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Letter Bombs

Dittborn's airmail art challenges your assumptions about his Chilean background

Mailing a letter is a fairly mundane act, but one that will become increasingly nostalgic as on-line bill-paying and digital communication take precedence. When you think about it, there's something mysterious about the whole postal process: You tuck a missive into an envelope, smear the flap with saliva, affix a stamp and drop it into an ominous, patriotically painted hunk of metal, all of which somehow causes your letter magically to appear on someone's desk or table, days or weeks later. In the interim, an entire chain of events has occurred, and countless unknown hands have touched your letter. The object has taken a journey it can never describe, save for cancellation marks and surface abrasions. An envelope can travel more discreetly, cheaply and anonymously than you can.

Eugenio Dittborn has been sending visual communiqués to the world since 1984 when he began his series of large folded "airmail paintings," seven of which are on view at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery as a part of "La cuisine et la guerre, Seven Airmail Paintings." The paintings are executed on large rectangles of fabric that are folded and stuffed into an envelope, bypassing the elaborate and costly crating and shipping that most art requires. When the are delivered, the recipient opens the envelope, unfolds the material and hangs the grommeted panels on the wall.

A Chilean artist, Dittborn lived and worked in Santiago throughout the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This fact alone adds a quiet political layer to his works, which is sometimes really there and sometimes projected. Pinochet, after all, interfered less with the visual arts than with film or theater, which he considered a greater threat to influence the masses. Dittborn has no tales of torture or imprisonment; he's prosaic about his life under Pinochet. University teaching positions weren't available to people on the left. He didn't flee Chile; he wasn't in exile; he just kept making art, which he imbued with a point of view that said more about the general aspects of the human condition than the specific.

Jumping to conclusions: The images in The 6th History of the Human Face nudge viewers into making certain assumptions -- which may not be entirely accurate.
Blaffer Gallery
Jumping to conclusions: The images in The 6th History of the Human Face nudge viewers into making certain assumptions -- which may not be entirely accurate.

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Through Sunday, May 27; (713)743-9530
Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, entrance no. 16 (off Cullen Boulevard)

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Through his artistic endeavors, Dittborn has become something of a postal expert; he has thoroughly researched envelopes and mail services. In the end, he designed an official-looking navy-blue heavy cardboard envelope with blanks for information, spaces to record the work's itinerary and for notes about the piece, such as the sources for the imagery. The envelopes that transport the paintings become relevant artifacts; they are displayed alongside the works. Dittborn uses standard postal express mail and loathes the private companies. "FedEx loses things," he states flatly.

Dittborn stumbled upon the idea for his paintings in 1983 as he folded a large piece of wrapping paper and realized the marks and fissures created a kind of physical grid. It required only a small intellectual leap from there to incorporate the postal service into his artistic process, which turned out to be a great strategy. The mere act of folding his paintings not only allowed them to be cheaply disseminated via the mail but also provided the very grid structure that would organize his imagery.

Dittborn's imagery is appropriated from a host of quirky and disparate sources. He initially silk-screened his images onto 82-inch by 55-inch panels of stiff artificial fabric, the kind used to line clothes, but his later works would graduate to cotton duck material. For The 6th History of the Human Face (1989), Dittborn culled faces from How to Draw books, and gathered composite drawings of criminals and anthropological photos of indigenous peoples. Later works in the series incorporated drawings of schizophrenics. These facial images call to mind personality "types," not portraits of individuals: They look like people missing, people hunted, people disappeared, which is what Dittborn wants. He's alluding to something, nudging you in the direction of certain assumptions -- which may not be entirely accurate. Colored by the investigations into the merciless Pinochet regime, we may want to view a work as specifically political when it may be a broader commentary on the human condition.

There is a humanistic empathy to the works, but you also get the sense that Dittborn mocks the viewer, playing with the blanket assumptions outsiders make about a place. Stereotypes and assumptions are annoying, even if well intentioned. When viewing art made under an oppressive government, people imagine artists spending their mornings in the torture chamber and their afternoons in the studio, and are strangely disappointed when that is not the case. Dittborn appears to toy with those expectations with a simple statement: Across the bottom of his works are neon orange line drawings, faces actually, made by the artist's daughter. It's a kind of vivid naïveté juxtaposed with the worn, anonymous and outcast.

Dittborn's disparate images somehow work together. He culls little fragments to create an overall picture, more of a sensibility really, that reminds you of an eccentric who tacks scraps, odds and ends, and clippings from old magazines to a bulletin board. To Return (1993) has an aura of a Ripley's Believe It or Not cartoon. Images of the murdered peat-bog man and a 500-year-old sacrificed Incan child have an element of fascination/revulsion. Other works present colonial accounts of the New World, personal anecdotes, images of hanged men and frozen explorers. Dittborn deftly manages to juggle the sensational with the poignant and the all-too-human.

While individual pieces in the show are appealing, the exhibition loses something when viewed as a whole. Its power is somehow diminished. Formally, the paintings become boring. Dittborn seems wedded to the white grounds with primarily black silk-screened images. There is a sort of vintage tabloid feel to the fold and the color, but the overall impression is one of too much white space. All that white space gets really old. In more recent work, he starts to include pale shapes of pastels, but it isn't enough. You like his ideas, his strategy, but things get a little rigid in their execution. You want to see him push his ideas further, explore more, and maybe send something with some more… um… color?

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