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Etchings of a vivid memory.

"Life goes on, as life does, but with the gnawing sensation of having lost part of one's identity and all of the past." These are the words of Juan Bernal Ponce, who, like many other artists, has taken up residence in San Jose, Costa Rica, where he constantly invokes Valparaiso, the city of his youth.

Born in this Chilean port in 1938, Bernal Ponce enrolled in Taller 99 (Studio 99) of the Universidad Catolica of Santiago, Chile, in 1961. The Taller was founded by Nemesio Antunez in emulation of the studio which the English artist William Stanley Hayter set up on his country estate on the Seine. Its members were noted for their spirit of experimentation, exploration of alternative mediums, and investigation of new techniques. As a young man, Bernal Ponce left Santiago for Paris, where he became a student of Hayter's at the Academic Ranson and also enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux Arts.

Now age fifty-four, Bernal Ponce gives a detailed account of his life. He arrived in San Jose on February 4, 1974, thus commencing the stage he calls "exile." It is common knowledge that artists never know themselves so well as when they become separated from surroundings they love. The works from this period, which evoke the printmaker's personal history and love of urban crowds, clearly demonstrate that he is still centered in Chile. The artist's constructivist approach--geometric compositions and pyramidally clustered houses--is reminiscent of the Uruguayan master Torres-Garcia. The baroque quality of much of Bernal Ponce's work is rooted in the exuberance of the artist's childhood and the variety of his interests. Ancedotal in character, it reflects a sensitivity to a thousand details which cannot be reduced to generalities. Little remains today of Bernal Ponce's surrealistic printmaking of the sixties, but etching and aquatint are still his favorite media.

During the seventies printmaking acquired special importance in Costa Rica. Classes in the subject were included in the curriculum of the University of Costa Rica, where the CREAGRAF project was sponsored by the Organization of American States. The School of Architecture was founded on the premise that fine arts were to be considered a complementary and integral part of its curricula. Where printmaking was concerned, this led to the emergence of two leading figures: Juan Luis Rodriguez at Bellas Artes, the university's fine arts department, and Juan Bernal Ponce at the architecture school.

In the same decade large numbers of South American artists arrived in Costa Rica and found niches for themselves in the country's cultural life, primarily in the theater, which was particularly hospitable to them at that time. When Bernal Ponce joined the architecture school, it was dominated by Costa Rican architects who were actively involved in art: Rafael Garcia, who was identified with the abstract movement of the sixties, and Jorge Bertheau, who had been professor of drawing at Bellas Artes and was a son of the painter Margarita Betheau (Bertheau had started a school in her adobe studio-house in Escazu, a neighborhood favored by the city's artists to this day).

The foreign influx probably benefited the nation's artistic life and, in the case of Bernal Ponce, contributed to the training of a professional interested in art. The artist developed a special focus on city life in Latin America, always underscoring the context of the work. For that reason, perhaps, his art is eminently urban, as if he relied on the city for settings that would inspire his images.

Technically Bernal Ponce is most at ease as a draftsman. The line predominates in his conception of prints, and the accompanying color scheme is delicate and transparent, with an occasional use of chiaroscuro to create the necessary atmosphere. The line always remains the visual referent; it varies in weight and intensity, but the controlled action of the acid on the plate defines its qualities, setting it off against atmospheric spaces. This distinguishes Bernal Ponce's work from most Costa Rican printmaking, which is characterized by an emphatically expressionistic spirit. Although grotesque and contrasting caricatures of human types constantly spring up in his prints, the poetics of space form a more important element and the role of the figures is to affirm their environment. Thus, the geometric and metallic conquistador yields to the harmony of the pre-Columbian world's silent stones, and Neruda appears stuck in the crazy atmosphere of a cafe, as if mobility were possible only in man's mind.

In the last few years Bernal Ponce has been intensely active. he represented Costa Rica at the 1991 Valparaiso Biennial, which was devoted to printmaking, as a consequence of the Encuentro de Culturas (Meeting of Cultures) competition sponsored that year by the Fifth Centenary Commission. His work appears in the Grafik aus Costa Rica (Graphics from Costa Rica), an exhibit which opened in Bonn in 1990 and continues to travel. This year he had a major show at the Goethe Institute in San Jose and the Museum of Costa Rican Art invited him to exhibit his "Sketches" in the foyer of the Melico Salazar theater. This productivity testifies to the potential yet to be developed by a man fiercely committed to making prints in Escazu, keeping what time destroys and celebrating what man creates.

Conquistadors, The Sad Night, Eldorado are suggestive titles. The artist revisits the mythology of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, highlighting cultural conflict and generating symbolic spatial relationships. In contrast, his recent meditation brings forth a dream world in prints of subtle colors and distinctive lines. His constant travels reveal a hidden anxiety, a wish to find a landmark, a beacon guiding him to his origins. Bernal Ponce's work, in sum, is a simultaneous exercise in memory and style and a constant effort to halt time.

C. Guillermo Montero P. is director of the Museo de Arte Costarricense in San Jose, Costa Rica.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Organization of American States
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Montero P., C. Guillermo
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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