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Back to Reviews 97

Gustavo Marrone
Untitled, 1997

David Falkner
4 letter word, 1997

Carmen Hernández
Untitled, 1997

Pepe Espaliú
S/T, 1989

Pepe Espaliú 
Santo XII, 1988

Charles Ray 
Puzzle Bottle, 

Catherine Opie

Segundo Planes
Que?, 1995

Victor Manuel

Ernesto Pujol
Peter Pan's Table, 

Juan Muñoz
The Lines of my Hand, 

Juan Muñoz
Plaza (Madrid), 

Juan Muñoz
Plaza (Madrid), 

letter from spain 

by Kim Bradley

BARCELONA, February, 1997--Lately Barcelona has an exciting, "anything could happen" feeling to it, thanks to energetic emerging curators, artist's initiatives and the coming-of-age of some of the newer institutions. Even the city's notoriously conservative galleries perked up last season and hosted Spain's first art-in-a-hotel to-do, "New Art Barcelona," inspired by New York's Gramercy Hotel Art Fair. The showing proved to be fun, drew huge crowds and uncovered hidden talent lurking in Valencia, Andalusia and the Basque Country.

Artists are also taking matters into their own hands, staging impromptu shows in vacant buildings. The latest, largest and third "Se alquila" [translation: for rent] was held Jan. 17-22, 1997, in a dilapidated 18th-century palace and featured 40-some local and foreign artists plus nightly performances. They made good and fast use of the dark, marvelously decrepit rooms by painting directly onto the patterned, frayed wallpapers; filling funky old closets with objects, such as one full of lipstick-stained love letters; and hiding their bags of tricks (a machine that blew soap bubbles over unsuspecting viewers was perched high on the ceiling, while Serafin Rodríquez's tapes of barking dogs were installed in dark corners where you least expected them).

Upon entering the palace, viewers encountered an elaborate wood and glass automaton, recalling old-fashioned marionette cabinets, made by Roland Olbeter and Esterina Zarilla. For a 25-peseta coin, red curtains drew aside to reveal an upside-down head completely covered with exotic feathers. As the head revolved, an Italian operetta was sung, and rows of hands lining the case's bottom applauded at its conclusion.

Ramón Colomina and Silvia Genovés hung a huge photo of a carrot dangling from a stick over the altar in the palace's small chapel. NicoRridaZush exhibited a bizarre, bug-eyed quasi-Polynesian-style wooden male figure. The dramatically-lit creature was perched upon a rough pylon stand, and a weird sound approximating a fearsome jungle bug filled the tiny room. All in all, the show featured some of the freshest work by young artists to be seen in the city in ages, and was a rousing success, drawing nearly 500 people daily.

La Caixa foundation's Montcada gallery, a small but vital space programmed by up-and- coming local curators, has a promising lineup this year thanks to savvy critic- curator Rosa Martínez. Martínez, who is also curating Istanbul's 5th Biennale (scheduled for Sept. 26-Nov. 8, 1997), opened Montcada in January with a show by Akané, a young Japanese-born, Barcelona-based artist. Forthcoming shows include work by London-based photographer and video artist Sam Taylor-Wood, young Basque object maker Ana Laura Aláez, Chinese environmental performance artist Cai Guo Quiang and the IRWIN group from Slovenia, Yugoslavia.

Akané showed two works so unrelated that one would have thought they were made by different artists. In a closed-off, darkened portion of the gallery was an installation, Awaiting the Storm, a house-like enclosure made of low, thin white walls with an open ceiling and a cutout doorway and window. Inside the structure, the viewer could observe through the window a video projection of a row of modern electricity-generating windmills installed along a coastal hillside. An imposing prerecorded sound -- a powerful hum -- could also be heard. Fluttering sheer curtains bordering the window emphasized the delicacy and fragility of the home, which contrasted with the implicit force of the windmills, churning out energy as heat waves seem to rise over the ocean's expanse. The piece effectively created an intense, peculiar sensation of expectation, which was not entirely threatening, but not entirely pleasant, either.

Also on view was Constellations, an interactive Internet work-in-progress begun in 1991. Akané is haunted by her first most vivid memory -- at the age of three she witnessed the televised Apollo moon landing -- and attempts through Constellations to convey her wonder at the universe. The artist invites city-dwelling web users to send nocturnal images of their semi-obscure streets. Akané then creates "constellations" on the images by connecting their street lights with white lines, which she then displays on her web site.

Like many other web-based interactive works, what Constellations does first and foremost is connect with others in the "reach out and touch someone" frame of mind. As a collection of personalized nightscapes for awestruck stargazers, the piece is friendly and personal. But I would argue that the future success of such projects will depend on the artist's ability to imbue such group participation with greater meaning. After all, real constellations lend sense to the universe because they transform seemingly random patterns found in nature into images recognizable to human beings; they are then used to tell universally understood stories. Akané's Constellations does the reverse. The artist attempts to allude to nature by using phenomena produced by humans (street lights) to make random designs which only have personalized, individualized meaning.

Novice museum director Miguel Molins has Barcelona's Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) barreling ahead, scheduled with a jam-packed line-up. Whoa! Why not slow down and think things through a bit? Why exalt overrated artists such as Juan Uslé (whose abstractions are indistinguishable from dozens of other painters in New York), publish lavish catalogues on minor, derivative light works by Eugènia Balcells (local versions of early Turrell and recent Bill Viola), and pass up a wonderful opportunity to produce the first major museum retrospective (instead of a teeny-weeny sampling) of Pepe Espaliú? A talented artist and poet, Espaliu's incipient career was cut short when he died of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 38 in his native Cordoba. Not well-known outside of Spain, Espaliú's work has never been properly exhibited (small shows in New York at Brooke Alexander and John Weber, and larger ones at the ICA in London and the Reina Sofia in Madrid proved disappointing for those who know the full range of his production).

His poetic sculptures and drawings of abstracted, recognizable objects, such as bird cages and crutches, were invested with a handsome beauty and a contemporary, heart-felt melancholy. Locally, Espaliú is best known for his affecting performances called "carryings," which took place in Madrid and San Sebastian and first attracted wide-spread attention in this country to the AIDS crisis. "Carrying" consisted of literally that -- the barefoot artist was passed from the arms of one person to another, without touching the ground. These publicly staged events took on epic proportions since large numbers of people participated. About them Adrian Searle wrote, "the action of carrying was sculpture and performance, mystical, practical, theatrical, mundane and transcendental."

MACBA's small but nevertheless gratifying show of his work, curated by Glòria Picazo, brought together works produced between 1988 and 1989 with the goal of contextualizing an important mask-like sculpture by Espaliú in the museum's collection. Included are some of his "Santos" series, elegant molded leather sculptures exhibited on low plinths. These need not be read as masks, but their oval shapes recall the face and their lid-like, slightly concave forms clearly allude to the idea of concealment. The related "Pinocchio" sketches, simple conte crayon outlines of empty masks -- featureless except, of course, for the nose -- convey the startling idea that even Pinocchio's suffering could have been a facade.

Some of the best work on view included five untitled small, simple "masks," individually framed like relics in dark shadow boxes, which are fashioned from shoulder pads that are pierced, stitched, grommeted, and overlaid with tiny strips of foam. Again, it's a bit too literal to see these oval sculptures only as masks, although they clearly evoke the face and, in some cases, suggest sadomasochistic headgear. Other drawings and sculptures depict turtle shells, also protective coverings, although of the body, not of the eyes, our "windows to the soul." In sum, the show highlighted Espaliú's interest at that time of his life in exploring the need to shield and to disguise one's identity. A nice touch: a large, comfortable reading table with books by and about Espaliú was set up in the gallery.

Also showing at MACBA through Mar. 31 is the Whitney Museum's grab bag from its collection, "Multiple Identity," featuring 70 works by nearly as many artists and spanning 1975 to the present. Contrary to what the title might seem to indicate, the show is not about work dealing with the theme of identity, but about American art's many identities. Sound schizoid? It is. Imagine Carl Andre, Catherine Opie, Agnes Martin, Lari Pittman, Joel Shapiro, Jimmie Durham, Sol LeWitt, David Hammons, Alice Aycock, Charles Ray, Susan Rothenberg, Sue Williams, Lawrence Weiner and many, many others, all side-by-side. In her catalogue essay, Johanna Drucker valiantly tries to lump them all together under the concept of "contingency" (defined as an event that may occur but that is not likely or intended), as opposed to the autonomy characterizing early 20th-century art. Pretty bewildering for the local audience, many of whom are seeing this stuff for the first time.

"Multiple Identity," represents the first in a series of collaborative efforts to be undertaken by the Whitney and MACBA. Last summer, both institutions signed an agreement with the stated goal of "encouraging artistic exchange between America and Europe," through the joint production of exhibitions, seminars and symposia, and the training of professional staff (presumably those at the younger institution). At the time, Whitney board president Leonard A. Lauder termed the agreement "an historic milestone for us" and declared "Barcelona a good European port for American art."

This is the Whitney's first international collaboration of its kind, and Lauder is confident that other institutions will follow its lead. For the time being, however, no additional specific projects have been announced. When "Multiple Identity" opened, Whitney director David A. Ross was mischievously portrayed by the local papers looking very much like a carpetbagger chomping on an enormous cigar. He was quoted as saying, "I participated in the radical protest movements of the `60s and I'm conscious of the domineering image other countries have of the U.S. We don't want to impose ourselves; it's better that we get to know each other little by little."

The Centre Santa Mònica in Barcelona continues to bring rare opportunities our way, such as the most extensive historical survey of modern and contemporary Cuban art ever presented. Co-produced by CAAM (the Canary Islands contemporary art museum), La Caixa foundation, and the Centre Santa Mònica, "20th-Century Cuba: Modernity and Syncretism" included 113 works in all media by over 50 artists -- both Cubans on the island and expatriates living and working in Barcelona, Brussels, London, New York, Miami and Monterrey, Mexico.

According to co-curators Antonio Zaya and María Luïsa Borràs, modern Cuban art is characterized by "syncretism," the attempt to combine or reconcile differing beliefs. During 1920-40, Cuban artists adopted European Cubism, especially Picasso and Braque, but also tossed in generous doses of South American and African religious symbology (in additional to a tropical palette). The interval from the late 1950s- 70s, ominously known as the "dark period," is, ironically, one of the show's weak spots.

Few examples are offered, so we're forced to accept the curators' assurances that a bland, official art-for-art's-sake abstraction predominated, in sharp contrast with the richly inventive syncretic art preceding and following it. Since the onset of the `80s, young Cuban expatriates have mixed content from their homeland (folk art, Afro-Cuban religious imagery, Catholic iconography, and anti-Castro references) with new influences and attitudes, such as those to be found in American Pop and Mexican Surrealism.

Unfortunately, to protest the inclusion of expatriates, the Cuban government refused to loan key modern works requested from the National Museum in Havana. Their absence made it impossible to examine in depth the links and disparities not only between generations but also between exiled and non-exiled artists. Still, there was terrific recent work on view, including a powerful installation of ritualistic objects by Juan Francisco Elso Padilla, whose mysticism has influenced many talented younger Cubans, notably José Bedia. Manuel Piña's "Aguas Baldías" photographic series about Cuba's retaining wall poignantly underscored the wall's dramatic symbolic value both as a protective barrier and as a stepping stone to freedom. Themes in common included the balseros, the ocean and the ever-present silhouette of the island (in one painting by Luis Cruz Azaceta, a weary man carries the shape of the island slung over his shoulder).

Another constant was the social impact of exile, such as in Ernesto Pujol's painful Peter Pan's Table. Rows of plaster male genitalia on a wood table refer to the psychological "castration" suffered by Cuban children when their desperate, well- meaning parents farmed them off to Catholic foster homes in the U.S. Other pieces by internationally known Cubans such as Kcho, Segundo Planes, José Bedia, Carlos Rodríquez Cárdenas, Juan Pablo Ballester and Alexandro Aguilera took on greater meaning by virtue of their exhibition within a context of shared native experience, at least from the point of view of a non-Cuban like myself. The problem that this show did not really address is how to successfully translate an art so steeped in intimate social, political, and spiritual references.

Still fresh from his New York show at the Dia Center, Juan Muñoz, the homeboy done good, received rave reviews for his first exhibition in Spain in seven years. Curated by James Lingwood and produced by the Reina Sofía museum, the exhibition was held in the Palacio de Velazquez in Madrid, a lovely late-19th-century palace with ample natural light and a pale gray variegated marble floor well-suited to sculpture. Muñoz's by-now-familiar "Raincoat drawings," white chalk renderings of domestic interiors on black canvas, were included, along with some never-before- shown mostly figurative oil stick on paper sketches from the "Monologues" series, and a few sculptures, such as a mutant wood hand railing that zigzagged away from the wall, entitled The Lines of My Hand.

But the attention grabber was Plaza, an installation which took up the palace's entire central gallery and which consisted of a group of completely gray (similar in tone to the floor) bald-headed men with Oriental features identically dressed in Oriental-style pajama-like getups. The small men (about 2/3 the size of an average person) were loosely congregated in a circle looking at an imaginary thing with particularly sinister, cruel smiles on their faces. It was a charged scene given greater tension and drama by virtue of having to view it from a considerable distance. Plaza could only be observed from wall openings in the palace's lateral wings or from a newly constructed, large balcony which overlooked the space.

KIM BRADLEY is an American art critic living in Barcelona.