Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1964, Goldfarb still works there, and his art has been seen primarily in Brazil, Spain, and (not surprisingly) Miami. There's an intelligence behind his art that suggests layers of meaning that are accessible, but not explained. Highly readable iconic images of famous works of art are appropriated in ways that make us wonder about their meaning: the artist only hints, he doesn't tell. Conventional media such as painting and drawing on canvas are juxtaposed with embroidery, calling attention to questions that continually confound us: Where is the line between art and craft? If it's got sewing/embroidery does it qualify as high art? These conundrums are implicit in Goldfarb's work, but don't diminish its grander ambitions.
Working in a variety of media, Walter Goldfarb creates a rich series of suggestive, yet elusive, images whose individual parts (e.g., a "Last Supper," a building, a text) can be easily read, even while we struggle to determine their meaning. The various techniques at work here tantalizingly relate to a range of other artists: Rauschenberg's 1950's "Combines" and the early work of Jim Dine come to mind. From these and other masters of the evocative, Goldfarb has learned to suggest layers of possible readings, forcing us to reconsider what at first glance seemed like a simple image. So, using the term lysergic for the series of paintings that range from a Last Supper to an opera house may suggest some sort of hallucinatory experience -- but is it the artist's or the viewer's? We don't have recognition problems in deciphering the images, yet we are repeatedly being asked to doubt our sense of recognition. There must be some complex meaning here -- or maybe there's just rich imagery. How do we know? Does it matter? Is it OK if we just groove on the visual profusion?
Momentarily less puzzling are the various works in which elusive motifs may be at odds with one another. Here is "Le Juif Errant" and there is "Lohengrin" and might not these juxtapositions be meant to confuse us? Well, yes. As often is the case with the most interesting art, this is about something readable morphing into the indecipherable. So in the grand work, "Golem" (1999, part of the "White Series"), Goldfarb gives us Prague -- or does he? We're not sure whether we are looking at the Charles Bridge and the State Opera House or just some imagined memory of them -- actually, the latter, since the artist clearly wants only to be suggestive, and further confuses us with a line of Hebrew script as a connective thread between two bits of architecture that might have been misdrawn by a 19th century tourist.
Sure, we know that Golem means Prague, which means something Jewish; but here there are massive empty spaces as well -- as opposed to the compression of the actual remembered Prague -- with strong overtones of loss. It's an enormously potent vision, but just when you want to feel comfortable with the artist asserting himself in some Jewish manner (after all, doesn't Hebrew script also mean "Jewish"?), you realize that Goldfarb is also a much more expansive appropriator -- mixing and matching -- playing with Van Eyck's "Arnolfini Wedding" (1434, National Gallery, London) and with our memory of it.
He does this again by using micrography to turn Hebrew letters into a decorative thread (another version of embroidery?) that emanates from a cross-less crucified Christ in his "Yiddishe Mary" (1997), that is both puzzling and uncomfortable. I see these works as gestures of respect for the viewer. The artist takes for granted our ability to reassemble these visual ideas. We see that again in "Faust -- Where is Margueritte after Van Gogh" (1999); the elaborately calligraphed word "Faust" and Van Gogh's drooping sunflowers (marguerite=daisy?) must mean something, and yet we struggle to find an answer to Goldfarb's implicit question.
Visitors to the Museum of Latin American Art will be continually challenged by Goldfarb's ironic sensibility that just skirts the political statement. Perhaps the least oblique work is "Kol Nidre" (1998), in which a map of Europe with names of deportation and concentration and death camps is flanked by papal images -- the one on the left surely recognizable as Pius XII.
The artist's range of interests is part of what makes his work so fascinating -- from religious and historical subjects to hints from literature, music (Stokowski and Leonardo's "Last Supper" make a joint appearance), and art history. In spite of his playing with so many media -- embroidery, tempera, charcoal, oil, pastel, and more -- Goldfarb seems ultimately like a very ambitious draughtsman, putting everything in the service of drawing, even when the occasional three-dimensional sculptural additions make it from the wall to the floor. This can be seen in "Rapunzel and the Manipulator's Milk after Vermeer and Cornelis van Haarlen"[sic] (2004), where embroidery turns into a rope that falls off the canvas, and the luminous depth of Vermeer's original painting ("The Kitchen Maid" ca.1658, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) is ironically turned into a banal two-dimensional image despite its embroidered texture.
While this resonant group of works reflects a significant talent, it's difficult to pinpoint anything specifically "Latin American" or Brazilian here -- which reaffirms the problem of categorizing artists in today's intensely cross-cultural world. While most of Goldfarb's art-historical references seem to hark back several centuries, I am struck by hints of both the imagery and the spatial play of James Ensor (1860-1949), and the clear reference to Rauschenberg's early transfer drawings (as in his "Dante's Inferno" series). Goldfarb fits comfortably in a tradition of artists whose work pays homage to renowned predecessors by fiddling with both images and their meaning. But this is an impressively original body of work by an artist with both a skilled hand and a fertile intellect. The work challenges us with new perspectives on what we think we know, while perhaps also making us doubt our knowledge. It's quite literally a sleight of hand (his) and eye (ours).
Given the international flavor of so much art these days, and the decline of the sort of regionalism that once sought to identify art with its origins, it's not especially useful to see Walter Goldfarb as a Brazilian artist. Indeed, we might wonder why this show isn't in a more mainstream venue, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The recently reopened Museum of Latin American Art has a name that still reminds one of the fake romantic Hollywood pap purveyed by 1940's movies, conjuring up memories of Bing Crosby singing Irving Berlin's "I'll see you, in C-U-B-A", mambos and cha-chas that we had to learn in dancing school, and the ersatz exoticisms of Carmen Miranda and Xavier Cugat. But the current Walter Goldfarb exhibition obviously demonstrates that Long Beach is playing an important role in expanding the possibilities for seeing art in Southern California, and for that we ought to be grateful.
The Museum of Latin American Art is located at 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach. For hours and information, call (562) 437-1689 .
Tom Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues