A decade before he arrived in Atlanta in 1998, Alejandro Aguilera had already become known for exploring the entangled lineages of myth and history. Not long after he had finished art school in Cuba, he gained international recognition for a series of startling wooden sculptures that presented celebrated public figures as if they were the semi-divine Afro-Caribbean “saints” whose symbols are honored in the religion of Santería.
His longstanding interest in how we revere or deify our heroes and/or ancestors feeds into the new body of work in “Alejandro Aguilera, About the Modern Spirit,” on exhibit at the High Museum of Art through May 20. On one level, these are homages to great artists and cultural figures of the 20th century, from Picasso to Charlie Chaplin to Gandhi to Bill Traylor. On a larger level, they are explorations of the human need to worship — indeed, to “idolize” — the work and the creators in whom we find deepest value.
These explorations aren’t done with the goal of snarky critique that is now so common in contemporary art. They are, rather, a celebration of the real greatness of what used to be called the human spirit, carried out with a witty sincerity that isn’t contaminated by either cynicism or sentimentality.
It’s certainly more than a tour of art history, though there are pieces dedicated to Constantin Brancusi, Louise Bourgeois and any number of other museum-worthy modern artists, not all of them enshrined in the High’s “Picasso to Warhol” exhibition running concurrently with this show. There are seldom more than oblique references to the specific styles of the artists in question: this series of what Aguilera calls “Black Drawings” is more about the subconscious currents of history, the fluidity that brings together both artistic styles and hybrid cultures. (This is one reason so much of the work uses the symbolism of water.)
The evidence for all this is found in the astonishing “Portrait of the XX Century,” a composite swirl of faces of major figures that could take hours to interpret adequately, but also in “Black Drawing (Bill Traylor).” This last, misleadingly simple work uses images from art history to suggest simultaneously that Traylor’s folk art vision, derived from his own mind and from specific details of African-American history, was unknown to Picasso or indeed to anyone who shares in the inheritance of the classical Greeks, but transmits a heritage that has become part of our own complex cultural inheritance. (Traylor’s work is also currently on display at the High.)
Lest anyone think that Aguilera is interested solely in hybridity derived from African cultures, his “Kouros and Johannes Itten” brings together the antique Greek and high-modernist heritages in a way that would take as long to explicate as his “Cubist Venus of Willendorf.” There’s a huge amount of structural parallelism and cultural mash-up going on in these works, as there has been throughout history — and that’s one of Aguilera’s points. Intrinsic aesthetic values — what something looks like — and culturally transmitted messages — what something means — meet and mingle at every moment of artmaking.
Curator Michael Rooks deserves praise for having recognized the synergies to be gotten from this juxtaposition of these works by one of our most distinguished Atlanta artists with the Traylor and “Picasso to Warhol” shows — not to mention with Rooks’ parallel exhibition of the graffiti-based KAWS, whose mixture of pop culture and art history raises extremely congruent issues.
It may be necessary to remind readers that it is possible to approach all these works, and indeed all of the aforementioned exhibitions, in a more direct and less intellectual fashion. You can simply get lost in the swirls and whorls of color that form Aguilera’s portrait of Brancusi, for example. The direct emotion and occasional subtle humor of Aguilera’s drawings come across without the need to know everything about the subject matter. These are history-laden drawings, but they are, first and foremost, engaging works of art.