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Francisco Matto created bold modern art with the timeless graphic style of the past

<i>Two Venuses</i>
Two Venuses

Draw a circle. (Or, if you prefer, a square.) Now, somewhere inside that figure place two dots. Voilà! You've drawn a face. Not the most detailed mug ever put to paper obviously and not even boasting all the features we associate with a human countenance, but a face all the same in that we recognize it as such. See, once we humans started working out how to represent ourselves in marks, we discovered pretty quickly that simple shapes and lines will read as human forms, and as long as there's something to delineate a pair of eyes within a frame – dots, dashes, circles, even little X's – we're hardwired to see it as a face, a fact that has been taken advantage of by artists from the cave painters at Lascaux to good ol' Charlie Schulz.

<i>Construction In Wood</i>
Construction In Wood

You can count Francisco Matto among that fraternity as well, as you'll see the minute you step inside the illuminating retrospective of this Uruguayan artist's work assembled by the Blanton Museum of Art after an exhibition in the 2007 Bienal do Mercosul in Brazil curated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, the Blanton's curator of Latin American art from 2002 to 2008. Greeting you as you enter "Francisco Matto: The Modern and the Mythic" is a quintet of his totems – rough wooden sculptures of human and animal figures mounted on thin planks and thick blocks of wood – two of which belong to his Venus series. To judge by the materials and shapes alone, you might take the duo for musical instruments; both feature long thin necks atop shapes either boxlike or curvy like a guitar. But the handful of marks on them – two side-by-side vertical dashes at the top of each neck, a horizontal line across each body with two circles above it, a vertical line dividing the strip of wood connecting each body to the totem's base – give these cobbled together boards eyes, waists, nipples, and legs. These are, however basically represented, people.

And you'll run across quite a few of them as you wend your way through the six decades of work represented here: a pair of Venuses, one tall and narrow with a petite guitar body and the other short, wide, and rectangular; a couple cut from glittering white marble, she with a tiny rectangular head atop a bass fiddle body and he with the same minuscule head atop a wide, square block with a large notch carved out of the bottom to create two legs; and other figures like these placed within geometric frames and grids that contain the similarly simplified shapes of birds, snakes, fish, livestock, clock faces, arrows, crosses, houses, vases, and more. They are the populace of a world utterly flat and devoid of decoration, just raw shapes occasionally defined by thick black outlines and unrepentantly brash primary hues.

<i>Constructive Painting</i>
Constructive Painting

For Matto, abstraction was a peeling away of the complexity and ornament of 20th century life in favor of a connection to the past: the simple, graphic representations of the world that he so admired in pre-Columbian art. In those spare forms he saw a way of distilling an object to its essence, an expression so pure that it would resonate with viewers regardless of their homeland or culture or time. More than the specific and detailed representational art of recent centuries or the abstract work of some of his contemporaries, this art of unadorned clarity would speak to a viewer of the spirit of a thing in a language sure to endure into the future.

And sure enough, a kind of primal power announces itself in many of the works included here – say, the Naturaleza muerta con plano de color y línea (Still Life With Color Plane and Line), with its stocky bottle roughly painted in umber and its pitcher and glasses sketched in bold black ovals and diagonals; Puerto con cielo rojo (Port With Red Sky) and Puerto en colores primarios (Port in Primary Colors), two views of the same shipyard that blaze with their huge fields of red and yellow; or any of the many works with grids that resemble printers' type cases filled in with tiny keepsakes or else some pictographic messages. Whether or not you can decipher their content, you can make out clearly what each object in them is, just as you can identify a face in that circle with two dots. Matto compels our recognition with the same bold simplicity of old.

And we have the opportunity to measure that ourselves, to compare Matto's style with that of the ancients, thanks to the Blanton's inclusion of a section of pre-Columbian artifacts belonging to the University of Texas' Department of Art & Art History. Here are clothes, jars, and bowls that are 600, 800, 1,000 years old, decorated with much the same simple geometrics and thick outlines as this 20th century modernist employed. Seeing these provides valuable context for viewers, not simply as background for the constructive universalism school of thought to which Matto subscribed but as a lifelong source of fascination and inspiration for the artist. With this, as with a companion section on the School of the South, detailing the influence of artist Joaquín Torres-García on Matto and his South American contemporaries, the Blanton expands our sense of who this artist is through the world he lived in, its past and present. The way this show is presented is a testament to the breadth and depth of the Blanton's holdings of Latin American art, not to mention its commitment to exposing the region's art to a broader – and pointedly North American – audience. Bringing the first comprehensive career exhibition of this South American modernist to the United States is further proof – as if any were needed after such exhibits as "The School of the South," "The Geometry of Hope," and "Jorge Macchi: The Anatomy of Melancholy" – that our own Blanton is a global leader when it comes to celebrating and promoting the art of Latin America.

As I'm admiring one of Matto's totems, it occurs to me that I'm standing in roughly the same spot where, a few months earlier, I had stood and admired the sleek, smooth chairs of Charles and Ray Eames in the exhibit "Birth of the Cool." And I'm struck that here are artists of the same era and even something of the same philosophies that nevertheless represent kind of opposite extremes. Matto and the Eameses were all modernists, all stripping away ornamentation to create something simple and pure. And all were intent on reaching the widest audience possible with their work. But where the Eameses were taking advantage of industrial mass production to give everyone a chance at having a chair of the same design, Matto was creating something that might speak to everyone but that was still a distinctly individual work, crafted by his own hands. With the one, it's something you own. With the other, it's something of your own, as universal and yet personal as a circle with two dots in it that you've drawn all by yourself.

"Francisco Matto: The Modern and the Mythic" runs through Sept. 27 at the Blanton Museum of Art, Congress at MLK. For more information, call 471-7234 or visit

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Francisco Matto: The Modern and the Mythic, Blanton Museum of Art, Latin American art, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, School of the South

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