A boy stands in a dark and rustic town. There is nothing distinctive about this boy; he is an “everyman.” Old cloth, cardboard and metals surround him, materials muted by dirt and age. This is the setting of “Juanito Goes to the City,” or “Juanito va a la ciudad,” an assemblage in the exhibition Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona at the Phoenix Art Museum.
Berni started the Juanito and Ramona installations in 1958 as a way to express the culture of Buenos Aires through the eyes of two young fictional characters.
The 20th Century Argentinian artist utilized industrial materials and textiles in most of his pieces related to Juanito Laguna and Ramon Montiel.
His artwork became an easily accessible narrative, said the Sybil Harrington Director James Ballinger. Berni created lives for these two, Juanito a young boy living in an impoverished town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and Ramona a young working class woman lured into prostitution.
Berni chronicles the characters’ lives using materials that would come from their worlds, said Vanessa Davidson, Joe Lampe Curator of Latin American Art. For Juanito, Berni used metals from the shantytowns where he would have lived, along with woods and textiles. Ramona was detailed with costume jewelry and lace.
The characters are national icons throughout Argentina, said Michael Wellen, Assistant Curator of Latin American and Latino Art at Museum of Fine Arts Houston. They are rooted to Buenos Aires and realities there. However, Wellen said people from around the world have been able to connect to Juanito and Ramona’s problems.
In every piece, Juanito’s physical traits are different. His common name and differing looks are meant connect the viewer to this boy, Wellen said.
Berni’s wood blocks are unlike any other. They hang on the stark white walls, carved and layered with materials. Fabrics and metals are adhered to the wood, creating an entirely new art form.
Wood block is the means by which a print can be made; it is not usually considered the work of art. However, in Berni’s work, there is always a wooden base with collaged materials from the city, Wellen said.
Hanging next to the blocks of wood are the prints that go with them. Berni found a new way to create these wood block prints, which included making his own paper and at times hand painting the prints.
Berni’s artwork, consisting of paintings, assemblages and wood block prints, give social comment with an air of whimsy and humor, Ballinger said.
The exhibition is a tribute to Berni, to Ramona and Juanito. Walking through the exhibit, there is a sense of kinship with these two characters. One can find him or herself in these youths, regardless of social standing or background. Juanito and Ramona had hopes, dreams and fears – which can be felt in every piece.
The assemblages are dirty and worn, yet beautiful in their own right. Each piece adds another layer to a world unseen by many. While the lives of Ramona and Juanito are based almost 50 years ago, they still hold true and not just in Buenos Aires, but in communities around the world.
Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona will be at the Phoenix Art Museum until September 21, before moving on to Buenos Aires, Argentina.