Pequod Co. is proud to announce it's second participation in Art Basel Miami Beach, for Positions sector, with a solo booth by Cristóbal Gracia.
Gracia presents an installation produced specifically for Art Basel Miami, and derived from the time he spent living in New Haven during his MFA at Yale University. It is centered on 2 rhizomatic copper pipe sculptures that resemble a digestive system, and complemented by two unique sets of 10 engravings and 6 lithographs that play with the unfulfilled role of these two techniques of producing exact copies of the same artwork. The artist focuses not in the reproduction possibilities of these techniques but in the need of the production of the reproduction and its ideological implications. The project manages to articulate a nonlinear narrative that accepts contradictions and chaos while questioning the notion of originality in art. It provides the possibility to reshape cultural and aesthetic cannons from within. In the words of the artist: “what I am working on relies on the following question; how can we not only grasp, but create the shape and space of history?”
Let’s begin with a (hi)story, because narratives are fundamental for our personal experiences, to structure our reality and for the construction of history.
And what is history but turning raw matter and rough events into narratives and irrevocably, into the conflict between narratives. The anecdote I am about to tell took place in New Haven, at Yale University, where I lived for 2 years. The place where I am geographically located has always affected my work. I can’t deny the context where I am working just as I can’t deny the place where I come from, this is a state of a constant becoming. In 1950 Josef Albers, Bauhaus artist and faculty, destroyed most of the Yale plaster cast collection. The remains of the collection were rescued by the architect Paul Rudolph and are displayed in the Yale Art and Architecture brutalist building of his authorship built in 1963. The Yale cast collection consisted of a series of classical sculptures used in art and architecture education. Let’s not confuse this anecdote with its main characters, because it is not about Albers or Rudolph. They function as the starting point for this project, what I want to discuss is much broader and complex; the control and dispute for historical narratives and the construction of history itself. Let’s also not confuse history with the past, because the construction of history deals much more with the present and future rather than with the past.
The use of plaster casts was already present in ancient Rome, casts were made of bronze statues in order to produce marble copies of different sizes. However it was until Modernity, to the early XX century that plaster casts helped to create and massify an ideal of a dominant culture expressed under a single aesthetic, the classical canon. This was done with the aid of ideological apparatuses such as universities, museums and imperial archeology. Archeology had a great impact in the production of plaster casts since it engendered an eagerness to reconstruct the dismembered body of antiquity from scattered fragments, in order to try and recuperate the “lost original”, while museums had the possibility to recreate a perfect and linear chronological universal historicity, from ruined fragments to a reimagined perfect hyperreal totality at the service of imperial nationalisms. The XX century brought the decline of plaster casts. The causes were varied, from the World Wars, to the economical growth of America, revolutions from the Global South and among these causes was, paradoxically, the same booming industry of the plaster casts. New archaeological discoveries were followed by the production of their plaster casts and museums were eager to acquire these new casts. However the casts became more ambitious, but also more problematic, they would arrive broken or divided into hundreds of pieces with the impossible expectation to be correctly assembled in museums. The overproduction of plaster casts broke the illusion of a historicist linear chronology.
When Albers destroyed the majority of the Yale collection of plaster casts he freed students from the burden of tradition. This is an accurate description of a general feeling of the avant garde. What drove the avant garde to innovate is not the vision of the future or of the new, but the conviction that certain aesthetic and cultural forms of their time were no longer viable or were dead. This is why so many modern artists such as Albers were interested in Mesoamerican or African art, forms of expression completely outside of the traditional canon. This interest was mostly done in a formal way and looking for universal archetypes that most of the time ignored the historical struggles and symbolical beliefs of the same cultures modern art was feeding from. Rudolph’s attitude of preservation didn’t mean bringing back the classical tradition nor a nostalgic revival of a glorious past. But rather to understand the tradition of the western canon at the service of American modernism tracing a continuity from the future to the past. If we walk inside the Yale Art and Architecture building we could say that, in structural terms, the building is holding the remains of the plaster cast collection. However, this relationship also functions in the opposite direction. In a chronology based on the concept of progress, the classical tradition represented by the plaster casts is what historically holds the modernist building. They both hold themselves up.
Departing from these opposite historical standing points and in a moment when modernism and the avant garde have become tradition and cultural heritage, this project pretends to give the means of production for articulating our own cultural canon. Today the failure of the category of universality that permeated a great part of the XX century is evident. Nonetheless, it seems that this failure has been translated into a gridded categorization of essentialisms and commodification of different cultural identities. Is there any possible manner of articulating a collective tread detecting the traces of an uninterrupted, but wounded and contradictory narrative that can help us mediate this historical problem? As an artist, what I am working on relies on the following question; how can we not only grasp, but create the shape and space of history?. I will take the act of destruction of Albers and try to develop these questions by using the empty space that he created within the classical canon to modify it from the inside. Most of the marble statues from Greco Roman times, that are understood as the epitome of the original classical art, are actually copies of never seen lost Greek bronze sculptures. This metallic absence can also be a point of departure, there is no essence but a void or lack. Nonetheless, any void needs a limit to be able to contain, to be a vessel. That is why I will not focus on the plaster casts, but on the use of the plaster molds, the negative and potential space of production.
The limit to give shape to the void that I needed was also provided by Albers inside the institutional framework of Yale. He donated his collection of Mesoamerican objects to the University. I chose a series of these objects, the ones considered to be fake, to create the plaster molds. Fakes since their conception are meant to be sneaky mimicries capable of inserting themselves and transforming something that they are not supposed to be. They are beautiful parasites that when uncovered acquire the poetics of failure, or the forced possibility to be something else, an alternative. Albers referred to Mesoamerican objects as “plastics” because they were “bursting with energy” that is why I used plasticine to create the reproduction of these fake objects and matrix of the molds. The bursting sensation comes in the violent act of opening the molds, the plasticine matrix is torn apart, it is a violent gesture just like historical constructions (the production of the negative space affects the positive space). The matrix and the subsequent plaster molds are divided into several parts, each part having a different size and scale. This denies the possibility of creating a concise and single figure. As I work in a dialectical way I enjoy using certain contradictions, one of these is that I still think that even the most outdated classical canon can provide fragments useful for updating itself. Other fragments of these pieces will be provided by the Caproni collection, a company still active, which sold most of its casts to the Yale collection and to other important American museums. On this occasion I am using a set of grotesque tiles from the Caproni catalog. The grotesque consists of hybrid constructions in constant flux, floating and fusing humor with horror, wit with transgression, repulsion with desire. The grotesque pulls us into a liminal state of multiple possibilities, like a catalyst, opening the boundaries of two disparate entities, and setting a reaction in motion.
The potential totality of these sculptures is not in the assemblage of a lost original or in an accumulation of objects as it was traditionally done but in the set of relations that can be interwoven between the different parts. This sense of totality is understood as a whole set of elements that are interrelated in such a way that the essence of each element can only be understood in its relation to the others. It is a conception of human existence that embraces irrationality and unpredictability, which cannot be contained by a rational systematization. These sets of baroque and rhizomatic connections in the sculptures are made by copper pipes (what better material to establish a constant flow of meaning than a great conductor material?). The entanglement of copper pipes starts to resemble a chaotic digestive system. Something similar to what is known as codigophagy, when different semiotic codes in constant conflict lead to mutual consumption and production of new meanings that keep being updated. Cultural identities are not found to resolve their differences, but to violently devour each other. Other qualities of copper that I am interested in is that it allows you to see the traces of labor applied to it, it is a very sensible material to touch and its environment. Copper also has a capacity of mutability, this material will also take the form of engraving plates. How I first approached the fakes from the Mesoamerican collection of Albers and the objects from Caproni was by making drawings of them. These drawings then followed the same process of the plaster molds; each drawing was divided into several parts, each part was turned into a copper plate with a different size. Using the same overproduction that cracked the plaster cast industry in the beginning of the XX century I created a series of prints. Each plate was pressed over and over again creating a chaotic composition of excess. The copper plates are also shown as part of these unique prints.
As the project unfolds, the reference to the plaster casts is obfuscated, becoming the background of the project: the lithography installation. It is composed of images taken from the historic catalogs of the Caproni collection. The fragmented images are taken directly from low resolution online catalogs with no fetishization of the printed image. The source is contemporary and even degraded by the needs of the screen and the network. Just like the engraved prints, the collage oscillates between fractured pattern and chaotic excess. It acquires a physicality not only from its printing: The lithography plate itself is continuously sanded and eroded with acetone, creating unique prints and compositions. The created space is both limited and charged by the same plaster molds, printed over copper plates. The lithography process affords play with the density of ink, altering its tones as in a painting. The colors used are orange and green, as were used in the plasticine models for the copper sculptures. A direct link is established between the artworks, revealing that the image is thought sculpturally. Plasticine is a synthetic modeling material, traditionally used as an intermediary for the production of something definitive and solid. However nothing is definitive, or solid. The plasticine is continuously modeled, changed, by a subtle touch, rise of temperature, or by its surroundings, from the dust that clings to it, the micro-particles of material culture.