Stayin' Alive

November 9, 2020 - March 25, 2021

 

Laura Aguilar (b. San Gabriel, USA, 1959 – d. Long Beach, USA, 2018)

A key figure in Chicanx and queer art, Laura Aguilar was born to a Mexican-American father and Mexican-Irish mother. Aguilar used photography to consider pressing subjects, such as mental health, equity in the art world, and her own doubly marginalized identity as a Mexican-American lesbian. Often focusing the camera on her own sizable body as a way of drawing attention to the complexities of identity for people in the Chicanx community, Aguilar expressed a space between her Mexican heritage and her experiences living in the United States. In her most iconic image, Three Eagles Flying, a 1990 self-portrait, the artist photographed her bare-chested body bound by a heavy rope, flanked by the flags of the United States and Mexico. The US flag covers Aguilar’s lower body while the Mexican flag’s eagle covers her face. As subject and victim of national identities, Aguilar’s powerful image of being tied and gagged cuts across race and gender. With the Nature Self-Portraits, begun in the mid-1990s, Aguilar once again turns to her own naked body set in the landscape of New Mexico’s rocky desert rather than the controlled studio environment. As Aguilar explained, she enjoyed photographing herself in nature, particularly in the desert, because she felt accepted by nature. Concentrating on her own body, one most often defined as obese, the artist redefines the male gaze as well as male dominated representations of beauty and the female body in wildlife. She further challenges concepts of the landscape genre as a male dominated field. Ultimately, Aguilar succeeds in alluding to larger issues of identity politics, race and underrepresented communities through her unique interpretation of landscape photography.

 

Greta Alfaro (b. Pamplona, Spain, 1977)

Greta Alfaro works and lives between Spain and London. Through photography, video and installations, Alfaro explores the ways in which tradition, tales and religion relate to current issues. Also interested in exposing concealed parts of our identity, both individual and collective, the artist showcases atemporal subject matters inherent to the human condition, such as the arrogance of mankind’s domination of the world that it is also destroying, or culture’s obsession with the temporality of life. The Spanish Gothic churches she went to every Sunday during her childhood, as well as the weight of tradition and Catholicism are reflected in her choice of imagery. This influence is clearly present in her 2009 work In Ictu Oculi (meaning “In the blink of an eye”), a title that alludes to the brevity of human existence and shows Alfaro’s attraction to Baroque and biblical themes. Not unlike Juan de Valdés Leal’s eponymous vanitas painting at the Met, In Ictu Oculi depicts a world where human figures have disappeared— in this case succumbed or just given way to a group of vultures descending to wolf down a lavish banquet. Traditionally maligned and regarded as symbols of sickness and death, vultures are however beautiful creatures that play an important role in the health of the ecosystems they inhabit. They are essential in cleaning up dead matter and curbing the spread of bacteria. Combining art historical references and environmental concerns, the work addresses the difficult relationship between humans and nature, and the dangers of our ingrained speciesism (the arrogance of judging certain species as inferior based on arbitrary distinctions and cultural or religious prejudices).

 

Allora and Calzadilla (Jennifer Allora, b. Philadelphia, USA, 1974 – Guillermo Calzadilla, b. Havana, Cuba, 1971)

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla are based in Puerto Rico and have been working together since 1995. Through their complex research-oriented practice, the duo probes the roles of authorship, democracy and nationality. Transcending genres of performance, sculpture, video, and photography, Allora and Calzadilla employ storytelling conventions and metaphoric associations to explore the intersections between archaeology, culture and geopolitics. First presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014, The Great Silence exposes mankind’s ironic quest to contact life on distant galaxies while being paradoxically indifferent to communications from other forms of near-extinct life on earth. The video focuses on the world’s largest telescope located at the Arecibo Observatory in Esperanza, Puerto Rico, also home to the endangered Amazona vittata parrot. Collaborating with science fiction writer, Ted Chiang, the artists produced a subtitled script told from the perspective of the parrot, which narrates mankind’s pursuit to find extraterrestrial life through sound vibrations. With this immersive and reverberating video, Allora and Calzadilla uncover our negligence towards the endangerment of species while examining the complicated relationship between the living and nonliving.

 

Lucas Arruda (b. São Paulo, Brazil, 1983)

Working between abstraction and figuration, São Paulo-based artist, Lucas Arruda explores the idea of landscape as a construction, rather than a representation of a geographic location. Characterized for their textured brushstrokes, subtle rendition of light and an ever-present horizon line, Arruda’s imaginary landscapes and seascapes are painted from memory inside the artist’s studio, devoid of specific reference points. Often likened to Turner and other Romantic era painters, Arruda is not so interested in observing nature, bur rather seeks, in his own words, “to uncover a mental dimension, a mood, a sensation, a state of mind suspended within the medium of paint.”

 

Firelei Báez (b. Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, 1981)

Firelei Báez was born in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republican to a Dominican mother and Haitian father and is now based in New York. Brought up between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the two countries of Hispaniola that have had a history of continual tensions, Báez focuses on Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latina women who have been perpetually excluded from the mainstream art historical narrative. Rendering her subjects in complex layers of pattern and imagery, she investigates issues of identity within diasporic societies, interwoven with the history of imperialism, post-colonialism and religion. By overlaying past and imaginable histories through rigorous, intricately layered drawings and paintings, Báez seeks to enrich obscured narratives while alluding to the complexity of the racial and class stratification.  In Untitled: Insularum Hispaniolae et Cubae, 2020, a corpulent giant female figure, garishly and loosely painted in hues of pink and orange, obscures much of a detailed historical map of Hispaniola and Cuba. The body occupies a transitional space within the work as signifying both imagined indigenous histories and landscapes. The artist succeeds in representing a dominating landmass where skin tone is no longer a sufficient signifier of race. Using abstract gesture to build swirling coats that ultimately comprise a strong, shape-shifting female protagonist in the center of this composition, Báez choreographs a new relationship with these channels of movement, challenging legacies of capitalism and imperialism to create possibilities for alternate futures.

 

Alberto Baraya (b. Bogotá, Colombia, 1968)

Through his art, Alberto Baraya parodies colonial exploitation and its resonance in contemporary global economies. In the 1990s, he produced ironic self-portraits, highlighting the malleability of identity through the inclusion of references to iconic works of art. Since 2001, the artist has styled himself as a “viajero,” referring to 18th- and 19th-century European travelers who undertook botanical explorations in the name of science and in the service of colonization. For this project, Herbário de plantas artificiales (Herbarium of Artificial Plants), Baraya follows the path of these pseudo-scientists, collecting, cataloguing, and displaying artificial plants. The mixed media work on view from the Herbario de plantas artificiales series depicts a sequence of cherries that he encountered in Venice, Italy, in June 2009.

 

Alicia Barney (b. Cali, Colombia, 1952)

Alicia Barney was born in Cali, Colombia, and received her MFA at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1977. While studying in New York, she encountered the work of Claes Oldenburg who remained a principal influence in her creative process, compelling her to focus on the implications of everyday objects in her art. Subtle yet prevailing, her research-oriented practice is motivated by her interest in socio-politics such as environmental degeneration and food insecurity. Employing ritualistic processes, and informed by the repetitive aesthetic of minimalism and conceptualism, Barney began exploring Land art in the 1970s as a means to denote the authorities’ negligence towards pollution and water contamination. For Estratificación de un basurero utópico, 1987 the artist gathered garbage and materials found off the West Andean Mountains close to her hometown. She then placed the crushed objects and rocks in a specially designed long and slender acrylic tubes and finally added a layer of vegetable charcoal and sand to allow for plants to survive atop. The core sample of detritus layered with vegetative material comes to life as the natural matter changes whilst the manmade waste remains fixed. The serial studies enclosed in the minimalist tubes elegantly reveal the harsh reality of the irreversible effects of waste disposal. On the other hand, Estratificación also suggests possible regenerative techniques for garbage dumps to become fertile. Barney draws attention to the regressive state of biodegradation in mismanaged landfills, such as those in her home country, that are typically left unattended. Although Alicia Barney’s cutting-edge approach was largely rejected in the 1970s and 1980s, her work continues to be relevant for its delicate yet caustic denunciation of environmental destruction. 

 

Albert Berg (b. Berlin, Germany, 1825 – d. Hallstatt, Austria, 1884)

A German diplomat and landscape painter, Albert Berg was part of a group of 19th century artist travelers who were largely influenced by the studies and explorations of Alexander von Humboldt. Amongst the works of others such as Frederic Edwin Church, Jean-Baptist Louis Gros and Daniel Thomas Egerton, Berg’s paintings pay homage to von Humboldt in their majestic rendering of landscape. Berg’s painting of the Andes de Quindío, 1872, present-day Central Andes on the Colombian border, depicts a multiplicity of ecosystems, from xerophyte vegetation to snow areas, passing through cloud forests and pre-mountainous regions with a lush diversity of flora and fauna. The diverse yet integrated panorama embodies the then- considered revolutionary idea that nature functioned as a unified entity.

 

Alberto Borea (b. Lima, Peru, 1979)

Through his practice, Peruvian artist Alberto Borea confronts long contested histories, often tied to colonialism and geopolitics. Embedding his own personal experience in his work, Borea also explores the coexistence of past and present. In We Are All Gone, 2014, the artist intervenes on a metal birdcage, invoking a sullen yet alleviating scene, in which the birds thought to inhabit the structure, are free, however possibly moving towards extinction in our current environment. Through this hypothetical situation, Borea invites the viewer to consider the past, present and future of the fowls, while questioning our own responsibility in the extinction of species.  

 

David Brooks (b. Brazil, USA, 1975)

David Brooks was born in 1975 in Brazil, Indiana – but it is actually in South America where he has developed much of his recent work. Over the past decade, Brooks has participated in numerous scientific expeditions to study ecosystems in the region such as in the biodiverse Casiquiare canal basin that connects and drains its waters from the Orinoco River and delivers them to the Rio Negro and the Amazon rivers just below the mission of La Esmeralda. Brooks’ investigation of the region is the subject of 7 Perspectives of La Esmeralda (and its Lost Worlds), 2020, an atlas of seven different folios packed into one travel crate. Part homage to Alexander von Humboldt’s celebrated expedition to the area in 1799, the atlas includes a 12-meter-long scroll-like folio, featuring 862 X-rays of 1,547 individual fish specimens spanning 107 different species, all collected by an ichthyologist in a single day of fieldwork in the area known for its enormous biodiversity. The artist himself discovered a new species of catfish previously unknown to science during an expedition to the area in 2005 with biologist Nathan Lujan. Not only is the area known for rare fish, it is also an important crossroads of indigenous, colonial and military histories, a theme further explored in Brooks’ work. Documenting the US Army Corps of Engineers consideration of using this waterway to move submarines across the continent through the Amazon, Brooks includes a green didactic folio charting the recent military history with graphs and maps of the unrealized plan. A tunnel book chronicles Humboldt’s mapping of the Casiquiare and traversal of the plateau of Cerro Duida, whose accounts inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, here depicted using illustrations pulled from every printing since 1912. Conflating past and present explorations of the area, Brooks considers how cultural concerns cannot be disassociated from the natural world, while also questioning the terms under which nature is perceived and utilized.

 

Feliciano Centurión (b. San Ignacio, Paraguay, 1962,  – d. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1996)

Feliciano Centurión was born in 1962 in San Ignacio in Paraguay’s subtropical rainforest region and brought up mostly by his mother and grandmother, who taught him the arts of embroidery and crochet. An openly gay man in an ultra-conservative Paraguayan society, then under the repressive military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, Centurión moved to Buenos Aires in 1980.  There, he began to produce works of blankets, pillows, aprons and other intimate household wares embellished with delicately embroidery and crochet– frequently depicting mythical beings and the wildlife and lush vegetation of his native Paranaense region. After being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, Centurión began incorporating in his works references to his illness, sexuality and imminent death. In Estoy Vivo, 1994, executed two years before the artist’s untimely death at the age of 34, a green silk-satin fabric in the shape of a four-leaf clover leaf is overlaid onto a plain wool blanket, similar to those used by hospital patients, which is inscribed with an optimistic message of life (I am alive). Recalling Félix González Torres poetry and David Wojnarowicz’s activism, as well as José Leonilson’s poignantly inscribed fabric works, Centurión’s Estoy Vivo (I am Alive), symbolizes a simple and defiant act of personal survival, while challenging the public’s attempt at silencing the AIDS epidemic.

 

Marcos Chaves (b. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961)

Brazilian artist, Marcos Chaves employs appropriation in his art as a means to examine and reconsider urban ecosystems and their respective social fabrics. Although the artist has traveled extensively and often produces works based on his locations, most of his series revolve around his hometown, Rio de Janeiro. Sardonic and at the same time poetic, Chaves often plays with language in his titles, leading to multifaceted interpretations of his work. His thought-provoking observations from everyday life also evoke political undertones. Perhaps his best-known series, where he photographs potholes and the ways in which his fellow Rio residents mark them in order to prevent accidents, brings his government’s inefficiencies to the forefront. Patamar, 2013, was taken in the Tijuca National Park in Rio and depicts the ruin of a (now overhauled) timeworn hotel. In Portuguese, the word patamar translates to “landing,” but it could also mean a stage. Upon encountering this structure, the artist imagined a trampoline, thus also alluding to a platform to take off from, proposing a new beginning. In the artist’s words, the idea of the trampoline also suggests the possibility of diving into nature. Chaves’ photograph portrays a ruin, a site of decay, while also illustrating the resilience of nature and its ability to interrelate to manmade structures. 

 

Carl Cheng (b. San Francisco, USA, 1942)

Carl Cheng rose to prominence in California through his innovative practice in which he deconstructs the relationship between mankind, nature and technology. Originally from San Francisco, Cheng received a fellowship to study in Germany where he obtained a post-Bauhaus multidisciplinary education, before returning to the United States to complete an MFA from UCLA in 1967. Cheng steadily directs his artistic sensibility towards his anthropological and ecological concerns, exploring, in his own words: “model nature, its processes and effects for a future environment that may be completely made by humans.” Transcending genres of traditional object making and sculpture, Cheng’s work also demonstrates a sustained reexamination of American consumerist culture and industrial modes of production. In 1967 the artist registered the trade entity ‘John Doe Co.,’ which he utilizes as an anonymous alias to interact with manufacturers and stamps onto each of his objects, ironically inserting corporate language into his creative process. Specimen Viewer No. 3, 1970, exemplifies Carl Cheng’s singular combination of industrial machinery with synthetic organic-like matter to question our relationship with mass-market commodities as well as their lasting effects on our planet.

 

Minerva Cuevas (b. Mexico City, Mexico, 1975)

Minerva Cuevas’ socially engaged artworks often respond to the politics of her environment, shedding light on the weight of corporate responsibility, the perils of mass consumption, the ecological crisis, amongst other pressing topics. Although best known for her site-specific installations, her interdisciplinary practice also includes painting, video, sculpture and photography. In the Chapopote series, the artist employs petroleum as a primary medium to critique the mismanagement of natural resources within the oil industry and its effects on our planet. In Paysage Marin, 2020, Cuevas taints serene marine scenery with the coarse and dark material that appears to slowly drip to the ground, provoking an urgent visceral reaction in the viewer.

 

Donna Conlon (b. Atlanta, USA, 1966)      

American-born artist, Donna Colon, currently lives and works in Panama. Informed by her academic background in biology, her body of work includes ephemeral art, performances, assemblages, interventions and installations where she explores environmental permutations as a means to study ecological conservation. Colon references the explorer Alexander von Humboldt who was the first traveler artist to defend the environment, as well as Joseph Beuys, whose innovative ideas about ecological art proposed a greater understanding of the interaction between nature and man. In Country Road, 2002 Conlon highlights discarded garbage concealed amongst vegetation by lining it up with the double yellow lines of the road in Maine. For Dry Season, 2006, Conlon’s first collaboration with Jonathan Harker (b. 1975, Ecuador) the artists visited a recycling and glass fabrication center in Panama to record the accumulation of green bottles, rendering a beautiful green landscape out of a pile of unwanted material. Both videos bring a sense of urgency to environmental pollution and denote the consequences of reckless disregard towards our planet.

 

Agnes Denes (b. Budapest, Hungary, 1931)

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Agnes Denes was raised in Sweden after fleeing the Nazi occupation with her family and then moving to the United States. A major figure in the field of concept-based art who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, Agnes Denes is recognized for works in a wide range of mediums, informed by science, philosophy, psychology, poetry, history and music. A work from 1968, Rice/Tree/Burial, created in Sullivan County, New York, is arguably the first large scale site-specific work about ecological concerns. In Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982, a Public Art Fund project on the then Battery Park landfill, Denes planted two acres of golden wheat in a landfill near Wall Street and the World Trade Center. The wheat in the midst of the world’s financial center was later harvested and traveled to 28 cities around the world as part of an exhibition entitled The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger. Denes’ pioneering work remains relevant in the wake of climate change and the dramatic divide between the top 1 percent and the rest of the planet’s population. It also pays tribute to Denes as a female Land artist who used living materials that changed with time and the environment, unlike her male peers who used inorganic materials for their works.   

 

Juan Downey (b. Santiago, Chile, 1940 – d. New York, USA, 1993)

Chilean- born, Juan Downey left a groundbreaking mark in the New York art scene for his pioneering experiments in the fields of video, participatory and electronic sculpture, exploring cybernetic theories of communication, political discourse and ecological design. Having completed his studies in architecture at the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile in 1961, Downey subsequently traveled throughout Europe and moved to the United States in 1965, permanently settling in New York in 1969. In perhaps his most influential piece, Video Trans America,1976, Downey distinctively challenged traditional ethnographic approaches and Eurocentric readings of Latin American identity through video documentation of his three-year journey in South America. In the 70s and 80s, Downey began experimenting with cybernetics, becoming one of the first artists to employ video feedback in his art, in addition to including animals and live plants in his installations. Both of these practices are present in Life Cycle: Soil + Water = Flowers + Bees = Honey, an installation he created for his SoHo loft in 1971, which included plants, bees and broadcast media. Life Cycle not only illustrates the adaptability of natural organisms, but also the ways in which technology and video transmission could be used to create synthetic environments and achieve positive interactivity between man and nature. The exchange that occurs between nature, technology and humankind in Life Cycle also resonates greatly with Downey’s writings on the interconnectedness between organisms that lies beyond the visual spectrum, which he referred to as “invisible architecture.” This synergy was central to Juan Downey’s work as also seen in Fresh Air Cart, a public performance/ sculpture, for which he collaborated with Gordon Matta-Clark in 1972.

 

Newton Harrison (b. New York, 1932) and Helen Harrison (b. New York, USA, 1929 – d. Santa Cruz, USA, 2018)

The husband and wife team of Newton (b. 1932) and Helen Harrison (1929-2018), most commonly known as The Harrisons, began working together in 1969, eventually becoming leading figures of the eco-art movement. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach in collaborating with biologists, botanists, historians, urban designers, and activists, The Harrisons’ practice raises awareness of environmental challenges occurring due to climate change. Watershed restoration, urban renewal and agriculture are amongst the issues that the artists seek to bring to the forefront in their scientific projects, many of which have led to actual changes in government policy. The Garden of Hot Winds and Warm Rains, 1996, was the first proposal presented by the artists as part of their international Future Gardens series. The projected garden is comprised of two greenhouses with different temperatures: one simulated a desert-like climate while the other fosters a moist atmosphere. The purpose of this all-encompassing installation, which the artists called a “manifestation,” was to underscore the accelerating effects of climate change and rising temperatures through the observation of native plant species. According to the artists, the introduced flora would regenerate heat and recover the diversity loss in these stressed ecosystems. Newton Harrison continues to work on this series, having presented the latest iteration of Future Gardens in 2019 at University of California, Santa Cruz.

 

Susan Hiller (b. Tallahassee, USA, 1940 – d. London, United Kingdom, 2019)

Susan Hiller was born in 1940 in Tallahassee, Florida and graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts in 1961. After spending a year in New York City studying film, photography and linguistics she received her doctorate in anthropology from Tulane University in New Orleans. She moved to London soon after, where she connected with various British conceptualists and minimalists, and where she was based until her death in 2019. Often described as a paraconceptualist, her work questioned the austere Conceptualism of her contemporaries, pointing to the relations between the avant-garde of the last century and occult and supernatural practices. Hiller was best known for her investigations into consciousness, dream states and paranormal activity (what is unspoken, unacknowledged, unexplained and overlooked), through the use of a great diversity of materials and media, including photography, video, sculpture and installations. The work on view belongs to the Homage to Joseph Beuys series (started in 1969, and ongoing until her death), a group of felt-lined cabinets containing antique bottles of holy water collected by the artist at wells and streams around the world. This specific piece refers to the cult of Artemis at Brauron - one of the ancient cities of Attica, located approximately 23 miles east of Athens. The goddess of hunting, the wilderness and wild animals, Artemis was worshipped throughout Greece and celebrated in numerous festivals and temples. At her sanctuary in Brauron Artemis was worshipped as the goddess of childbirth and fertility, and as the protector of young girls. Playing into Hiller’s anthropological background, the work references Beuys’ ability to endow ordinary materials with sacred values and the persistent popular myths.

 

Alexander von Humboldt (b. Berlin, Germany, 1769 – d. 1859)

A prominent Prussian naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt had an enormous influence in the development of natural sciences and is considered one of the fathers of modern environmentalism. Originally trained in mineralogy and geology, he worked for the Prussian monarchy as mining inspector, visiting mines, inspecting smelting works, writing official reports and even founding a mining school. These experiences allowed him to secure permission from Charles IV of Spain to visit the Spanish colonies in Central and South America – drawing on the monarch’s interest in exploiting the region’s vast natural resources.  Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt travelled extensively throughout Central and South America, covering over 6,000 miles on foot, horseback and canoes. His descriptions of the journey were published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years, writing on topics such as botany, zoology, geography and astronomy. Describing the Earth as a living organism, he revolutionized the way the West perceived the natural world. Humboldt detected the spreading of continental landmasses through plate tectonics; detailed the distribution of plants; and charted the movements of air and water in creating bands of climate changes at different latitudes and altitude. Humboldt also created what he called isotherms to chart temperatures around the globe and tracked what would later become known as the Humboldt Current. The first person to describe the phenomenon and cause of human-induced climate change, Humboldt observed the effects of the desiccation of tree cover in Lake Valencia through the practices of cacao cultivation. Essay on the Geography of Plants is an illustrated text by the artist traveler that was published in Paris in 1807 upon his return to Europe after his five-year journey in the Americas. It represents the first articulation of an integrative “science of the earth,” illustrating different forms of plant life that grew from ground level up to the volcano.

 

Gyula Kosice (b. Kosice, Slovakia, 1924 – d. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2016)

Arriving in Argentina from Czechoslovakia in 1928, Gyula Kosice pioneered radical approaches in the field of Latin American Kinetic art. Known for his inventive practice, Kosice was amongst the first artists to employ neon, water and gas in his luminal installations as expressions of his utopian visions of space and human survival in nature. The artist’s concern that “mankind shall not be bound to Earth forever” was central to his theories in developing the utopian Hydrospatial City, an imagined blueprint for a metropolis begun in 1946 and completed in 1972. For this project, Kosice produced a series of light boxes and hydraulic sculptures that convey the artist’s preoccupations with light, water and space as well as his astronomical visions for civilization’s survival. Televisor Hidraulisado, 1956, emphasizes the interdependency of science and nature through the artist’s singular use of water, light and neon. Also a prolific writer and poet, Kosice co-founded the acclaimed Arturo magazine in 1944, and in 1946 co-edited the Madi manifesto with Uruguayan artist Carmelo Arden-Quin. In 1964 he represented Argentina at the 32nd Venice Biennale.

 

ADÁL (Adál Maldonado) (b. Utuado, Puerto Rico, 1948)

Born in Puerto Rico in 1948, Adál Maldonado moved to New York at the age of 17. Since then, ADÁL (self-dubbed) has created works across several mediums, often exploring his complicated Puerto Rican identity. In the artist’s words, ADÁL considers his art “the amelioration of conflicts between [his] experiences as a Nuyorican and [his] traditional Puerto Rican culture.” ADÁL initially began working on Puerto Ricans Underwater / Los Ahogados (The Drowned) in 1987, delving into the long contested history of Puerto Rico and its colonial relationship with the United States. Following the devastating ecological and economic aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, the artist revisited the series, photographing fellow Puerto Ricans and their reactions to the critical situation of their native island. In June 2020, ADÁL won the National Portrait Gallery Award for Muerto Rico, a poignant image from this series of a masked man sporting a black t-shirt with the words “Muerto Rico,” translating to “Dead Rico.”

 

Gordon Matta-Clark (b. New York, USA, 1943 – d. 1978)

Trained as an architect at Cornell University, Gordon Matta-Clark became a principal figure in the 1970s SoHo art scene, recognized for his site-specific artworks often critiquing contemporary culture and the institutionalized art world. Perhaps his most famous series, a sequence of architectural interventions in which he cut out holes in the structural walls of abandoned buildings, demonstrate Matta-Clark’s critical examination of urban architecture and structures. Other works such as Garbage Wall, 1970, in which he utilized trash and concrete to build an exemplar homeless shelter, and Food, a collaborative space that functioned as restaurant and performance venue, embody the artist’s reconsideration of the metropolitan landscape. In 1972, Gordon Matta-Clark presented Fresh Air Cart, part sculpture, part performance, in New York City’s financial district, Wall Street. The piece consisted of a small cart on four wheels equipped with two seats and a tank of “pure” air (79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen). As a statement against air pollution, passersby were invited to breathe clean air through the masks. Conceived as a sort of mobilized clean air station in response to the rise of pollution, Fresh Air Cart represents Matta-Clark’s early critique of post-industrial urban environment and becomes a political act by being put in the public sphere.

 

Daniel Medina (b. Caracas, Venezuela, 1978)

Venezuelan born Daniel Medina lives and works between Caracas and London. Included in the Venezuelan Pavilion of the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, Medina creates abstract and literal landscapes through a unique technique he developed of appropriating found geometric structures, maps and photographs, which he manipulates by cutting and layering to create new narratives. In this work, MPAM – 001/09, 2009, Medina takes two found historic maps and contorts the images through layering and weaving to create a kinetic instability. This illustrates a new depth of three-dimensional, ambiguous forms that challenge the cartographic definitions of boundaries and statehood.

 

Ana Mendieta (b. Havana, Cuba, 1948 – d. New York, United States, 1985)

Born in Havana, Ana Mendieta arrived in the US in 1961 as part of the Peter Pan Operation. Through the program run by the US government and Catholic Charities, children were separated from their families and sent to the US as a way of escaping Fidel Castro’s Marxist government. Studying inter media arts with German artist Hans Breder at the University of Iowa, Mendieta quickly developed a practice in which her body, the earth and other organic materials such as blood, fire, feathers and wood served as the subject of photographs, films, and performances. Mendieta often employed her body as subject and as a means of addressing violence against women as well as Afro-Cuban indigenous practices in her native Cuba. In “earth-body” work, Mendieta would press her naked form into various natural materials such as mud, sand or grass, leaving a silhouetted outline. For Mendieta, her earth/body sculptures allowed her what she termed a means of, “becoming one with the earth… and reactivating primeval beliefs.” 

 

Sandra Monterroso (b. Guatemala City, Guatemala, 1974)

Born during the decades long Guatemalan civil war, Sandra Monterroso began creating art in 1999 as a means to revive her country’s indigenous history. In 2015, she represented Guatemala in the 56th Venice Biennale. In her most recent series, Monterroso employs traditional Mayan practices such as plant dyeing and weaving techniques to challenge colonialism and shed light on the exploitation of indigenous women. In Volviendo al Punto de Partida (Returning to the starting point), 2012, Monterroso manipulates the traditional female hair bands, tocoyals, which she found at graves of the Guatemalan genocide. By placing two knives with the words that read “Tra(d)iciones [tra(d)itions/ betrayals]” and “Es mas fácil cortarlo que desatarlo [It is easier to cut it than to untie it]”, Monterroso criticizes the violence that has destroyed her country’s indigenous population. 

 

William Pope.L (b. Newark, USA, 1955)

Best known for his grueling performances and provocative street interventions, Pope.L (b. 1955) works in a variety of media and confronts issues of race, gender, social struggle, and community. Initially conceived for an exhibition at What Pipeline in Detroit, the Flint Water Project focuses on the public health crisis in Flint, whose residents have been exposed to contaminated drinking water since 2014, when State officials switched the city’s drinking water source from Lake Huron to Flint River (the unofficial waste disposal site from many local industries). Because officials cut corners in the process and failed to apply corrosion inhibitors, lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply leading to extremely high levels of heavy metal neurotoxin. The city’s additional failure to maintain sufficient chlorine in water also led to a major Legionella outbreak that killed 12 people and sickened at least 87. The exhibition in Detroit included a bottling demo, an information center to raise awareness about water issues affecting various American cities and a store to sell these bottles and raise funds for nonprofit organizations United Way of Genesee County and Hydrate Detroit.

 

Alejandro Puente (b. La Plata, Argentina, 1933  – d. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2013)

Born in La Plata, Argentina, in 1933, Alejandro Puente attended the Escuela de Bellas Artes in La Plata, where he became interested in notions of visual perception and color as designator of meaning. Together with Cesar Paternosto he co-founded the Informalist-leaning Grupo Sí, which placed him at the forefront of the Buenos Aires avant-garde scene in the 1960s. In 1967 he was awarded a Guggenheim grant and moved to New York, where he participated in Kynaston McShine’s influential 1970 exhibition “Information” at the Museum of Modern Art. It was also in New York, following his personal experiences of displacement, where he began to investigate the aesthetics of pre-Hispanic cultures. Upon his return to Argentina in 1971, his vocabulary had evolved considerably, integrating elements from Minimalism (such as the grid) with the aesthetics of pre-Hispanic cultures. Interested in the use of color to encode meaning, Puente investigated the architecture and textile traditions of different indigenous cultures, and particularly the quipu, a system of colored and knotted strings and cords of different lengths employed to represent numbers. Executed in 1983, Untitled alludes to the tradition of feather works found in various pre-Hispanic cultures in Mesoamerica, Brazil and Peru. A highly sophisticated technique, it was used to create figurative and abstract designs on textiles and apparel reserved for ceremonial and ranking purposes. Echoing the vibrant mosaics and checkerboard patterns created by Aztec and Chimú artists, Puente used feathers to “paint” different color stripes on burlap. In contraposition to the industrial production methods employed by the Minimalists (with whom he shared an interest in simplicity of means and modular systems), Puente never relinquished the physical making of the artwork, and opted for quasi-artisanal methods and materials, as exemplified in Untitled, 1983.

 

Eduardo Sarabia (b. Los Angeles, United States, 1976)

Born in Los Angeles to Mexican parents, Eduardo Sarabia relocated to Guadalajara, Mexico in 2003 and has lived there ever since. By reconsidering Mexican folklore in his work, Sarabia prompts deeper explorations of his Mexican-American identity and reexamines the detrimental effects of drug trafficking and political corruption in Latin America. In Ceiba Sagrada 21, 2016, the artist depicts the sacred Ceiba tree (considered the tree of life in Mayan culture) enclosed by nude faceless subjects; each individual’s head is boxed by logos of leading Mexican political parties. The tree trunk is adorned by two coins depicting national symbols, such as the Quetzalcoátl serpent and the Independence Angel, both emblematic of Mexico. This peculiar congregation amidst nature may be referring to the delicate state of the country’s ecology, whose future lies in the hands of prancing politicians. Sarabia complicates this notion by garnishing the frame with colorful plastic birds such as the quetzal, lovely cotinga, squirrel cuckoo and roseate spoonbill (many of which are at risk of extinction), commenting on the continual loss of endangered species as a result of deforestation, along with the authorities’ negligence towards such catastrophes. This work is part of a series titled Plumed Serpent and Other Parties, first presented at the Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico in 2016.

 

Melanie Smith (b. Poole, England, 1965)

Melanie Smith moved to Mexico City in 1989 where she became a central figure in the city’s artistic community. Spanning installation, video, painting and photography, Smith’s work is centered on the social and anthropological fabric of Mexico City, exploring its properties such as the city’s dense population and topographical diversity. In 2011 she represented Mexico at the 54th Venice Biennale. Smith’s film Fordlandia, 2014, brings attention to the politics of environmental accountability, in which she recounts the strains of Western industrialization on a small settlement in the Amazon. The film centers on the presently abandoned town, Fordlandia, located in the northern district of the Amazon Rainforest. Established in 1928 by Henry Ford with the goal to cultivate rubber for automobile manufacturing, Ford founded the city and built factories based on the US production model. Given the harsh extreme weather of the Amazonian environment, the indigenous people’s cultural differences, the modern city failed to prosper despite Ford’s support for the project until his passing in 1947, after which it was abandoned and subsequently sold back to the Brazilian government. Although there is no mention of Henry Ford in the film, Smith underscores the failure of industrial urban colonialism from an environmentalist perspective.

 

Taíno Culture

The indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, Taíno was the prevalent culture dominating Hispaniola (The Dominican Republic and Haiti), Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Island when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. The Taíno were known for a sophisticated and advanced high-yielding form of shifting agriculture to grow their staple foods which consisted of cassava, yams, corn, beans, squash, tobacco, peanuts and peppers. They were also known for their inter-island trading of goods, as well as pottery, baskets and stone and wood implements. Their religious beliefs and rituals were elaborate systems. They worshiped ancestral spirits called zemis that were represented in various materials and with which their spiritual leaders would communicate for advice and healing. The three-pointed zemi or trigonolito was the most characteristic type with one side of the stone having a human or animal head and the opposite side having hunched legs. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Taíno’s complex social order entailed a government headed by five Caciques (chiefs) throughout Hispaniola and others over the other areas of the Greater Antilles. The Spanish conquest reduced their culture to near extinction by 1550, due to enslavement, (fiercely independent, many committed suicide rather than becoming slaves, starvation and diseases). The few that survived married mainly Spaniards and Africans. Much of what is known about this earlier culture and their rich belief systems is because of Friar Ramón Pané, a Hieronymite brother who had direct orders from Columbus himself to live among the Taíno indigenous people and document their culture. Today many people of Taíno descent have gained visibility in Cuba, Puerto Rico and in the state of Florida in the United States. In 1998, the United Confederation of Taíno People was created as an umbrella organization to restore the Taíno culture, language and religion.

 

Clarissa Tossin (b. Porto Alegre, Brazil, 1973)

Clarissa Tossin is a Brazilian interdisciplinary artist currently based in Los Angeles. Much of her work is centered on her experience growing up in Brasilia, and the cultural exchanges between her native Brazil and the United States. Exploring ecological manmade disasters, displacement caused by international industries, and the importance of sustainability through installation, video, performance, sculpture and photography, Tossin’s oeuvre is characterized by its critique of modern globalism and utopian ideals. This discourse materializes through the artist’s use of indigenous resources and processes, which provoke new ways of thinking of everyday objects and their histories, many of which remain unknown to our contemporary society. For Circumnavigation Towards Exhaustion: Coltan Mines, 2020, Tossin taught herself weaving techniques from the South American Baniwa tribe and deployed Amazon.com boxes to comment on the megacorporation’s figurative annexation of her nation’s ‘Amazon,’ as well as the environmental impact of capitalism.   

 

Nicolás García Uriburu (b. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1937 – d. 2016)

Nicolás García Uriburu is best known for his efforts in raising awareness of water pollution by tinting rivers and lakes around the world with florescent organic dyes. Trained as an architect, Uriburu began his artistic practice as a landscape painter trying to capture the evanescent aspect of nature. Early on, however, he understood the greater impact actions and happenings could have on the public. On the occasion of the 34th Venice Biennale in 1968, Uriburu dyed Venice’s Grand Canal with green Fluorescein dye. Outside of the official program, the artist brought attention to the increasing pollution and took on cultural responsibility for ecological consciousness.  Following this action and for the remainder of his career, Uriburu continued to color major bodies of water such as the East River in New York, the Seine in Paris and Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires. In 1981, he was joined by Joseph Beuys in tinting the Rhine River in Düsseldorf, later exhibiting its polluted water in glass bottles. Although most of the effects of these actions were temporary (the colorant usually dissolved in a matter of hours or days), Uriburu’s artistic and ecological legacy is evident through objects, documentation and illustrations. Uriburu became an active defender of the environment. Although not as well recognized in the United States, in Latin America he is revered for his eco-activist practices and considered a pioneer in what was later coined Land art.

 

Adrián Villar Rojas (b. Rosario, Argentina, 1980)

Adrián Villar Rojas is an Argentine artist whose work explores the ephemeral quality of objects. Often employing an amalgamation of found materials, his sculptures and installations invoke geological processes that recall the practices of Land art artists such as Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria. Villar Rojas incorporates contemporary objects to summon a dialogue between archaeology and the future, conjuring a dystopian sense of decay. In Untitled, 2013, a cement pyramid pierces a wooden chair; the fragility of this manmade object suggests the vulnerability often associated with the Anthropocene era. 

 

Anicka Yi (b. Seoul, South Korea, 1971)

Anicka Yi was born in South Korea and moved to the United States with her family when she was two years old. She describes her work as politically charged and emotionally motivated, a conjunction animated by and through her use of atypical materials and scientific collaborations. Working between her studio and different laboratories, Yi experiments with texture and scents and combines them with unorthodox matter such as aquarium gravel, Girl Scout cookies, fermented kombucha turned into leather, tempura-fried flowers and injected live snails. In turn, her works must be seen and experienced as they provoke a desire to touch and smell. The artist is also well known for her examination of microbial matter and the anxiety surrounding hygiene, viruses and disease that is much too relevant in the pandemic we are living today. Yi’s pieces further reflect a variety of concerns on issues of institutional sexism and the accepted power structures of the art world itself, imperialism, the immigrant experience and the “biopolitics” of the senses. For Flavor Potentiator, 2020, part of the Bacteria Lightboxes series, the artist studies the intersection of the organic and the inorganic. She blends “natural” elements, such as the amoeba-looking cutouts of the panel, and the bacterial cultures in the background, with “unnatural” components: the abstract, linear design of the light box and industrial glassware that resembles laboratory transfusion equipment. With this piece, Anicka Yi confronts the ways in which manufactured objects often mimic biomorphic entities, suggesting a future where the two will become indistinguishable.

 

Ícaro Zorbar (b. Bogotá, Colombia, 1979)

Ícaro Zorbar was born in Bogotá, Colombia and currently works in Norway. Zorbar’s works are informed by his studies in film and his fascination for repairing mechanical objects since he was a child. Working with obsolete analog technologies that have simpler mechanisms, he transforms them into what he calls his “little monsters.” The concept of recirculating simple mechanisms, runs throughout Zorbar’s work as he reconstructs turntables, reconfiguring technological trash, music boxes, slide projectors, sound systems and mirrors. In these pieces, the artist invokes an eerie science fiction aesthetic. Zorbar’s interest in the humanization of technology, focusing on feelings and imagination rather than rational empiricism, recalls Mary Shelley’s Romantic novel Frankenstein. Underlying Romanticism and Zorbar’s modest works is their nostalgia for a simpler nature founded on the ideals of the imagination and innovation. The recycling of parts, transformed into current technologies with old and newly found parts, suggest that sounds or images always have alterations, unexpected noises, failures and imperfections as do humans. All of these works question the relation that humans establish with what surrounds them and transforms them, and the multiple readings each of the viewers have, which are capable of transmitting the fallibility which all human actions ultimately have.

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