San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tico art innovator exhibits life’s work

Whether showing people a wild reflection painted into a map of Central America or making them gaze down on a room within a room, the work of Costa Rican artist Otto Apuy pushes the boundaries of self-reflection and imagination.

A leader and innovator of modern artistic expression in Costa Rica, Apuy is a pioneer in visual media. His paintings, sculptures, drawings and multimedia works grab the attention of a spectator and do not let go. An exhibit of his life’s work, “Otto Apuy: Trayecto 1974-2011,” is now on display at the Costa Rican Art Museum in San José.

“I like to shock people,” Apuy says, pointing to a group of his early paintings from the 1970s. “I like for my work to make people think about, compare and question aspects of their lives and surroundings.”

The exhibit includes pieces Apuy created before he was recognized as one of the country’s leading artistic forces. His early work consists of a series of abstract still lifes and portraits. Pieces like “La Princesa Negra” (1965) and “Bodegón” (1967) are emblematic of this more abstract style. Apuy’s professional career started in 1974 with help from the Costa Rican government, during a time when the state, like never before, aided local artists, he says.

Although Apuy studied journalism and communication at the University of Costa Rica, in 1974 he received a grant to study art in Barcelona. It was during his time in Spain that Apuy began to experiment with video art and with pieces that addressed broader social issues.

During the late ’70s and early ’80s, Apuy helped introduce the idea of conceptual art to Costa Rica. In the ’60s and early ’70s, art culture in Costa Rica was viewed as conformist, static and inactive. Apuy writes that the city of San José itself was essentially a cultural nothing. His work in the late ’70s and ’80s pushed the boundaries of self-reflection and added a unique style to art in Costa Rica. His piece “Self” (1985) shows a startling, phantom-like figure running a finger along a map of Central America.

“In this piece the subject is tracing an outline of itself it sees in a map,” Apuy says. “The figure identifies with the region and can see part of itself reflected in the problems that were going on in Central America during the 1980s.”

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Detail of “La Diosa de los Viajes.”

Jessica Phelps

On his return from Spain, Apuy went back to his roots, exploring his origins in Cañas, in northwestern Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province, in his work. He began incorporating elements as identifiable as bamboo, gourds and cooking pots in his work, as well as references to his Chinese ancestry.

One of Apuy’s largest, most dramatic artistic creations – unfortunately not on display at the exhibit – is the Iglesia de Cañas. Apuy covered the massive church in his hometown with more than 1 million pieces of mosaic glass tiles. To this day, Apuy says he gets calls from friends in Cañas about famous visitors who come specifically to the area to see the work he did on the church.

“I’ve gotten calls from friends about U.S. celebrities coming to see the church,” he says, mentioning both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.

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“Iniciación Maya” plays with texture and 3-D

Jessica Phelps

One of the largest pieces on display at the exhibit is “Estética de la destrucción” (2011). This dramatic piece is an interpretation of a fire in a dry tropical forest, such as those found in Apuy’s native Guanacaste. Despite the destructive nature of such an event, the work focuses on the strange beauty and esthetic value a forest fire creates. Apuy also has a video set up at the gallery that shows how the piece was made.

“I used charcoal, gasoline and dry tropical wood to recreate the esthetics of a forest fire,” he says.

Apuy’s use of video and other media is the true strength of his creative prowess. Much of his artwork is designed to draw viewers in and make them interact with a piece.

His video “La gotería” uses common elements that many Costa Ricans can easily identify with, mainly coffee and water, to make viewers question the simple elements around them and also their own lives.

“I work with elements that create identity, that create reflection about who you are,” he says. “What is the meaning around you, the coffee, the rain, life – that is the idea of the artwork in the video.”

“Otto Apuy: Trayecto 1974-2011” illustrates the place this artist holds in Costa Rican art history as a leader and innovator. The exhibit will run through the end of the year at the Costa Rican Art Museum on the east side of La Sabana Park. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free.

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