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The Multihued Fantasy Of Mexican Wood Carvings

THESE brightly painted wood carvings of a cat and a turkey are startling and unabashed. They are - to comparatively sophisticated eyes familiar with "civilized art" - not really art at all. Made by peasant villagers in Oaxaca in Mexico, they fall into a category of objects no serious art collector would even momentarily consider worthwhile: folk art for tourists.

Yet these cheerful, oddly touching carvings are fine examples of works avidly collected by Americans - some knowing, some enthusiastic. In the 1980s particularly, the demands of these collectors and the willingness of the carvers to please and sell to them led to a boom.

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In a somewhat unconventional art book, freelance journalist Shepard Barbash and his wife, photographer Vicki Ragan, celebrate Oaxacan woodcarving. This paperback is more modestly priced, in spite of many full color plates, than most art books. The way the great variety of carvings - from cats and turkeys to mermaids and reading frogs and angels and fully clothed dancing chickens - are presented is populist rather than elitist, with fanciful backgrounds as well as plain brightly colored ones. This is in t une with the naivete and unselfconscious lack of aesthetic distinction typical of the carvings themselves.

Barbash never pretends he is talking about great art. But the playful, vigorous bits of whittled and painted wood are packed with the energy, imagination, idiosyncracy, and lack of pretension that many 20th-century artists have envied in unsophisticated primitives and wanted to infuse into their own work.

If these poor peasant carvers are basically commercial in their motivation, who is going to blame them? Many respected "high artists" have had good heads for figures.

Without any long tradition for carving, the largely male carvers of Oaxaca today, are, according to Barbash, "just ... relentlessly creative and uninhibited. They don't have any self-consciousness or fear."

It is mainly the women who paint the carvings. While the carvers aim for reality and naturalism, the painters aim for multihued fantasy and over-the-top delight. One painter quoted explains: "Live animals look beautiful because, well, they are alive. Wooden animals painted the same way would just look sad. You can't compete with nature, so why bother? Better to use other colors."

Barbash adds in an interview: "Maybe nature is not enough for them, not loud and bright enough. Look at the way they paint their houses." He reckons that perhaps "there's nothing special about nature to them" so they "want to transcend it."

But most of the carvers, though they know what they want to carve and how, have little to say about their work. Their collectors' tastes often puzzle them. Buyers go for their crudest attempts sometimes, and don't always like their carvings as they "get better." But the cat and turkey show, nevertheless, admirable observation and skill as well as primitive childlike instinct.

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* `Oaxacan Wood Carving: The Magic in Trees' by Shepard Barbash (photographs by Vicki Ragan) is published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco. It sells for $17.95 in paperback, $27.50 in hardcover.

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