SAN DIEGO — Though he never hesitated to jumble his source material, Spanish artist Josep Renau always made his points very clearly. A sharp social critic whose target was often the American way of life, Renau collaged and altered images from the mass media to create biting satires.
In one work in the exhibition "FATA MORGANA USA: The American Way of Life/Photomontages by Josep Renau" at the Museum of Photographic Arts, a hand holds a platter laden with military machinery, including tanks, planes, bombs and a Red Cross ambulance. Beneath are an array of images of emaciated people, mostly children, all of them apparently from Third World countries. In the background is a map of the Middle East.
Translation: Military aid does not help people. A platter of planes will not feed a starving child.
Another picture shows a pile of coins topped by a pair of soles from a businessman's shoes, with just a hint of the man's crossed ankles remaining to indicate a lounger's relaxation. An urban skyline can be seen in the distance, the middle-ground landscape is parched and cracked, and at the base of the coins lies a skeleton.
Translation: Business profits are made by destroying people and nature.
Born in 1907 in Valencia, Spain, Renau lived in exile in Mexico after the Spanish Civil War for political reasons, from 1939 until 1958, at which point he moved to Germany. Though Renau died in 1982, his work continues to have relevance. His targets, which include racism, commercial excess, military expansionism and ecology, are, unfortunately, as much at issue now as they were in the 1950s, '60s and '70s when he made them.
Renau is little known in the United States and this lack of familiarity with his work could lead one to misperceive its originality. We are so used to seeing collage and photomontages--the mixing of photojournalistic images to change their meaning--that Renau's inventions appear trite. Artists like Robert Rauschenberg or James Rosenquist have long done parodies of American culture by using borrowed pictures, but they did much of their work in the Pop-art era of the 1960s, \o7 after\f7 Renau had already developed his style.
Renau's influences come, rather, from such anti-establishment artists of the 1930s as the German John Heartfield, whose searing mockeries of the Nazi era were exhibited last year in the show "Camera as Weapon: Worker Photography Between the Wars" at the Museum of Photographic Arts.
But unlike Heartfield's complex images, many of Renau's works take potshots at fairly easy targets. In one, for example, a a wide-open mouth on a face is swallowing massive amounts of products--hair cream, automobiles, cigarettes and packaged foods, to name a few. Titled "Consumer Society," it mocks commercialism.
But, one is tempted to respond here, as with many of these works, with a simple "So? Got any alternatives?"
Another picture shows an altered picture of Gen. George C. Marshall, former U.S. secretary of defense and author of the Marshall Plan. In place of Marshall's head, however, Renau placed a cutout image of a fist clenching a baseball. "As American as the Army and baseball" is the obvious caption.
Only rarely are the works much more complex.
According to an essay in the show's catalogue by Arthur Ollman, the photographic museum's director, Renau's title for this series, "Fata Morgana," is based on Arthurian legend. To baffle enemy armies, Morgan Le Fey, King Arthur's enchantress sister created so-called "Fata Morgana," or mirages of splendorous cities. Renau used the term to refer to the shallow foundation of American opulence--this even before the era of enormous budgetary deficits.
He chose the United States as his fodder because in the 1950s, the era of McCarthyism and the American Dream, the United States' power seemed unequaled and its excesses unmatched.
Renau is at his best when his work becomes almost surreal: Renau loved to replace men's heads with other images, and in one picture he shows two businessmen talking to a partially clad Miss Florida, their suited bodies topped by a hawk's head, in one case, and an owl's, in the other. Miss Florida, too, wears assorted colorful pictures of birds like strangely placed jewelry, on her head, on her wrists and on one foot. This kind of picture, which is not so obvious in its meaning, is among the most haunting shown here.
Perhaps today it has become too easy to be immune to satire about racism, political corruption and military omnipresence, which makes much of Renau's work less interesting than it might have been when it was first made.
Nevertheless, Renau's artistry is most memorable when it is done with a twist, when he isn't so easily translated into single, simple phrases.
* \o7 "FATA MORGANA USA: The American Way of Life/Photomontages by Josep Renau" continues at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park through June 14. The show is jointly organized by the photo museum, IVAM of Valencia, Spain, and the Fundacio Josep Renau. Exhibition hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, until 9 p.m. Thursdays. \f7