A New Post for a New Year: My Roommate Alicia Herrero

[Images courtesy of aliciaherrero.com.ar]

The end of 2012 was oh-so-hectic down here, but it’s a new year now, and to make good in a small way on the whole seasonal rebirth/renewal theme, I’m posting an update. It’s a long-overdue introduction to my indefatigable roommate/dueña/friend, visual artist Alicia Herrero.

One of my luckiest breaks in Buenos Aires was finding my way into Alicia’s beautifully restored turn-of-the-century PH. She’s not only a wonderful person to live with and a constant source of insight and intellectual challenge; she also makes great art. Her most reject project, Museo de la economía política del arte (Museum of the Political Economy of Art), just ended a solo showing at Buenos Aires’ prestigious 11 x 7 Gallery. It’s wonderful.

The show uses images, video, and three-dimensional pieces to critically examine contemporary art market practices and their influence on artistic production and on the capitalist system at large. At its heart stands the Action-Instruments Box, a “toolkit” that enables anyone with a computer to develop alternative metrics for the success of art. Model graphs show works reshaped along two axes, one measuring the piece’s price per square centimeter at auction, the other the overall average for the lot in which it sold. A neatly designed catalog incorporates dozens of these lushly colored analyses; the huge mutli-fold pages reproducing elongated Rothkos and Warhols force a visual confrontation with the far-from-aesthetic forces bubbling just beneath the surface at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. I love this box, and I’m not alone. MALBA, BA’s leading museum, acquired one for immediate display.

[In the Banco Nación]

Alicia has done lots of other stuff, too, including a bold series of performances/ interventions in spaces like the Banco Nación and the Argentine Capitol planned under the aegis of the University of Buenos Aires’ Laboratorio de Investigación en Prácticas Artísticas Contemporáneas, which she leads. It’s all on her website, in Spanish and in English. Right now I’m helping Alicia update the English side, and the more time I spend there, the more enganchado I get. Check it out if you’ve got some time.

Welcome to 2013 — ¡E.M.A.N.C.I.P.A.C.I.O.N. ya!

[In the Capitol]


Popping In (Again)

The website for Juanele AR, the bilingual online arts magazine to which I contributed a bunch of stuff last year, went down yesterday afternoon. I worried it was gone forever — and not unreasonably; the project’s been bankrupt for months. But my fears were premature; as of this morning, it’s back.

I’ve already cross-posted most of what I wrote for Juanele on my blog, with one notable exception: a 3500-word narrative feature about a multi-day open-studio-cum-intervention in an abandoned mansion in Las Cañitas that I wanted to call “Popping In” (Juanele called it “The Energy of Open Art”). It’s long, and I already posted the opening paragraphs more than a year ago. But Juanele’s day off was an unexpectedly sharp reminder that online doesn’t mean forever, especially when it refers to the vast stretches of the interwebs beyond my control. So I hope you’ll indulge my posting the whole thing here, punctuated by a few of Andy Donohoe’s pitch-perfect photos.

[Photo by Andy Donohoe for Juanele AR.]

Popping In
A Weekend with Poeta and the Red Bull Crew

The original idea was to blow it all up. FInd a crumbling building, assemble a group of artists, give them 72 hours to transform it — and then, kaboom.

“I wanted to remove the idea of possession,” Christian Riffel explained to me, casting his explosive fantasy in a more intellectual hue. Yet the long-disused 1930s Las Cañitas mansion doubling as backdrop for our conversation — a space suddenly teeming with a dozen artists launching into three days of creation — wasn’t going to be detonating any time soon. It was going to become a boutique hotel.

Riffel — a Buenos Aires street artist better known as Poeta — had put his initial plan on hold to organize Pop Up Galleries, the first in a series of artistic “interventions” in “unconventional” spaces. It was to be, he told me, “something very new” in a “very old house.”

Bringing together young creatives from across the visual arts spectrum — street muralists, gallery painters, a photographer, a performance artist — Pop Up Galleries gave its participants a theme (“the passage of time”), three days to work, free supplies, and their own rooms. For two of those three days, Pop Up would invite the public in to watch it all unfold. And then, after one final afternoon of public viewing, it would close its doors, leaving the art to be preserved or destroyed according to the future hotelier’s whims.

Poeta and I were standing in what felt like an impromptu supply room — a gorgeous wood-paneled salon that had weathered its years of abandonment remarkably well, and that the Pop Up crew wasn’t allowed to touch. There, sharing space with paint-splattered tarps, brushes, and a full spectrum of spray paint cans, was a small army’s worth of Red Bull promotional products waiting not to be appropriated (as street artists are wont to do) but deployed. The company’s House of Art campaign — already responsible for a two-year-old artists’ residency in Sao Paulo — was going to make its Buenos Aires debut by bringing Poeta’s vision to life.

Red Bull had given Pop Up its wings. I had come to see if it could fly. Continue reading

Cristina Likes Us! (Maybe)

Passing the Casa Rosada on my way to the Subte this past Thursday, I came upon an exhibition of photos by Victor Hugo Bugge, Argentina’s official presidential photographer since 1978 (when military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla held the office). I wasn’t in any particular rush, so I figured I’d pop in for a quick shot of fuzzy Kirchnerista fondness. I made my way down the first row of photographs, taking in the carefully chosen images of Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner doing what politicians have done since long before Videla — hugging babies, posing beside imposing neoclassical statues:

And doing some excellent things that past presidents didn’t do so often, like standing together with HIJOS, newborns taken from their disappeared parents by Videla and friends, then given away as spoils of war to families favored by the regime:

None of these photos surprised me much — until, that is, I noticed some familiar characters:

Wow, a lot of yanquis here. (And look, it’s Pittsburgh!) Then again, Argentines don’t hate Obama, and his relationship with Cristina seems to be on the mend right now.  And next to Bush, Clinton must have glimmered like a mirage in the Kirchners’ rearview mirror. Maybe, I began to reason, it wasn’t actually so strange to see these two icons of Northern imperialism guarding la presidenta‘s front door.

But HIM?

And again! (This one wasn’t very well received by the photo-viewing public, it seems.)

And strangest of all:

What’s going on here? Is Cristina trying to show a friendlier face to the US? Or to underscore Argentina’s importance on the global stage? And why is Bush in so many photos? Especially that dopey-faced one with Condoleezza Rice — the only photo, I believe, in which neither Cristina nor Néstor made an appearance. They must be messing with us, right?

Casa Rosadology’s a tricky game.

Carlos Cruz-Diez and the Color of Broad Appeal

As I explain in a recent feature for Juanele, the Carlos Cruz-Diez retrospective at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Malba) is one of the most engaging shows I’ve seen, period. It’ll be on view through March and if you come to BA you have no excuse not to check it out!

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

* * *

The challenge facing curator Mari Carmen Ramírez could hardly have been more daunting — present the life’s work of a formally inventive and dramatically undervalued artist in a way that does justice to both his conceptual heft and his public-spirited drive to engage and transform his viewers. As tens of thousands of visitors to Malba’s new single-artist retrospective,  Carlos Cruz-Diez: El color en el espacio y en el tiempo (Color in Space in Time), have discovered, Ramírez was up to the task, delivering a show that is as instructive as it is accessible, and an awful lot of fun.

A household name in his native Venezuela, Cruz-Diez is far from unknown in the broader art world. His works form part of many of the most celebrated permanent collections on the planet. But as Ramírez notes in her essay, “Lo que está en juego es el color” (The Issue at Stake is Color), Cruz-Diez has never before received a solo exhibition in Latin America, the US, or Europe, and he’s been relegated to second-tier status in the critical literature. For an artist who has managed not only to pull color off the two-dimensional canvas but to bring it fully into the public sphere, Cruz-Diez has not received his due.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Perhaps this neglect can be attributed to Cruz-Diez’s insistence on swimming against the grain of contemporary art-critical expectations. Critics tend to call Cruz-Diez a “ kinetic artist,” a label which itself underscores the artist’s awkward relationship with the critical establishment. While it’s true that many of Cruz-Diez’s works rely on the viewer’s movement to make their point, the “kinetic” label suggests an artist who’s primarily interested in motion, when even five minutes with Cruz-Diez’s work makes it clear that interrogating movement is far from his top concern. At heart, Cruz-Diez is really a “color artist” — but for a generation of critics eager to move beyond the aesthetic transcendence-through-color of abstract expressionists like  Mark Rothko and  Morris Louis, an exhaustive exploration of color isn’t conceptually interesting, and a preoccupation with the viewer’s aesthetic experience probably seems passé. So Cruz-Diez is called “kinetic” — and by that standard, he isn’t very interesting at all.

This wider conceptual turn in art criticism has yielded many insights and encouraged plenty of interesting work, but if it can’t make room for an artist as provocative and broadly engaging as Cruz-Diez, it’s gone too far. To center art on conceptual concerns while deriding interest in aesthetic elevation is to deny all but the best-read and most historically aware viewers a way into the artistic experience and a reason to engage it beyond a superficial glance. It’s a choice, in other words, that leaves a lot of potential viewers behind, reinforcing the (largely but not always) unspoken conviction that the best contemporary art does not and should not have mass appeal.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Cruz-Diez, Ramírez’s retrospective reveals, made a very different choice. As the artist himself explains in one of the show’s excellent wall texts, color isn’t just something that spices up our world; it’s elemental to the way we experience it. Color happens — it makes other things happen — and Cruz-Diez wants to use his art as a prompt to make us all think about it. If this tangible, aesthetically-centered, far-from-elite project explains why El color en el espacio y en el tiempo is Cruz-Diez’s first real retrospective, it also explains why more than 56,000 people have seen the show in its first month, why so many of them linger on Malba’s top floor, and — most remarkably of all — why such a high percentage of the chatter one overhears up there is actually about the art.

Of course, Ramírez deserves a hunk of the credit as well. Ramírez heads the Latin American art department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the Cruz-Diez retrospective was on display for the first half of the year. Her accompanying text is a pleasure to read, but her curatorial skills are perhaps even more evident when she is at her most invisible. The top floor of the show features a largely chronological organization, beginning with Cruz-Diez’s early works before moving on to his fisicromías (“physichromies”), the reflective, additive, and subtractive works for which the artist is best known, and which command a large majority of the exhibition’s wall space. Smaller galleries at the far end of the top floor and downstairs highlight the artist’s public works and reproduce two of his immersive chromographic “environments.” And with the exception of an introductory note and a few isolated curatorial observations, the wall text accompanying the exhibition comes directly from the artist himself.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Allowing Cruz-Diez to speak for himself works well because his pieces are so engaging on their own terms. His first fisicromías are simple assemblages of horizontal wooden slats painted red, green, black, and white, some protruding from father than others to form shapes. Visitors following the exhibition watch the materials, shapes, colors, and effects slowly change, as wood is replaced by PVC, mirrors, and silkscreened aluminum. The immersive environments — one with three sub-rooms, each filled with a different color of filtered light, the other with overlapping, moving bands of color projected onto white walls — are testaments to the power of color to shape our perceptions of space and place. And the public art projects presented downstairs, shown only after the viewer has seen color projected, reflected, and transformed up close in dozens of ways, point to the vastness of Cruz-Diez’s ambition: to revalue color as a central dimension not only of the artistic experience, but of human perception, writ large.

Cruz-Diez’s works aren’t themselves ideal candidates for lengthy prose description. They’re better experienced than recounted; the top floor of Malba awaits. Sure, Cruz-Diez’s vision may not be as philosophically intricate as some of his contemporaries’, but what it lacks in esoteric complexity it more than makes up for in breadth and interactivity. Oh, and — did I mention? — in color.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

The Amazing Stop Motion Animation of Blu

Blu, an Argentine-born street artist based in Italy and active across the world, is one of the best-known and most inventive artists to emerge from this country’s thriving street scene. (Hell, he even has his own in-depth Wikipedia page.) He’s done lots of cool stuff, but to my mind, none of it is more impressive than his stop motion animation. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s Muto, a gargantuan effort undertaken here in Buenos Aires in 2008-09. (If you like it, you’ll find much more to love on the video page of his website.)

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.