Painter of mysteries and metaphors: Mexican-born artist Roberto Marquez provides new perspectives on life's often dark horizons, while defying definition.

Author:Bach, Caleb

How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! She is become as a widow, that was great among nations! She that was a princess among the provinces is become tributary She weepeth sore in the night and her tears come on her cheeks Among all her lovers she has none to comfort her All her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they are become her enemies In 1997, these opening lines from the Lamentations of Jeremiah inspired artist Roberto Marquez as he observed New York City across the Hudson River from his home in New Jersey. In his painting of the Manhattan skyline, skyscrapers glow against a night sky filled with fireworks, but something is amiss: the top of one tall building appears to explode like a volcano, while the artist himself, clothed, seeks refuge in the river, where he treads water. Painted on his forehead are the words el viudo (the widower), and across the bottom of the canvas, inverted, reads the word AMERIKA. Subliminally, the earlier, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center may have triggered the image, but it seems a premonition of disaster had been haunting the artist for sometime. In 1990 he executed a similar cityscape called Augurio (Prediction). He had just arrived in the New York area and, feeling uneasy, he chose to depict himself bundled up in an overcoat on a snowy morning waving his hand as if greeting his new surroundings while also saying farewell to his past. Most disconcerting, though, is the mirrored text he wrote across the top of the canvas: (The day will come when nothing remains of this painting and that which is represented here ... so it is.).

The alienating and sinister aspects of urban life doubtless was a partial impulse for both paintings, but since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the two images have taken on a specific meaning for all who see them. As to the curious confluence of happenstance, Marquez shakes his head nervously and says, "It's very strange. I've not been able to make sense of it, although I have reflected on it countless times since that terrible day. All I know is that I did the paintings because that is the view of the towers we saw from the New Jersey side of the river when my wife, Ana, and I first arrived. Every time I exited our apartment by the river I would see them and use them to navigate the city because I was still learning my way around. I came to feel a personal affiliation with them and began using them as a marker in paintings about stages of my own life. Although they are gone, as an act of closure, I am doing this new canvas," he says pointing toward an easel at one end of his studio. "It's called The Riddle of St. Anthony. Amid the fog the twin towers have become ghosts. It is impossible to know why it all happened, hence the opening in the ground, a reference to an episode from the legend of Saint Anthony. You will recall that while pondering the nature of the Trinity he met up with the Christ Child who told him it would be easier to fit all the oceans of the world into a hole than to understand that divine mystery."

Marquez, a shy, private individual, lives in relative anonymity on a quiet side street in Weehawken. The nondescript row house in which he lives offers no hint of its inner treasures: neither the paintings he conjures with remarkable inventiveness nor his enormous library of books and collection of musical recordings that ultimately are the source for most of his ideas. Solitary by nature, he spends hours mining these resources in search of clues suggestive of hidden veins of truth. His taste tends toward the arcane, obscure, and archaic. From a sweeping awareness of many disciplines he extracts those elements he believes he can combine in unexpected ways to offer in his paintings new insights regarding life's challenges. He does not offer easy answers; more often he poses questions. In that sense he is much more a maker of mysteries.

His paintings abound in literary allusions and visual metaphors, and it is in that context that he prefers to discuss the process: "At times I have tried to write but not very successfully. Regardless I love poetry, and I always try to emulate the sorts of metaphors you find in poetry: the supposition of two different realities to create a third--something completely new. Usually I start with a small sketch from which I do the layout directly on the canvas. A criticism I make of my own work is that it is not spontaneous. It is entirely preplanned. By the time I start actually painting, the outcome is mostly resolved. Rarely do I make major changes."

Some of Marquez's earliest paintings possess a dreamlike quality reminiscent of the imagery of Giorgio de Chirico--for example, Debilidad de la noche (1986), inspired by lines from a Michelangelo sonnet, or Urban Stories (1988), in which the protagonist ponders a cluster of metaphysical structures. But Marquez's flirtation...

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