Seven Words, 1996
at the joan miró
by Kim Bradley
This 41-year-old Catalan artist first won recognition in his late 20s for his voluptuous, anthropomorphic sculptures of cast bronze and iron. Since then, his interests have shifted to industrial, architectural and domestic forms, such as heavy-duty receptacles and containers, doors and cubicles, and household furniture, all of which are often embossed with heady words or phrases taken from the artist's favorite literature. With its rough, dark surfaces and poetic import, Plensa's handsome, well-executed work draws from local artistic traditions and appeals to long-standing European tastes.
Plensa's recent efforts to lend his sculptures a translucent, radiant quality -- without losing their literary portentousness -- could be observed in the 39 large-scale sculptures on view at the Miró Foundation earlier this year. La Riva di Acheronte, Dessin d'un Maitre Inconnu and Exuberance is Beauty are three tall, empty resin containers capped by iron roofs and illuminated inside by fluorescent lighting. They are identical except for the variation in multi-lingual texts by Baudelaire, Dante and Blake which cover their surfaces. A related series of wall-mounted iron boxes sport different, individual words (such as "crater," "room" and "cave") on their translucent resin fronts. These and other sculptures utilizing thick, clear polyester resin seem to only come alive at night, when their interior lighting turns them into glowing receptacles.
Even then, melding language and art is tricky business. Instead of granting the art greater meaning, the words here seem overstatements, or mere decorative devices, or worse yet, a kind of label. This is particularly apparent in Plensa's differently shaped resin panels, which each bear the name of a famous artist. No doubt a sincere and well-intentioned homage, unfortunately this series reduces the artists to brand names. More interesting were several full-scale resin casts of antique night stands perched on translucent plinths and partially hidden from view by virtue of their placement near the ceiling. These evoked a ghostly, dream-like sight whenever they appeared. Also intriguing was Cloudy Box Sachet, a nearly eight-foot-square structure comprised of eight translucent rooms, each equipped with a metal door. The rooms tempt the viewer to enter, yet the entire structure is forever sealed off to the curious with deceptive see-through walls.
Also on exhibit were hefty iron sculptures harking back to Plensa's earlier work, such as La neige rouge, a large, tall three-sided space made of stacked modular units resembling industrial generators. Red neon coils shaped like heating grills were attached to the generators' sides, which faced inwards; their hot-looking red light filled up the space's interior.
Given that this is an important show for the artist (it will travel to the Jeu de Paume in Paris, the Malmo Konsthall in Malmo, Sweden, and the Stadtische Kunsthalle in Mannheim, Germany), it's a shame that Plensa, who was given free reign to do what he pleased, chose to include only work from the past five years. The exhibition would have benefited from a broader and more rigorous curatorial vision.
KIM BRADLEY is an American art critic living in Barcelona.