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Primo Primitive 

Cecilia Mattos' colorful work celebrates the basics

The work of Uruguayan artist Cecilia Mattos, currently on exhibit throughout June at the Blue Pony Gallery in NoDa, is primitively surreal: a mix of papier mache and drab-colored sculptures painted in oil (drab in the sense of intensity, not visual impact) that capture scenes of life in her native country.Born in Montevideo, Mattos spent most of her childhood in the countryside. As a teen she discovered her passion for the arts, eventually leaving Uruguay to attend college in Merced, California.

By the mid-1980s, she returned to South America, this time settling in Buenos Aires, where she continued to study various visual techniques. Just over 10 years ago she returned to her hometown, where she began to explore the possibilities of sculptural techniques with papier mache.

I had a chance to speak with Mattos briefly while she was preparing for her exhibit at Blue Pony. She is staying with a friend in Charlotte's Elizabeth neighborhood, another South American woman who is clearly a fan of the continent's art. It covers the wall of her townhouse apartment.

"You can tell what country in South America the work is from," Mattos says in somewhat halting English, "by the way the colors look. That work over there," she points to a brightly colored blue and silver painting hung in the living room's corner, "is by a Uruguayan artist. But she spent a great deal of time in Brazil. That's why she likes to use the bright colors. You never see work by many Uruguayans that are so vibrant."

Mattos is still relatively unknown in the United States, but internationally her work has been seen in more than 30 group exhibitions and in four international biennales held in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Her creations are part of several public and private collections in France, China, Venezuela, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and, more recently, the United States.

The Blue Pony exhibit consists of sculptures and scenes inspired by the paintings of Pedro Figari. The similarities between Mattos's sculptures and Figari's paintings are striking, though not imitative.

Like Figari, Mattos's creations are primitive and almost otherworldly, though immediately identifiable as representation of a culturally rich, yet economically deprived South American life. Mattos fashions dense subject matters, like Figari, focusing mainly on the black men and women of Montevideo.

Bits and piece of her work are spread out around her friend's apartment in particularly unusual places. Some are placed haphazardly underneath a television cabinet, while others are atop the TV and still more are in a bag lying in the hallway to the kitchen.

"We had to put my art out of the way because the cats kept trying to play with it," she chuckles.

A chubby white cat with blue eyes ambles down the stairs and stops to sniff one of Mattos's sculptures, as the host shoos the feline away. Mattos digs through a black dufflebag and pulls out a papier mache sculpture of a horse, and then a man.

"Feel them," she says. I toss one carefully back in forth in my hands, amazed at the lack of weight.

"They are very light," she says. "Just paint and papier mache."

Amazing that one can capture something so dramatic in material that could so easily be blown away by a mere light breeze.

A picture box work Mattos has on hand shows a group of men and women congregating outside a simple structure. One man is seated, playing a bongo while a heavyset woman leans forward above him, gossiping with two other women who are leaning against the wall behind Mr. Bongo.

To the right of the box, two other women seem to be reacting with bemusement at the sight of a top-hatted man in a tailcoat, who appears to be dancing about to the rhythm of the bongos. In the center is a woman who is calmly overseeing, but not participating in, the events.

"They tell their own story," she offers. "As I shape them, I feel Figari almost observing their pranks. After covering the pasteboard with brush strokes of color, it is as though glances of complicity appear between them. I am like a girl standing by the door, contemplating the stage of life."

For more info, contact Blue Pony Gallery & Press, 3202 N Davidson St., 704-334-9390.

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