by DeeGee Lester

To observe viewer reactions to paintings by Colombian native Jorge Yances is a lesson in the power of art 

to engage. Without benefit of a knowledgeable museum docent or some automated British voice informing the viewer about what to look for, the self-guided visitor is propelled by their own curiosity to look closely, to grasp every subtle detail of these contemplative paintings.

Welcome to the remembered world of Jorge Yances, an astute observer of the imperceptible interplay between past and present, reality and fantasy. Mirroring the finest Latin literary tradition of Realismo Mágico, Yances’ artistry magically invades realistic Colombian settings—centuries-old buildings and portions of walls—achieving what author Simon Schama in The Power of Art associates with all great art: “the ability to rearrange your sense of reality.”

Initially attracted by the vivid colors, delicate brushstrokes, and the juxtaposing of modern life against the backdrop of a Spanish colonial city (dating to 1533), one is unexpectedly drawn into unique textural detail and a sudden awareness of multiple layers of reality within the painting. Embedded within the thick masonry walls and massive timbers is the collective consciousness of Cartagena, his birthplace.

Yances’ heightened sensitivity to his surroundings during return visits to the city derives much of its power from the sense of place and the nostalgia of an artist who emigrated from his homeland at the age of thirteen. The teachings of a beloved aunt also impacted his art. From her, Yances learned that technique is not enough. Any talented artist can reveal on canvas the beauty of the city. At her urging, he looked beyond what is visible.

One wonders in amusement at the thoughts of passers-by—those who look but do not see—as they observed the intensity of the artist studying an old wall or the quiet beauty and silent, heavy burdens of the nameless Carretillero pushing his fruit-and-vegetable cart along the narrow streets. In Yances’ visual narrative, his human protagonists communicate, even in silence, as in Palenquera, the cares and experiences of Cartagena’s people through twenty-five generations of city history.

But it is the architectural backdrop to his figurative imagery that startles then captures by revealing echoes of the past.
His connection with the history of a place can happen anywhere. On a recent walk through downtown Nashville, Yances recalls,

I could feel the wall, the essence of souls present with us, walking with us.

Such spirituality, he says, happens occasionally to anyone. “Almost everyone, at some time, will enter a place and suddenly get a feeling of sadness and they don’t know why, but all those past events and feelings reflect back on us. To be able to get this is to take time to learn from history.”

In A Través de mis Ojos (Through My Eyes), portions of faces, eerie inexplicable sadness, primal screams, rapturous joy, and rumblings of centuries-old chatter quietly emerge here and there from the walls. The effect is enticing, strangely comforting, and ever so slightly disturbing. Like a magnet, it draws the line of sight.

“This is more than paint on a canvas,” Yances insists. “It is the visual urging to detect the power of the stories that surround us.” 

Moving from Cartagena’s historical architecture to the simplicity and complexity of walls that hint at the rambunctious art of graffiti, Yances’ work captures yet another side of the city. There is an abstracted, questioning look to these walls. The layers are textured by paint, weather, postings, and scratchings that unconsciously melt into each other, revealing the vibrancy of life. In places, these walls crumble or collapse under the weight of time and events. Washings of color, one over the other, portions of old posters ripped away. As in Yances’ architectural paintings, there are allusions to the faces and voices of the past, but these walls have a gritty appearance, beautiful even in their harshness.

An interesting feature of these walls is the presence of the wires. In places, they are curled and draped like rosary beads across the painting. Other times, they hang, precariously, a part of the culture: neighbors tapping into each other’s electricity in areas that have no electric codes. Yances also sees the wire from a personal perspective. “The wire is hanging. Even though I’m here, my roots are still in Colombia. The wire starts, it goes nowhere, and it dangles off.”

Like the wire that is attached at one end and goes nowhere, the walls have a narrative with a beginning that goes on with no end. The power of what we are looking at is a story, 479 years in the making, that will continue and an artist whose talent invites the viewer into that story for a moment.

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