Fearless Symmetry

Angels And Devils In The Details Of Alfredo Arregu’n

Since the early 1970s, Seattle-based artist Alfredo Arregu’n has become widely known for richly colorful paintings that pace, cat-like, between several worlds. Some contain allusions to iconic figures from Mexico's revolutionary and artistic past, such as Miguel Hidalgo, Emiliano Zapata and Frida Kahlo. Others are completely filled with tight ranks of haunting masks derived from ancient Mesoamerican cultures or by the flora and fauna of now dwindling rain forests. For more than three decades Arregu’n has woven all these subjects and many more into almost impenetrable canopies of coiling, curling arabesques, creating a fugue-like visual music that binds the wounds of the present with primordial knots. A selection of 12 of his oil-on-canvas works is on view in a show titled Universal Patterns at Cleveland gallerist William Scheele's Kokoon Art Gallery through March 28, 2009.

Born in 1935 in the small city of Morelia, capital of the western Mexican state of Michoacán, Arregu’n grew up there and in Mexico City, eventually migrating to Seattle in 1956 after a chance meeting with an American family named Dam, who were vacationing in Mexico. They encouraged him to move in with them and enroll at the University of Washington, where he studied architecture. Eventually his life-long passion for drawing and painting was rekindled, enhanced by an acquaintance with interior design. But, as in his works, nothing in Arreguin's fateful, boldly patterned life runs in a straight line or entirely escapes the impress of broader themes. His artistic education was interrupted when he was drafted into the United States Army in 1958. He spent time in Korea - much of it unpleasant, according to an account by his biographer Lauro Flores, in his moving and insightful book Alfredo Arregu’n: Patterns of Dreams and Nature. Nor was his exposure to Eastern culture and craft at that time wasted on the young artist. Gradually, Arregu’n assembled an unusual mix of skills and perspectives that would characterize his mature painting. Already by 1970, coinciding with the early days of the pattern and decoration movement in American art, he had begun to employ the hypnotic maze of all-over patterns that have continued to crowd his surfaces ever since, alternately concealing and revealing persons, creatures and symbols. Sometimes these are inscribed against a background of interlocking wave formations resembling traditional Japanese pictorial conventions or Hokusai's crashing, frothy variations on that theme.

Arregu’n's images are like prayers for a better, older place, incantations summoning lost worlds. Exotic creatures - Gila monsters and monkeys, jaguars, iguanas, pangolins and a dozen flamboyant birds - stride purposefully through the facets of a magical, mosaic-like world and swing from ancient tree to tree, tracing paths through jungles that bring to mind the folk motifs of the textiles of many cultures, like the schematic Edens of Caucasian and Middle Eastern tapestries. But there is an infinity to this artist's work that reaches beyond the warp and weft of any mere craft, sinking deep into the mind toward secret gardens, swift torrents and unfathomable springs. A painting like "Peches Eternos" (2007), on view at Kokoon, practically dyes the brain cells of the viewer with its hallucinatory red and blue transitions. Like many recent works, the five-by-four-foot oil-on-canvas work references the imagery of Arregu’n's adopted home in the Pacific Northwest, showing salmon bending and leaping across a sparkling field of soft white lights. At first the surface beyond the fish is perceptible as blurry starshine reflected in moving waters - but soon more and more layers of imagery become visible. An underlying symbolic matrix contains crosses and flowers, star shapes, triangles and eyes, continuing past the end of human vision like a close-up view of the skin of a god.

"Hirapati" (1995) at first sight looks orderly and logical, but like an irrational number it is actually a collection of non-repeating inventions - as if the Mexican calendrical sun stone were multiplied by the value of pi. At the center, two shining, jewel-like green eyes launch the multiplication; mouths and tongues and eyes recur at intervals, with opposing lines of white teeth, built into a wall of more abstract forms. The dominant colors are red and blue and white, dotted with coral and amber and green. It could be a mosaic of hummingbird feathers, like those reportedly made by the Tarascan people before the Spanish came. Hirapati, Arregu’n relates, is the name of a priest who figures in an ancient ceremony called Hanziuansquaro still practiced since the time of the Purépecha or Tarascan civilization in the forests of Michoacán. Among the works reproduced in Lauro Flores' book is a portrait made of words, aligned like rows of bricks. It depicts Arregu’n's friend, the late master storyteller Raymond Carver, who wrote about Alfredo in his story "Menudo." Carver's literary method often involved close observation of subtle incongruities, as if scratching the arithmetic of daily life on a blackboard. Its darkness slowly fills the mind with a far more universal mathematics, at once terrible and merciful. Arregu’n's paintings do something like that, as they lead the eye deep into a world where each mark is a tick of the clock and every face is a day in the calendar of eternity.

[email protected]

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.