Bontempo’s mythos

I recently saw an exhibit of mixed media works on paper by Marcos Bontempo at the Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago. It was an excellent show that got me thinking about the use of mythological symbolism in contemporary art. 

The work is spare. Most feature single archaic-looking figures or heads occupying an otherwise white field. The images are predominately black with a few containing areas of rusty red or earthy yellow. The figures are often composite creatures, half-humans partially metamorphosed into snakes or other beasts. Even though the gallery statement doesn't mention any historical precedents that inform Bontempo’s work, I could not help being reminded of similar creatures populating ancient Greek vases and Babylonian sculptures. Unlike those earlier works, the images are made up of seemingly random textures and marks that have the character of Rorschach blotters. This dichotomy is the core of the work. It allows the imagery to oscillate between cultural mythological archetypes and the artist’s subjective psychology.

I can describe the work in many ways. Immediate, intense, even cryptic. It is not, however, new. Quite the contrary, the pieces feel very old, like artifacts uncovered at an archeological dig. And that's fine. Art that mines this subject matter does not need to be cutting edge to be compelling. What it does need is the quality of a mysterious folk tale that continues to fascinate long after its original telling.