The retrospective exhibition of the work of Francisco Toledo, which opened at Princeton University Art Museum this past weekend and is on view through January 6, serves as a telling introduction to an artist we wish we had met a long time ago. Toledo’s reputation spans the world. He has had exhibitions in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Spain, Belgium, France, Japan, and Sweden, as well as other countries. In 2005 he received the Right Livelihood Award for devoting himself and his art to the protection and enhancement of the heritage, environment, and community life of his native Oaxaca. In his home country he is considered among the best. But in this country his art has been the province of a small group knowledgeable, devoted aficionados. As the work in this exhibition indicates, it’s time for a change.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Toledo turned away from the politicized subject matter of the renowned revolutionary muralists and developed a unique visionary style. Hailed by the British press as “the greatest living Mexican artist,” Toledo’s graphic fantasies draw us to into a dreamlike totemic universe informed by more than 2,000 years of art and history. The assembled works also function as a virtuoso demonstration of the artist’s stunning technical range.
With some 40 drawings, paintings, ceramics, sculpture, woodcuts, and etchings the retrospective survey offers an array of carefully blended literary and political concepts that are deftly interwoven with anthropomorphic imagery. Echoes of ancient legends and iconography that had its origins with the earliest Mesoamerican peoples are combined with the graphic vocabulary of indigenous Oaxacan craft and a smattering of more recent literature and philosophy. These complex, often luminous works are leavened with a refined 21st century artistic sensibility.
Toledo’s exquisitely crafted magical realism, often with political and social overtones, includes a fanciful population of creatures with stories to tell and lessons to teach — crocodiles, rabbits, frogs, iguanas, and grasshoppers that are often anthropomorphic in effect and, as such, fraught with meaning. An alligator in a flaming red watercolor is said to represent burning desire. Toads appear menacing. Rabbits are used to symbolize regeneration of life. Often these creatures are structurally altered to speak of connections between animal and man.
Surface, too, plays an important graphic role in Toledo’s work. The effects of glowing color washes and luminous glazes are often enhanced with the addition of texture — sand, crushed amate paper, and impasto brushwork.
Toledo’s imprint, however, extends well beyond his studio walls. When he is not working as a painter, printmaker, sculptor, or weaver, he is working as a public spirited activist. As the gallery walls speak of Toledo the artist, the richness and diversity of life in his native Oaxaca is a testimony to the extent of his civic concerns. He has worked to preserve the historic integrity of the Spanish colonial city and, while he was at it, turned the ancient city into a center for the visual arts and literature.
As a result of Toledo’s efforts Oaxaca can boast of a contemporary art museum, Institute of Oaxaca (a school and study center for the graphic arts with some 100,000 books on art and architecture), a library for the blind, a center for photography, Ediciones Toledo (a printing house, which most recently published translations of the poets John Ashbery and Seamus Heaney), and a botanical garden — all of which were founded or cofounded and are financially supported by the artist.
In 1993 Toledo was instrumental in founding Pro-OAX (the Endorsement for the Defense and Conservation of the Cultural and National Heritage of Oaxaca), dedicated to the protection and promotion of art, culture, and the built and natural environment of Oaxaca. Over the years he has helped to fend off many of the 21st century commercial incursions that afflict and then alter historic communities — the spate of tourist hotels and coffee shops that are drawn by a sense of place that they then diminish. He is currently involved in helping defend the young revolutionaries who have tried to implement change in Oaxaca.
To complement the exhibition the Princeton University Arm Museum has installed an exhibition of prints and drawings from the permanent collection that makes graphic note of stylistic developments and the connections between 20th century European modernism and Latin American artists.
-El Maestro Francisco Toledo: Art from Oaxaca 1959-2006,” through January 6, Princeton University Art Museum. www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788. Several programs accompany the exhibition:
After Hours, Friday, November 9, 7:30 p.m. “Francisco Toledo.” An evening for students. 609-258-3788.
Gallery Talks, Friday, November 16, 12:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 18, 3 p.m. “The Three-Ring Circus of Francisco Toledo: Sorcery, Surrealism, and Sensuality,” Sharon Lorenzo.
Art Talk, Thursday, December 6, 6:30 p.m. “Francisco Toledo and the Transnational Vanguard of the 1970s and 1980s” presented by Edward Sullivan, New York University, in McCosh. Reception in museum follows.
Collecting Latin American Art, Saturday, December 8, noon to 3 p.m. A workshop by August O. Uribe, senior vice president at Sotheby’s. Registration $30, required by Monday, December 3. 609-258-7482 or E-mail email@example.com.