By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Rubén Orozco, a Mexican hyperrealist artist, recently caused an international sensation with his latest installation, Bihar: Choosing Tomorrow. Bihar sends chills down your spine as you look at the head of a girl, eyes staring into the sky, placidly drowning in the River Nervión in Bilbao, Spain. The installation, created by Orozco and his co-artist Clara Inés Alcántara Dávalos, is an over 260-pound sculpture created from fiberglass and resin and embedded in underwater concrete and iron. The girl is submerged daily by the river tides. According to the BKK Foundation that sponsored this extraordinary artwork, Bihar is a plea for a sustainable future, “An expression of expectation for the decisions that we will make and that will determine if we live sunk or stick our heads out.”
Although Orozco has won international fame, acclaim and notoriety, he is a true Tapatío. Born in Guadalajara in 1979, his formal education took place in that city. He attended the University of Guadalajara majoring in visual arts. At age 27 he was awarded the State of Jalisco Prize for Youth. More recently he was given an honorable mention for the Juan Soriano Sculpture Award, named after the famed artist who was also a Tapatío. And he was selected to provide the city with a sculpture of Rita Pérez de Moreno, one of the heroes of the revolution; the statue was installed in Guadalajara near the Rotonda de Jaliscienses Ilustres in 2010 on the 149th anniversary of her death.
Orozco was born in the same decade (the 1970s) as hyperrealistic art first began to appear in art galleries. Drawing its roots from hyperrealistic photography, the art form in its earliest stages often reproduced photos of commonplace, everyday settings such as city streets, emphasizing details, such as gutter trash, that realistic artists ignored and romantic artists rejected. Orozco often draws from photos of celebrities to sculpt both his larger-than-life figures and his smaller sculptures. But his renditions incorporate, in many of his sculptures of men, a myriad of minute imperfections that are naturally occurring over time in humans. His sculptures that are larger than life size and small sculptures of women tend to portray hyper realistic beauty with each strand of hair (often real hair) in place, each eye lash long and perfectly aligned and each eyebrow consisting of perfectly symmetrical filaments. For one example, his bust of the actor and later princess, Grace Kelly, appears to radiate perfection.
The media used by Orozco vary from sculpture to sculpture, seemingly dependent on the tonal quality and emotions he is striving to evoke. Clay, wood, latex, resin, plasticine, and silicone are among the materials he uses to construct, shape and finish his works. The hyper attention to minute detail requires hours of painstaking labor. Even the smallest sculpture commonly requires close to two months of working 12 hours a day.
The work that goes into Orozco’s sculptures has been recorded in a series of videos that are available on Instagram and YouTube. It is fascinating to watch the process of his creations – including the Bihar installation from initial stage to final placement in the river. The videos allow one to witness how a slight adjustment, such as a minuscule change in the position of an eye, can radically change the overall appearance of a sculptured face.
Many of his works replicate the appearance of people who have achieved extreme international celebrity status including Frida Kahlo, Pope Francis, and David Bowie. Among his works are a sculpture of a fellow artist from Guadalajara, Guillermo del Toro, the film director, from who won four Oscars including those for The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth. He also captured the likeness of the great Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco, probably not related to Ruben through familial descent, but definitely related in dedication to depicting reality through a large lens.
Although some people have found the works of Ruben Orozco to be “eerie” in their verisimilitude, to Orozco the detail of representation is just a way of providing insights into human nature. In an interview with Microsoft News he said, “The most important detail of my work is not the portrait but capturing the essence of being. I want people to reflect on the greatness of being human despite the adversities.”
One of his most touching sculptures is not of a celebrity but rather a young African American child. The boy’s stance and expression indicate vulnerability. Yet he is carrying a sign advocating for humane actions. He literally stands for the causes that Orozco is attempting to promote: peace, human rights, and a sustainable world.