The Artist With Seven Lives

The Arts

 

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Artist José Antonio Torres was once tortured. Credit: Shaun Randol

 

 

While strolling through the quaint neighborhood of Usaquen in northern Bogotá I paused in front of some windows to examine the motley collection of trinkets, glassware, and furniture arranged neatly inside. I couldn't quite tell whether I had arrived at an antique shop or someone's home. Turned out both were true, for as I stepped into the doorway an older man greeted me.

 

"Come in! Come in!" He bellowed in Spanish and motioned with his hands. "We sell antiques and there is an upstairs and a downstairs. My home is your home—take as many pictures as you want!" It was after my self-guided tour of his store, basement, roof, and home that Alfredo took me by the hand into a narrow alley and then down a few steps into the studio of Peruvian artist José Antonio Torres.

 

Alfredo introduced me as a client. I corrected and said I was a writer. Either way, Torres was certainly surprised to suddenly have company, but he wasted little time in welcoming me into his place and jumping into his current thematic passion: a cat falling in love with a bird.

 

In Torres's metaphor, the feline hero has seven dreams in which he attempts various schemes (among them flying and climbing ladders) to reach his winged paramour. (In Peru, cats are cheated out of two of the nine lives they are afforded in the United States.) Each dream represents the determination and creativity with which the cat pursues his passion.  

 

This inter-species love affair is light in disposition compared to work produced in the not-too-distant past. Ten years ago were dark times, Torres revealed. The inner demons with which he struggled are evident in a series of bleak abstracts, characterized by ghoulish shapes colored in with smears of chalk, ash, and charcoal, with only the faintest hint of a sky blue (a dash of hopes, perhaps?). Even the titles in the series instilled terror: "My Torture Chamber" (Mi cuarto de torturas) and "The Attack of the Flying Boobs" (El ataque de las tetas voladoras).

 

 

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Installation of Mi cuarto de torturas at Taller S/T, Enlace-Arte Contemporáneo. Credit: José Antonio Torres

 

 

An offer from a gallery in Mexico snapped Torres out of his disturbed mindset and presented an opportunity to explore a sunnier side. The artist also fell in love, and that's when the cat-bird theme emerged. Torres graciously showed me around his studio, pointing out several media in which he shapes his animistic love story. I spied drawings, paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and wood burnings, each presenting the same theme but in distinct variations. One can practically see his cats jumping off the canvases and wood blocks, bounding in the gleeful pursuit of happiness.

 

What one doesn't see in the work is the object of the cat's affection: the bird. It's as if Torres were afraid to paint the little songster, as if in doing so the courtship would end. This unrequited love may be the driving passion for an artist still clawing his way out of a depressing, if not oppressing, artistic experience.

 

If the cat catches the bird, what then?

 

 

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Various finished and unfinished work in Torres's Bogotá studio. Credit: Shaun Randol

 

 

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Various finished and unfinished work in Torres's Bogotá studio Credit: Shaun Randol

 

 

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José Antonio Torres Credit: Shaun Randol

 

Lima was stifling. "You never see the sun," Torres complained. "The clouds just sit on the city and it's so very depressing." He moved to Bogotá to get out from under the oppressive blanket. Is it coincidence that since the move to Colombia Torres's art has transitioned from cheerless to joyful: from gray skies and canvases to abundant sunshine and rainbow color schemes.

 

I admitted to Torres that the entire time I've been in Bogotá I hadn’t seen a single cat, not one. The artist ponders for a moment before declaring, "I've lived in Bogotá for two years and I have never seen a cat either!" We laughed hard at the irony and after our mirth settled he leaned in and whispered conspiratorially: "And you know what? I am allergic to cats!" At this we roared, so much that we attracted the attention of others. Family and friends gathered around and I took the opportunity to leave, feeling that both the art and the artist had lifted my spirits.  

 

 

Colombia, Peru