Nahuel Vecino and Guido Pierri at Cobra

This past Thursday evening I won the Buenos Aires art-opening lottery: I hit one amazing show, and stumbled into another one that may not have impressed me much on the art front but was more of a party than an ‘inauguration,’ with a DJ and–a first!–individual bottles of Stella Artois. I’ve already written about the former (as has Juanele’s Gabi Schevach–check it out); now it’s time, as I explained on Juanele’s blog, to set aside serious thoughts and enjoy the party half:

It wouldn’t be hard to find something serious to say about the dozens of disembodied young boys’ heads that Nahuel Vecino has hanging around the subterranean Cobra gallery. Nor would it be a stretch to spin elaborate theories about the science-experiment-meets-occult-practice-meets-teenage-basement-bedroom-decorations that Guido Pierri contributed to the space. Both of these tasks would be even easier in light of the two-artist show’s title, Incesante mutacion del río noche (“Incessant Mutation of Night River”) — strange but serious-sounding and oh-so-mysterious, it practically begs for some blog-based bloviating.

But I won’t attempt any of these things. Not because the show isn’t ‘good’ art (who am I to say?), but because Vecino’s paintings and Pierri’s objects — inspired, the artist says, by nine months near the Arctic Circle in Sweden — just didn’t hook me. Though his mass of bloody heads, some with eyes open and looking right at me, didn’t break through, there was one work by Vecino I did enjoy: a chalky reclining nude, surrounded by a marinescape of conch shells and sexualized plants and set bizarrely against a desolate plain straight out of Chaco or West Texas. It managed to strikes notes naive, lush, barren, and a little bit twisted, all at the same time.

More than the art, though, it was the unexpected spectacle of the night that made my visit memorable. I had never been to Cobra before, and although the gallery’s entrance was all but hidden (it’s an unmarked rectangle cut into a wooden facade), it was easy to spot, given the club-sized crowd smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk out front.

Through the door and down a flight of stairs, I found myself in a cavernous, multilevel basement space much larger than I had imagined. Beside the stairs was an alcove bar dispensing individual glass bottles of Stella along with the usual red wine. The soaring main gallery itself was one of the more unusual art spaces I’ve seen. Its concrete floor was inset with elongated off-white lights, and the rounded edges of its recessed ceilings and the glass edging of its DJ-occupied mezzanine produced an effect somewhere between late ’60s university library and mid-2000s European dance club. The blaring electropop went better with the beer in my hand than the bleeding heads on the walls, but no matter — this was a party, and I wasn’t about to ruin it by thinking too hard.

Camilo Guinot at Ro

I was surprised to fall completely in love with a sculpture this past Thursday evening, especially one made entirely of matches. From Juanele’s blog:

From the moment I stepped past the dog perched oddly on the threshold of Ro Galería de Arte yesterday evening, I knew I was glad I had come. Directly in front of me, in the very center of the room, was one of the most attention-grabbing sculptures I’ve seen in a long time, a flower/vortex/very private place made entirely of matches. True to form for a cone made half out of phosphorous, it sucked up all the oxygen in the room—and I couldn’t turn away.

Object of my fascination, this untitled match sculpture was also the incontestable centerpiece of Camilo Guinot’s show, móvil recurrente (“recurring mobile”), which opened at Ro last night with plans to run through November 14. It’s a layered, conical zig-zag of Dos Patos-brand matches arranged in pointy rows, their tips painted in a lipstick-like rainbow of reds and pinks. And it was assembled painstakingly by hand, a breathtaking work of craftsmanship built “less from matches than from infinite patience,” as Verónica Gómez’s uncommonly helpful wall text explains. Lost in its ridges, drawn to its point of convergence (equal parts sensual and grotesque), I imagined Georgia O’Keeffe, nearly a century after Red Canna, here in Ro, the faintest of smiles on her face.

Nearly as impressive as the match-flower itself was the show’s total coherence. Sketches, photographs, a notebook filled with tiny clumps of the fuzz that collects in your belly button, and video lined the wall. Among these works, one image—a photograph of dozens of red, waxen planes converging on an oven—stood out from a distance, bold and surreal. Sensibly for a show labeled recurrente, this untitled photograph made reference—in ways both subtle and superficial—to the works surrounding it. The red of its wax planes and their convergence on one central point hearkened to the sculpture just feed away. Wax surfaced again in another of the photographs against the back wall, this one depicting a smooth red triangle melting against a concrete curb. A third showed a belly-button-fuzz-like mass caught among power lines. The whole show had all been arranged as carefully as the matches themselves.

It was easier to leave Ro than to enter; by the time I was ready to go, the dog and its owner were long-gone. It was later than I had planned; I had lost myself in a bloom of matches.

MALBA Turns Ten

Malba, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, celebrated its tenth anniversary a few weeks ago with a wine-soaked tripple whammy of an inauguration. Here’s an entry I wrote about it on Juanele’s blog:

The first thing to catch my eye at this past Wednesday’s three-in-one, 10th-anniversary Malba extravaganza wasn’t the glam crowd spilling out from the lobby, nor the twisty-twirly tile number Nushi Muntaabski had done on what used to be the museum’s front-yard fountain — it was the mountain of wineglasses and champagne flutes, some half-full but most bone-dry, that had turned the admissions desk into the strangest centerpiece I had ever seen. The moral of this story: When Malba celebrates its 10th birthday by opening three new exhibits at once, people come — and they drink.

But Wednesday night was about much more than wine — at least for those visitors who ventured beyond the crowded-as-a-cattle-car lobby to the discordantly underpopulated galleries upstairs. In addition to Muntaabski’s plaza — seen publicly for the first time that night — Malba was inaugurating two new shows — a reinstallation of its permanent collection, interspersed with works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and El color en el espacio y en el tiempo (Color in Space and Time), a blockbuster Carlos Cruz-Diez retrospective.

The permanent collection will retain its current arrangement through February 6, 2012, when the works on loan will be sent back to Houston. Organized chronologically, the show is an informative introduction to 20th Century Latin American art, and it’s rich in highlights, including  Tarsila do Amaral‘s wonderful Abaporu, prints by  Xul Solar, a pleasant cubist portrait by  Diego Rivera, and, of course, familiar attention-grabbing canvases by  Frida Kahlo and  Fernando Botero. The Houston additions — particularly  David Alfaro Siqueiros‘ hauntingly titled Concentración (Cabeza de niño) – do help to shake things up a bit, as does the installation’s open layout. Still, regular visitors who had been expecting dramatic change are likely to be disappointed; nether the selection nor the arrangement differ much from the permanent collection’s previous incarnation.

The Cruz-Diez show, in contrast, is just too cool. I won’t say much, as Cruz-Diez more than warrants his own (surely forthcoming) review. I’ll simply note that the exhibition, which does almost magically precise things with color and light, runs through March 5, 2012. You should see it. And given that admission to the museum is free through September 30th, there’s no better time than this week.

MARDER Festival

A sign of just how busy I’ve been lately–I went to an awesome young artists’ festival at Centro Cultural San Martín nearly three weeks ago, I blogged about it for Juanele, and I still haven’t linked to it on the blog. It was certainly unique enough to merit a mention. Here’s what I wrote, along with some teaser photographs by Juanele photographer Andy Donohue (there are a bunch more on Juanele and on his very good blog):

Saturday’s MARDER festival at Centro Cultural San Martín was a chaotic mix of young artists painting on giant canvases, young musicians improvising in ad hoc groups, young visitors drawing on paper at shared tables — it was, in other words, a lot of young people making art, and a lot of fun. The “first art festival in real time,” the event was the largest-scale production yet by MARDER, a group of artists and musicians that formed to coordinate “artistic experiences” in  Mar del Plata and Buenos Aires.

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the whole “art festival in real time” claim, but the event’s uncynical enthusiasm quickly won me over. With members of a bunch of different bands jamming together in rotating sets and hip-looking 20-somethings making impromptu art all over the place as a giant countdown clock counted away MARDER’s remaining minutes, the festival seethed with raw energy, and the crowd was loving it. That a big group of young people can get a grant and fill a major cultural center to bursting with collaborative, public, almost anarchic art — it’s just another reason why Buenos Aires is such a cool place to be.

Horacio Zabala at 11×7

At the recent opening of Horacio Zabala’s excellent show, Otras cartografías / Obras 1972 -1975 (Other Maps / Works 1972 – 1975), I learned that I am, in fact, still a wimp–at least when it comes to approaching famous artists I’ve long wanted to interview. Here’s what I wrote about it for Juanele:

I’m a cartophile. I can lose myself for hours on Google Maps, and my bedroom walls are papered with schematics of some of the places I love most. Maybe Horacio Zabala’s are, too. At the very least, the pieces featured in 11×7’s exhibit of his work, Otras cartografías / Obras 1972 -1975 (Other Maps / Works 1972 – 1975), make it clear that Zabala has both something to say and the tools to say it cartographically.

The opening itself was a cultural experience, its onda quite a departure from the typical vibe at the edgier, less-establishment galleries where I most often find myself. That much I could have concluded from the neighborhood alone. Half a block from Patio Bullrich (where one can spend 100 pesos on two coffees and an apple bar, as I discovered firsthand one pecuniarily painful afternoon), 11×7’s located smack at the epicenter of porteño Old Money.

Marta amid the maps

Sure enough, past the tuxedoed waiter with a tray of wineglasses balanced on one palm, the gallery was packed nearly wall-to-wall with the exquisitely dressed and the important-looking. Even Marta Minujín was there, her Andy-Warhol-blond hair and giant sunglasses all-but-impossible to ignore. (I desperately wanted to talk to her, but, seeing no break in her conversation, I wimped out.)

With the gallery so crowded—and the majority of the patrons deep in conversation right in front of the art—it took some maneuvering to see the works themselves. When I did manage to squeeze my way to the front, though, I was like a kid in a candy shop; the very sight of such well-crafted and well-conceived cartography had me smiling broadly.

No doubt, Zabala’s works could be read on a political level; it’s hard not to hear political overtones in a series of Argentine maps, layered one atop the other, each with a larger hole burned into its center than the one below—especially one like Seis imagenes del fragmento 30, created as the country was tearing itself apart in 1973.Visually devouring the works, however, I was struck most not by Zabala’s message but by his precision, by the mastery of geographic form evident in his simultaneously fanciful and plausible Deformaciones y hundamientos I-IV, and by the studied irreverence of Aparaciones/desaparaciones (a) – (f), carefully plotted on sturdy, lined pages torn from a student’s notebook. Zabala might have been building his own world, but he was willing to do so within the constraints of cartographic practice. And I was more than happy to indulge.

Juan Pablo Ferlat at La Ira de Dios

Last Friday evening I headed over to Villa Crespo to check out Juan Pablo Ferlat’s excellent new show at La Ira de Dios. Here’s a recent post about it from Juanele’s blog:

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It’s dark. It’s raw. It’s Juan Pablo Ferlat’s well-concieved, engaging show Crudo (Crude), on view through October 21 at La Ira de Dios in Villa Crespo.

As I stepped inside the door during last Friday evening’s opening, I was immediately intrigued, the gallery — crowded with hip, artsy types — was half-dark, the lighting so low that I could hardly make out the types of cookies being offered to me by a kind, older gentleman.Around me, on walls painted standard-gallery-white and jet black, was a collection of hand-crafted paper and gigantic shots of human faces glistening in the color of oil. Beside the entrance, a sculpture of a tiny, petroleum-black head spun in quick, clockwise circles. It was a fascinating scene to take in.

I made my way around the gallery, impressed beyond expectation by the improbable beauty of all I saw, most notably the paper works in the “Herida” (or “Injury”) series. I’m often taken by works that evidence the sheer mastery of a craft, and these thick, fibrous sheets — fashioned from San Pedro cactus — were no exception. Ferlat conceived them as part of a larger project in which he explores the physical resources of the Argentine North and the symbolic ones of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions as an alternative to the petroleum-dependent methods of industrial production.

I found myself lost in the textures of these works, in the shiny slickness and scabby flatness of Herida #5, in the almost edible stickiness of Herida #7, in the scarred and burned lunar expanse of Herida #2. Under the unyielding stares of the Crudo-series photographs, and accompanied by a helpful explanatory text, these remarkable works may not point to a petroleum-free utopia, but they serve as a poignant reminder that pre-industrial craftwork can play as vital a role in art today as it did in the time before “crude oil” became shorthand for Western economic growth.

Jim Campbell at Fundación Telefónica

A feature on U.S. electronic artist Jim Campbell’s 20-year restrospective currently showing at Fundación Tefefónica, published today at Juanele:

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We live in a high-definition world, as anyone who’s bought a camera or turned on a TV lately knows. US-based artist Jim Campbell knows it, too. And despite his degree in electronics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his self-proclaimed nerdiness, he’s not overly impressed.

“One loses something in high definition,” Campbell told the crowd that had gathered at Fundación Telefónica to hear him discuss Tiempo estático (Static Time), a retrospective encompassing two decades of his electronic art. “I wouldn’t even say that HD is more correct,” he concluded.

Given the mass of blurry images surrounding him, Campbell’s words seemed about right. The works included in Tiempo estático are about as far from high definition as possible. Using LCD lights to pixelate highway accidents and fistfights, Campbell strips his subjects of most of their identifying characteristics — only their movement remains. These low-resolution works invert our traditional understanding of clarity. Because they become easier to read as each pixel becomes less visually distinct, these pieces are actually “clearer” from a distance, or when obscured by frosted screens.

To exemplify his point, Campbell approached a work depicting the rhythmic advance of ocean waves which was covered by an opaque panel. The artist ripped the screen from the piece, and sure enough it went from a meditation on repetitive movement to something much closer to random noise. Campbell then placed the screen over another work, a none-too-obvious one in which a physically disabled person walks with the aid of a cane. (I asked Campbell about his choice of subject for this latter work; he explained that, devoid of other distinguishing characteristics, the person depicted in the work is defined by her disability as she would often be in society at large.) Screen in place, the subject immediately became more legible. “More is seen,” Campbell said as he slipped the screen back off and returned it to its original place. “But I’m not sure more needs to be seen.”

In his commentary, Campbell repeatedly emphasized the distinction between seeing something — visually registering its characteristics — and feeling it. It is the latter, he maintained, that carries us to the essence of an image, conveyed in these works by nothing more than varying tones of light and rhythms of movement. This is particularly evident in the series of works based around a single process: the artist chose a location (the New York Public Library, for example, or Grand Central Terminal), took simultaneous long-exposure photos and video, and pixelated the video across an LCD array under a print of the corresponding still image. The effect that these works produce — rich, monumental spaces traversed by spectral, vaguely human figures — is both elegant and uncomfortable, its complexity worlds away from HD’s simple promise: see more.

In the back corner of the main gallery, “Exploded View” — one of the finest works in the show — takes this same two-dimensional concept and stretches it into three. The work began, Campbell noted, as “an experiment I thought would fail.” Instead, it became the prototype for a much larger work in New York’s Madison Square Park, which used incandescent light bulbs in place of LEDs. When seen from the side, or up close, “Exploded View” is a field of tiny twinkling stars. But when viewed straight on and from a distance, it becomes a series of pixilated human forms (more Grand Central commuters, it turns out) on crisscrossing paths across what looks to be a flat plane. Although it is beautiful from all angles, the work is only coherent from one — the one at which the pixels line up so each of them occupies a single spot on a two-dimensional plane. Movement recorded in a two-dimensions, “Exploded View” reminds us, cannot be recreated in three; simply by committing something to film or video, then, entails a sort of sacrifice, no matter the definition of the resulting image.

One of the two installations in the show, “Frames of Reference,” speaks directly to the limits of our obsession with HD details. In the work, a camera attached to one end of a small, rotating block of wood is trained on a nail sunk into the other end of the block. (At the beginning, Campbell volunteered, a watch had been attached to the nail. But then the watch fell off, liberating the work from cliché.) Always aligned with the nail, the camera captures the tiny metal implement in perfect detail, while everything else in the room appears as a blur. This background is murky, yes, and poorly defined—but it’s also vivid, engrossing, constantly in flux. The nail, in contrast — well, it’s just a nail.

Without taking his eye off the technologies of data accumulation, Campbell turns in his series of “memory works” to the phenomenon of computer memory and its impact on human remembering. The works, on display in a smaller gallery downstairs, consist of various transmitters — clocks, photographs, night-lights — attached to standard sized, succinctly labeled metal boxes. To make “I Have Never Read the Bible,” for instance, Campbell recorded himself saying all 26 letters of the alphabet individually, then used a program to play them in the exact sequence of the words of the Bible. “Cyclical Meter Base” and “Cyclical Counter Base” feature two clocks whose hands move according to the rate of what the attached metal boxes call “her blinking” and “her breath,” both recorded over an hour in 1996. Each of these works, Campbell explained, represents a “contrived representation” of human experience in the form of “computer memory,” and a reminder that it is not raw data, but rather its emotional, human context that structures our engagement with the world, past and present.

Technological advances enable us to gather, record, and display data about the universe we inhabit with unprecedented ease and ever-increasing precision. It’s all too easy to forget that this is a descriptive statement, not a moral one. Our frames of reference, Campbell reminds us, are what really count.

Installation Art at the Salón Nacional

I’m a big fan of installation art; beyond whatever else you might say about its social or artistic value, it tends to be fun. As I explained in a Juanele feature published this morning, the installation art component of Argentina’s Salón Nacional–the country’s major annual juried exhibition–may not be the most inventive group of installations I’ve seen, but it made me smile. (Check out the image gallery at the bottom for some highlights, taken with my fast-fading camera.)

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania doesn’t exactly place one at the center of the contemporary art world. Or so I thought until, as an awkward high school freshman in search of art and identity, I stumbled upon the Mattress Factory. The giant industrial building on the city’s often-overlooked North Side may be unknown to most Pittsburghers, but its high-ceilinged rooms — done up by the likes of  James Turrell and  Yayoi Kusama — held the answer to my prayers. My $25 membership card was a ticket not just to some excellent high-concept art, but also to instant credibility with my school’s artsy hipster set. Thanks to the Mattress Factory, I found a social group and fell hard for installation.

I had the Mattress Factory on my mind last week as I stepped into the Salón Nacional’s annual juried Nuevos soportes e instalaciones (“New Installations”) exhibition, on view through July 31 at Recoleta’s Palais de Glace. I came with high hopes. At the hands of its most technically adroit and intellectually unorthodox practitioners, installation art can turn viewers into participants and the gallery into an alternate-reality playground. The forum, too, was promising — the Salón Nacional’s juried yearly exhibits consistently stand among the best of mainstream Argentine art.

The show I saw last week at the Palais de Glace may not have done much to challenge my understanding of installation as a practice or to push the form in new directions, but I didn’t care — Nuevos soportes e instalaciones is indeed a playground, and I was having fun. The exhibition, I quickly figured out, isn’t to be tackled from a respectable, academic distance. It wouldn’t best reward this sort of critical approach, and anyway, the show’s too colorful and dynamic to be held at arm’s length. It’s not revolutionary — but let yourself be taken in and you’ll smile at least once before you leave.

Stepping inside, I was immediately disarmed by the show’s odd ambient noise, a mix of otherworldly music, recorded interviews, and chirping and tweeting from Nidera, Martín Pérez’ video-and-birds-nests wall hanging. Surprisingly accordant, this hybrid soundtrack rendered the Palais as a quirky aural fantasyland. The feeling was amplified by the tense and irregular motion of Nicolás Bacal’s Sin titulo — a balloon suspended in a current of air, orbited by a small flying rock — located just beside the entrance. Leonardo Damonte’s yellow wheelbarrow explosion, Obrador, and Esteban Álvarez’ omnipresent red and orange Fuego de luces cast colorful shadows on the main hall, accentuating the varied visual textures of a trio of works at its center. [Photo above.]

The first of these textural works to draw my attention was Alejandra Bourda’s Umi no hi, an undulating crystallized seafoam-green glass disk. More abstract than most of the works, it was also one of the few to be accompanied by an explanatory wall label. The third Monday of July, Bourda explained, is Japan’s Marine Day. Reflecting on this holiday, and on recent events in Japan, the artist had been inspired to create a work both sleek and ominous, a place where “beauty and danger meet.” It’s true that the piece is spiky and, presumably, sharp to the touch, and its crystalline crust could be read as almost chemical, but at least from behind the white lines that keep visitors from coming too close, Umi no hi is too sumptuous and sparkly to frighten — a more compelling homage to Marine Day than to nuclear-tinged ocean disaster.

A few feet away, master of plastic Silvio Fischbein’s Fragmentos URBANOS succeeds at seeding joy with discomfort. A colorful collection of mass-produced plastic toys arranged in tight patterns and glued into place atop illuminated plastic trays, Fragmentos URBANOS’ bright colors and light allusions to childhood disarmed me before weirding me out. As I approached the texturally satisfying piece, I noticed that about a third of the bright little tchotchkes are human babies, their backs glued into place, their hands and feet still but searching in the air.

Softer and warmer both in texture and content, Mónica Inés Fierro’s Juntos is a calming counterpart to Fischein’s fragments. Fierro stripped several dozens of small paperback books of their covers, inverted their spines, and folded their pages in half to build a city of oil-filter-like cylinders in shades of brown and tan. The repeated forms and muted tones are soothing and regular; these books are to be appreciated not for their content or design, but for the extent of their decay.

These same earthy hues join with blue and grey to form the palate of Josefina Ferrer’s distinctive El arte de adaptarse. Like a children’s pop-up book on steroids, beautifully frayed rolls of paper unfurl from the wall to reveal a village of porcelain houses and boats, illuminated by warm flickering lights. Though the scene is still and unmoving, the choice of materials points to the village’s fragility and transience.

It may be this fragility that inspired Marcelo Lo Pinto’s nearby Miniflot, a “floating ark with internet connection” that captured one of the Salón’s two grand prizes. (The other went to Estanislao Florido’s print-and-digital-animation series, La ciudad perdida.) A retro-style travel trailer outfitted with satellite dish, solar panel, laptop, and a flotation device, Miniflot is offered up to consumers as nothing less than a guarantee of “happiness.” Conceptually, Miniflot isn’t the most interesting work in the show — by this stage, the hi-tech Noah’s-Ark trope feels a bit played out — but it’s well constructed and visually appealing enough that I was willing to pretend not to see the extension chord connecting the decked-out trailer to a decidedly un-portable wall socket.

Miniflot isn’t the Salón’s only foray into alternative housing. Tadeo Mulero’s much stranger but vastly less depressing multicolor gumdrop of a dwelling, La casita, looks to have come straight from the set of Willy Wonka — an option for those who prefer color over connectedness.

A meter or so from La casita, Luis Berneri’s giant altarpiece is also awash in color — one color, at least. Seeing a pink man standing before a pink cross surrounded by pink, I was skeptical; what original idea, I wondered, could this possibly convey? I read off the title card, Gauchito pink, and my reservations instantly melted away. A hilarious reframing of  Gauchito Gil, the rural Argentine folk hero beatified at roadside shrines throughout the provinces, Gauchito pink couldn’t be more timely as nationwide gay marriage extends far beyond the big city, carrying new social ideas into the domain of the gaucho saint.

In a nearby gallery, Luján Funes’ Mundo taxi makes a more direct bid for the political. A quasi-sociological survey of Buenos Aires’ taxi drivers, Funes’ work includes videotaped excerpts from interviews with taxistas about insecurity and a large wall chart detailing their responses to questions about their personal experiences of crime and their opinions about how to solve it. Funes’ findings — that the cab drivers he interviewed tend to have frighteningly conservative takes on la inseguridad — will hardly surprise anyone who’s ever taken a taxi in this city. The whole project reminds me of Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary Right America: Feeling Wronged, in which the young filmmaker uncovered firsthand evidence that some racists in conservative-leaning areas of the U.S. resent Barack Obama because (gasp!) he is black. But just as I watched all of Pelosi’s preachy film, I sat through a full round of Funes’ interview clips, and spent more than a few minutes studying his chart. After all, who doesn’t like to feel better about his own views at the expense of the ultra-conservative?

Running the gamut from the fanciful to the overtly political, the works of the Salón Nacional’s current exhibition share one common feature: their accessibility. These installations don’t confound or frustrate. They don’t demand that you come equipped with a long list of art-historical references or a trained critical eye. They don’t expect you to know James Turrell or Yayoi Kusama. They just want you to open yourself to them. And to smile.