LOS ANGELES — Here, in the United States, piñatas are most commonly considered a fun, slightly violent activity at children’s birthday parties. A hollow papier-mâché form is filled with candy and small toys and then playfully bashed by partygoers with a stick or baseball bat, until it spews forth the contents to cheers and a mad scramble for treats.
But wait! Get behind me, Satan! It turns out that the playful piñata — which has a long and culturally diverse history that includes roots in China, by way of Italy (perhaps disseminated by Marco Polo) — is an object lesson in beating down sin and temptation. The traditional seven-point star piñata is a Mexican Catholic interpretation, with each point representing one of the seven deadly sins. Fun at parties!
How appropriate, then, that Los Angeles-based artist Roberto Benavidez has made wild, larger-than-life representations from the Hieronymus Bosch painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” in piñata form.
“Sin is inherent in both the Bosch painting and the piñata, so to me it was a perfect pairing,” said Benavidez, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “I like that my work is a blend of both Mexican and European art forms, which in a way represents who I am. Plus, I have always admired and gravitated towards old painting techniques. The oddness of the creatures and people, the odd perspective — they were captivating. As a sculptor, the challenge of taking these odd 2D forms and recreating [them] into 3D is the most fulfilling challenge for me right now.”
Benavidez has an interdisciplinary practice that includes sculpture, photography, and print work, but has experimented extensively with piñatas as a medium, including a collection of “Sugar Skull Piñatas” and a set of “Painting Piñatas,” in which he renders landscapes out of his own handcrafted version of the cheap paper fringe found on piñatas.
“The painting piñatas are predominately vessels as well,” said Benavidez. “These were inspired by the layering of the crêpe paper when fringing the 3-D forms and realizing how similar it was to blending and layering colors with paint, although a bit more limiting … I love the absurdity of taking the cheapest and most unimaginative form of the piñata and putting hours of such meticulous fringe work into it.”
The Bosch piñatas stand out among Benavidez’s works for their scale, weirdness, and ability to satisfy a latent desire to see some of the fantastical and terrible creatures from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” realized in more dimensional terms. Piñatas are a visceral medium, precisely because our foundational understanding of their function leads us to imagine beating and breaking them apart with sticks — although the artist has, to date, stopped short of destroying any of his fantastic creations.
“It is seldom the intent to use the piñata in a conventional sense,” said Benavidez. “I am making them to be sculpture. However, I love the tension of the idea of destroying one of these creations. I am toying using the large, black bird as a performative piece when I show these as a grouping. What I fill it with will only be known when it comes spilling out.”
Perhaps not fit for children, it’s nonetheless endlessly amusing to imagine what unholy favors Benavidez’s piñatas might deliver for the guests of a Bosch-themed bacchanal.
See more of Roberto Benavidez’s “Hieronymous Bosch Piñatas” here.