Shaman Stories

Mythic Visions: Yarn Painting of a Huichol Shaman

At UCSB’s University Art Museum. Shows through December 3

Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott

yarn.jpgThe paintings in the University Art Museum’s exhibition Mythic Visions: Yarn Painting of a Huichol Shaman do not have names, but to refer to them as “Untitled” would be pigheaded. They are such complete statements that they don’t need names or labels. Take the one that faces you as you enter the gallery doors. It is an image of something that cannot be represented—what it is like to have your mind blown. And it is at the same time a picture of an elaborate, rigorously ordered cosmology. This picture demonstrates how both these things can be true simultaneously.

The way the colors in the yarn come together makes you realize that you have been thinking about color inside some box that you hadn’t even noticed, but that the painting before you entirely disregards. The oranges are so acid and the magentas so florid they can set your teeth on edge. And so a second paradox emerges: the work is both gorgeous and tasteless.

How to describe the composition? Is it structured, or is it spontaneous? In a thesaurus, these words are antonyms. Yet here, both apply equally. There is no negative space in these pictures. Everything fits together with everything else, and every bit of the canvas is alive. The elements balance each other so neatly you have to work to find the asymmetries, although they are rampant. It all works in such close concert as to suggest a crystalline lattice, yet rectilinear shapes are nowhere to be found.

The painting tells a story about where you are in the universe, about how you have gotten here, and about how things will end. These three are all the same, which is to say, the painting tells a story, and there is no linear narrative in it. It does not matter if the wall label tells you the painting is about deer, about peyote, about pilgrimage and rain, a story told by the only indigenous culture in Mexico that has resisted the influence of Catholicism. The painting is about your life.

The painting is also an elaborate and highly accomplished liturgy in a culture for which the slightest decoration on an everyday implement constitutes a prayer. And the painting is an art form invented to sell to tourists, part of an idiom that was at one time so mass-marketed, that it cannot but seem tacky to our eyes. Again, both are true.

A friend said something the other day that has been rattling around in my brain. She said that seeing things in terms of either/or is part of the perspective of being human, and that seeing things in terms of both/and is the perspective of the divine. José Benítez Sánchez’s yarn paintings seem to agree.

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