At first glance, it’s hard to understand whyJoan Belmar hid his “America” series for 13 years. The collaged paintings are mostly abstract, and the childlike images etched into or drawn atop the paint don’t seem especially controversial. The simple outlines of feet and airplanes testify to travel, exile and rootlessness, and even the more ominous shapes — a gun, a jackboot — aren’t necessarily political. But the Chilean artist wasn’t a U.S. citizen when he made these works, and he decided it was better not to show them until he became one. (That happened in 2010.) After all, one of the paintings is titled as a tribute to Victor Jara, the singer-songwriter executed during Chile’s U.S.-backed 1973 coup.
The “America” paintings and a more recent series, “Tierra del Fuego,” are making their debut at Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art. The newer work can be seen as more pointed, since it’s about the destruction of an indigenous people, the Selk’nam, who lived on the southern island divided between Chile and Argentina. Working from photographs taken in the 1920s, Belmar takes the dots and lines of the tribe’s body paint as visual motifs in paintings that (like the earlier ones) are mainly nonrepresentational. The artist boldly contrasts strong, clean black forms with areas of mottled, dripped tan and brown, evoking both the Selk’nam and the land where they once lived. Such pieces as “Reforma #1” are evocative but also powerful as sheer design.