Maria Alquilar, Fabulist for a Global Era
Don’t keep your nose in what you think is a happening art. Go back in time. Go inside yourself. Be an Ancestor Worshipper. Be a nature lover. Don’t ignore your fellow members of the human race. ~Maria Alquilar (advice to a young artist c. 2011)
The art of Maria Alquilar (1928–2014) first captivates the viewer with its color and density of narrative detail. In her paintings and sculptures, human, animal, and mythical beings of every kind play out dramas so vivacious that in many of the paintings they spill onto the frame and into the space of real life. For all the theatrical vigor of the subjects, however, Alquilar’s work suspends the action in a stillness that is achieved formally by the artist’s flattened illusory spaces, insistent symmetry, grids of horizontal, diagonal, and vertical lines, and the equilateral triangles of light that fix nearly every composition. Consistent throughout in form and content, each artwork in Alquilar’s oeuvre is part of a whole: an American woman’s book of illuminated fables for the turn of the millennium and the beginning of our global era.
The artist’s images and stories are drawn from many sources: her life, her drama and the characters in it, her favorite literature and rock lyrics. In visual art, a foundational influence was the radically innovative ceramic sculpture and narrative painting produced by the now-well-known artists associated with UC Davis and Sacramento State from the mid-sixties to the eighties. As an important Sacramento gallerist in those years, Alquilar collected and sold their art.1 Late in life, long after she had become the artist Maria Alquilar and left Sacramento, she recalled the innovative energy of that art world. “It does not happen very often when artists make Art History. In Sacramento and Davis this did happen…. Art was all consuming in Sacramento.”2 From professional and personal association and a few classes with these remarkable artists, she learned skills in her signature mediums and gained ample support for her attitude of disregard for “happening art” of the mainstream art world. Like the best of them, Alquilar made the things that were her own.
Other sources were found in lifelong study. Alquilar held a bachelor’s degree in Humanities from Hunter College in Manhattan. A traveled and well-read student of world cultures since her childhood and youth in New York City, she appropriated and remade all the art she loved, particularly medieval art and the “Lost Worlds” art of ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Minoans, Etruscans, Aztecs, and Maya among others. She undertook ambitious pan-religious studies throughout her life; they included mainstream and mystical traditions of Judaism (the artist’s heritage faith), Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, pre-conquest spiritual traditions of Africa and the Americas, Vodou and other post-conquest syncretic religions. Such studies, she explained, looking back, “provided me with proof of how all humans share the same collective unconsciousness.”3
All these things and more come together in sculptures and densely layered and ultimately joyful story pictures that convey moral lessons and organize universal life forces into dynamic balance. This is evident in nearly every work.
Loved to Death: The Embrace (1988), for example, from the title series for the JayJay Gallery retrospective, is an illuminated fable in which the characters are anthropomorphic animals, inanimate things, and elements from nature. The subject is possessive love, “the selfish love of child for mother or lover for lover.” Characteristically for Alquilar, this work employs a mix of materials from both Western painting and world folk art traditions. Here she has used recycled metal for the ground of the painting and the two palm tree sculptures attached to the frame. Recycled metal is the signature medium of Mexican votive paintings and Haitian oil drum art much admired by the artist. The long fan palms on Loved to Death: The Embrace frame the tragic struggle at the center of the picture where a white deer is held down by a panther in the killing embrace of possessive love.
A blue bird flies towards them as if to intervene. Alquilar’s ubiquitous triangle of light shines down on the action in rays from a golden moon. Above the moon, a winged white rabbit leaps across a sky of midnight blue that is horizontally patterned with migrating cranes and snake-like clouds.
As are all animals in Alquilar’s fable paintings, the panther, the deer, and the bird in Loved to Death: The Embrace are symbolic. Like stock characters in ensemble theater, they reappear in other paintings; but they are not equivalent to single traits. Alquilar’s symbolism is multicultural; it carries various and layered meanings, and it is also personal. The white deer and the white rabbit featured in Loved to Death: The Embrace and other artworks, for instance, stand in for the artist as well as universal human qualities.5 Many beings, plants, and objects play supporting roles, in this case, as witnesses to possessive love. We consider the morality of their response. The three wise monkeys seated on the frame at the lower left, two looking out at the viewer, symbolize the maxim, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” From the context of this artist’s work, the ambivalent maxim is almost certainly used ironically: less about the wisdom of minding one’s own business than the moral failure of ignoring the suffering of others. At the lower right a hyena—legendary opportunist and eater of the dead—watches the panther and the deer with eager self-interest. Nearly every one of Maria Alquilar’s artworks is as rich with narrative symbolism, and each is part of the artist’s interconnected collection of fables. The connections are most evident among works in a series, but they also run across series.
In Dreamstealers (c. 1992)—not part of the Loved to Death series—the protagonists of Loved to Death: The Embrace reappear. The white deer, the panther, the white rabbit, and the monkeys remain in character; however, a different, though related, morality tale is told. The white deer is free and alone, but the predatory panther lurks, and the monkeys aim arrows at the deer like wicked cupids. “It is my interpretation of people,” Alquilar wrote about this painting, “who belittle and discourage our dreams.”6
Taken as a whole, the story paintings and sculptures of Maria Alquilar demonstrate the deep affinity she saw among secular and sacred systems of belief. It is this twenty-first-century global vision that makes Alquilar’s work relevant to our time. From her global research and vision came the 1999 series of paintings about Haitian Vodou rituals and the Zuñi Mysticism series of 2000. In Dancehall of the Dead, from the Zuñi series, we see how these works are part of the whole Alquilar book of fables. Dancehall of the Dead tells the Zuñi and Hopi tale of how kachina dancers became impersonators of the true Kachina spirit beings by way of deception that was clearly for the good of the people. For Alquilar, the moral ambivalence of the Zuñi virtuous deception story “parallels the Jacob and Isaac myth but goes much further.”7
Moral ambivalence is a theme that runs through the artist’s fables. The 2009 Decadence series, painted when the artist was eighty-one years old, brings the question of moral choice to bear on the pleasure-seeking lifestyle of Austrian Nazis during the National Socialist Period: one of the most infamous moral failures in modern history. It was also a question of personal consequence for the artist, the daughter of East European Jewish immigrants.8
Maria Alquilar was a fabulist for the global era that dawned in the late 1980s when she began to make her signature work and gain recognition. Her art draws from the deep well of all she experienced in an extraordinarily engaged and active life. It takes that and all that she gathered from a lifetime of study and brings it together as one great book of captivating stories.
~Elaine O’Brien Ph.D.
Professor of Modern & Contemporary Art History, California State University, Sacramento
1 Beth Jones, interview by Elaine O’Brien, March 21, 2017, JayJay Gallery, Sacramento, transcript.
2 Maria Alquilar, “Interview–Maria Alquilar–Artist,” undated , Life Is Art, accessed May 23, 2017, http://lifeisartfest.org/interview-maria-alquilar-artist/
4 Gilda Taffet, “Media Kit: Maria Alquilar Retrospective, JayJay, June 2017,” unpaginated [page 1]. Gilda Taffet is the daughter of Maria Alquilar. Taffet’s descriptions are informed by her mother’s explanations in conversations and letters over the years.
5 Gilda Taffet in conversation with Elaine O’Brien, Sacramento, California, March 21, 2107.
6 Maria Alquilar, Fine Art America webpage for Dreamstealers, uploaded 2008, accessed May 28, 2017, https://fineartamerica.com/featured/1-dreamstealers-maria-alquilar.html
7 Alquilar quoted by Taffet, “Media Kit” [page 3].
8 Gilda Taffet, email to Elaine O’Brien, May 22, 2017. The information about Maria Alquilar’s parents’ identity and place of birth is from a genealogy by Nancy Stead.