still as I observed the melting sugar drip down the sad, droopy face of Maravilla. The raw emotions expressed in his face encouraged me to be raw in the moment and allow my emotions to be honest and genuine. I felt overwhelmed as I came face to face with the bust of another human. This work was effective in provoking my aesthetic emotion by the dark color scheme created with the mixture of sugar and water. Its realistic features and animistic emotions also sparked unique emotion in me.

Getting to know and understand the symbolism behind the twelve busts of Maravilla and the story they tell played a role in my feeling such a strong emotion toward the works. Sugar Face taught me about pain and sacrifice; it taught me the importance of leading a humble life. The works at first glance seemed basic and uninteresting, but as I delved deeper into the faces and their creases I discovered beauty in the struggle and wise life advice. As humans, we all experience such emotions and feelings as pain and suffering.  Cartagena does a flawless job of incorporating these emotions into his work in an attempt to appeal to the  emotions of any person who views his work. This appeal to emotion simultaneously works as an appeal to human consciousness and makes us aware of the agonizing labor process we take for granted in order to have food on the table.

Overall, I experienced a true aesthetic emotion toward Sugar Face, but not the aesthetic emotion defined by Clive Bell in his book, Art. These works convey information and purposefully encourage an emotion of sympathy toward the hard-working laborers. For this reason, Bell would most likely have labelled this work as a descriptive painting, although it consists of facial molds not paintings. His description of aesthetic emotion also states that one should not attempt to enter the mind of the artist and view the work through their eyes; he says one should experience one's own subjective reaction and create one's own interpretation of a work. 

I did not make attempts to interpret Sugar Face through the perspective of Victor Cartagena, but I did feel a deeper connection with and understanding for the work after reading the description and story behind the creation that Cartagena wrote. My initial aesthetic emotion was not altered by the story behind the work though. At first glance a strong aesthetic emotion was evoked within me as I scanned over the precise facial features of an old man who was alive in the sense of the cast’s animated qualities. Bell denies that aesthetic emotion can exist when experiencing a descriptive painting, but this is simply not the case.[1] The face of Maurilio Maravilla unintentionally tells a story, a face carefully sculpted through the genetics of his parents and through his life experience. A human face is independently considered aesthetic with its symmetrical qualities and gentle features. Clive Bell’s hypothesis is wrong to imply that an aesthetically pleasing human face cannot evoke aesthetic emotion because the face simultaneously tells a story through its twinkling eyes, skin creases, and scars. Bell says that the purpose of art is, “to transport the viewer into a purely artistic world, cut off from real life” [2] (McLaughlin, 434). In Sugar Face, Bell’s claim of the purpose of art is impossible. Victor Cartagena found a way to intertwine the artistic world and real life by displaying the cast of twelve faces as art and using their aesthetic qualities to promote a story of pain and sorrow.

[1] Clive Bell, "Art," in Ross, Stephen, ed. Art and its Significance. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).
[2] Thomas M. McLaughlin, "Clive Bell's Aesthetic: Tradition and Significant Form," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35, no. 4 (1977): 433-43. 

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