Feliciano Centurión: Abrigo at the Americas Society presents work made by the queer, Paraguayan-born artist in the last six years of his life, from 1990 — two years prior to his HIV diagnosis — to 1996, when he died from AIDS-related complications at the age of 34. Gravitating toward soft fabrics, the artist embroidered and painted cheap blankets, tablecloths, pillowcases, handkerchiefs, and aprons, making work ranging from vibrant frazada paintings of flora and fauna to aphoristic or diaristic texts embroidered on pillows. Intertwining local folk-art traditions with mass-produced materials, Centurión pioneered a decorative, kitschy, feminized, and decidedly queer aesthetic.
The show opens with some of Centurión’s most explosively joyful works: paintings of subtropical animals on patterned blankets from the fabric district of Buenos Aires, where he relocated in the early 1980s to make art in a less repressive environment. An oversize purple acrylic octopus overtakes its decorative cloth backdrop with a flourish of tentacles; five jellyfish with crocheted doilies at their centers bob in striped green and white fabric. In their large scale, brilliant coloring, and cheekily clashing patterns, these frazada paintings are exercises in exuberance. Underlying that exuberance, however, is a certain tenderness: blankets, like the other domestic textiles that Centurión appropriated, lay close to the body, comforting, sheltering, and embracing it. They are soft, yet emotionally charged objects.
As the viewer proceeds through the show, Centurión’s dexterous embroideries come to the fore. The artist grew up in a country that was still being rebuilt by women after the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–70) wiped out 90% of the male population. As a child, Centurión gravitated toward domestic handicrafts that he learned from his grandmother such as knitting, crocheting, and embroidering. His work incorporates and celebrates this feminized labor: embroidered flowers, birds, decorative patterns, and cursive texts blossom across tablecloths and aprons. Recognizing that these crafts were tied up in local histories and communities, Centurión sometimes sought out female relatives to make ñandutí doilies for his works, a traditional Paraguayan lace influenced by the aesthetics of Spanish colonizers.
Particularly in his later years as he became bedridden, Centurión used his needles to meticulously embroider short texts or single words onto pillows and small blankets. Intimate, confessional, and sometimes heartbreaking, his words are those of an increasingly sick man with no cure in sight. “Mis globulos rojos aumentan (My red blood cell count increases),” reads one piece with a buoyant yellow trim. “Soy alma en pena (I am a soul in pain),” says another. Three pillows from 1996 simply read “Reposa (Rest)”, “Soledad (Solitude)”, and “Sueña (Dream)”: a tranquil reprieve.
Abrigo is Centurión’s first solo show in the United States. His work only began to gain international attention in 2018, when it was exhibited at the São Paulo Bienal. Centurión was a member of a tight-knit group of countercultural artists who exhibited at the Rojas Cultural Center at the public university in Buenos Aires. The Rojas artists appropriated kitschy mass-produced materials — typically made locally but intended for global consumption — and piled on ornament, often ironically. The art critics who dismissed the group’s work as “light,” relegating it to art history’s peripheries, may have allowed stigma to muddy their assessment: many of the Rojas members were openly gay men who ultimately died from AIDS or AIDS-related complications at a time when the disease was called the “gay plague.” Kitsch, for all its levity, can carry some real weight, and it is high time that Centurión got his due.
Feliciano Centurión: Abrigo continues by appointment through November 20 at the Americas Society Art Gallery (680 Park Ave, Manhattan, New York). Americas Society has also made Abrazo Íntimo al Natural, a feature-length documentary about the artist, available here.
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