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Fernando Botero’s series, “Abu Graib” demonstrates the continuing power of painting to go where photography and film do not. It’s a show painters should see.

I went to the exhibition fearing that Botero’s signature style, the inflated balloon figures, would undermine the intent of the paintings. How could a style so apt for caricature, become a vehicle for empathy? And yet in these paintings, the style does become a vehicle for empathy.

Botero has studied Uccello’s interlocking flat figural compositions.  The largeness of the Abu Graib prisoners gives them classical weight. Their large, flat shapes are articulated with anatomical detail and caught in a flattened space. Dark prison bars drawn from edge to edge push-and-pull the bright colors—vermillion, viridian, burnt sienna, aqua—of human flesh, hoods, gloves and dog’s teeth. Torturers’ kicking legs and feet coming off the painting’s edge get weight and thrust from that edge.

Unlike the moving images of film, something like a dream state, painting’s stasis, painting time, opens a window into empathy, where we join the painter in experiencing the subject.

The exhibition remains at the University of California’s Doe Library, Room 190 through March 23. It was brought to the university by a collaboration between the Center for Latin American Studies, Boalt Law School and Doe Library.

- Gloria Tanchelev [Tuesday, January 30th, 2007]

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