A career-making month: Lincoln’s Francisco Souto gets international drawing prize and national survey

Last month, Francisco Souto flew to Italy to see some of his drawings that were in the XII Florence Biennale.

Souto was one of 484 artists from 76 countries to have work in the Spadolini Pavilion at the Fortezza da Basso, a Renaissance masterpiece of military architecture where the invitational contemporary art exhibition is held every two years.

“You go in this massive, massive gallery — it’s like a football stadium kind of thing,” Souto said. “You see all kinds of things, really loud pieces, smaller ones, mediocre ones. People doing performance everywhere, videos. It’s every kind of artwork in one giant space. Then, they have the gala, and, the next day, you go back for the awards.”

The awards were determined by an international jury, with members from Brazil, China, Japan, Mexico, Italy and the U.S.

“They deliberate on all the pieces; there were hundreds and hundreds of works,” Souto said. “Nobody has any idea who’s going to win. They announced my name. I was shocked.”

Souto had won the Lorenzo il Magnifico Award for works on paper, one of the top prizes in the category that includes drawings, calligraphy and print.

He won it for “Little Bird,” one of four colored-pencil drawings from his 2018 body of work titled “Dicotomias” (Dichotomies). ”Dicotomias” was the second series of drawings Souto has created in response to the political and economic strife in his native Venezuela. Drawings from his third series, “Diaspora,” are on view at Kiechel Fine Art through Nov. 22.

The “Little Bird” is a symbolic piece. Its flies represent the Venezuelan government, and the bird symbolizes Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, who had used an imaginary bird to stand in for his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in his speeches. Souto said last year, he wanted that bird to be dead.

“The juror from Spain said the great thing about the work I was presenting is that you go through this massive, overwhelming experience and then see your work, and you can either dismiss it because it’s not loud enough or say there’s something here I need to pay attention to,” Souto said. “Then she said, once you pay attention to it, the work engulfs you. Then, all of a sudden, you’re immersed in it and ignore everything else.

“I said, ‘You know what? I’m so glad you’re paying attention to that, because that’s the message. I’m screaming with a soft voice in a way, because the content is pretty strong. But I’m not going to scream like everybody else is doing.’”

Winning the prize instantly kicked Souto’s career up a notch or two, particularly in Europe.

“As soon as you get the award, you have people contacting you, galleries in Germany and Italy,” he said. “All of a sudden, I had to really think about choosing who I want to go with. There were hundreds of people who saw the show. It was on the web, and the catalog got distributed throughout Europe.”

Last week, Souto’s career took another jump when it was announced that he was one of 60 artists selected for “State of the Art 2020,” the second national survey exhibition to be held at Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum of Art and its new contemporary art space, The Momentary.

Earlier Souto, the director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Art, Art History and Design, received an email asking for a studio visit the next day — one of more than 800 such visits the Crystal Bridges museum curator and director would conduct to select artists for the show.

“He came in and said, ‘And I’m going in and see the work first, and if I’m interested, we’ll talk about it. If not, thanks, and I’m out,’” Souto said. “Two or three minutes later, he said we need to talk about this. We talked for maybe an hour.

“I said, ‘What’s your plan?’ He said, ‘I cannot tell you; everything’s confidential. You may hear from me, you may not. Nice meeting you.’ Then, two, three months later, the whole thing happened.”

The piece that will be shown at Crystal Bridges is “Long Food Line,” a panoramic graphite drawing of 94 people standing in line for a food handout, guarded by a soldier. It comes from the collection of Kathy and Marc LeBaron.

“It’s the strife of his country he put down on paper, and just all the emotion behind it,” Kathy LeBaron said of the drawing. “It is so detailed. The hours he puts into his pieces and the amount of physicalness, you don’t really see it until you watch him doing it. It is so intense.

“He’s a huge talent. We’re lucky to have him at the university. … We’re very pleased our piece was selected to be in the show.”

Like its 2014 predecessor, “State of the Art 2020,” which opens Feb. 22 and runs through May, will be seen by a good portion of the 500,000 people who annually visit the Bentonville, Arkansas, museum — the 2014 version had 175,000 viewers. Then, it will travel to multiple venues for two years.

“I know from many people who have been in the previous version that, after that, their careers bloomed,” Souto said. “You know Vanessa German; she was in that previous version. That was the show that she participated in five years ago that, after that, her career took off. I know other people who say the same thing. You never know what’s going to happen, but it’s very exciting.”

In fact, Souto said, the Crystal Bridges show could be even bigger for him than winning the Florence Biennale prize.

“This is a different kind of recognition,” he said. “The international is pretty awesome. But this one, competing with everybody else, they were interviewing people and now my name’s in the hat — that’s exciting, man.

“If I would have continued in printmaking, I don’t know if I would have reached this level. I would have stayed in that subculture of printmaking. … You can excel there, but you’re still there. When you go to drawing, then you’re in the big leagues.”

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