Trampling the Grid

CIFO's commission artists offer slaphappy taproots, martyrs, and more

Figuring out what constitutes art can be a craptastic adventure. Or so Alvaro Oyarzun implies in The Painted Image or The Most Beautiful Memories of the Life of Captain Carrot currently on view at CIFO.

Engulfing one entire wall and part of another, the Chilean's sprawling project is part of "Three Perspectives: CIFO 2007 Commissions Program Artists," also featuring work by Venezuela's Eugenio Espinoza and Colombia's Jose Alejandro Restrepo.

The trio was chosen for the exhibit as part of the nonprofit's efforts to "broaden global understanding of the work of artists who are making a significant impact in Latin America but are less familiar to U.S. audiences," explains Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, director and chief curator of the Cisnero Fontanals Art Foundation's space.

One of Jose Alejandro Restrepo's martyrs
One of Jose Alejandro Restrepo's martyrs

Details

Through May 6. CIFO, 1018 N Miami Ave, Miami. 305-455-3380; www.cifo.org.

This year's winners, who were selected by a panel of peers and leading art professionals, are exhibiting new works commissioned by CIFO specifically for the show, along with previous works.

Composed of some 500 small-scale drawings, paintings, and photographs — some new, some old — and arranged floor to ceiling near CIFO's entrance, Oyarzun's monumental collage is meant to be viewed as one complete painting in which the disparate elements intertwine in the underlying plot — not unlike one of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritú's movies, minus the heft.

According to wall text, in theory, Oyarzun's work mines art's fundamental philosophical issues and the complex role, and life, of the artist. His characters, described as "amorphous archetypes of artists," loosely lead the spectator through a grungy, ambivalent narrative questioning the need for art to exist.

Many of the self-taught artist's pen and graphite drawings depict a gallery of grotesques, each with a bit of text telegraphing Oyarzun's strategy of flouting the conventions of painting while attempting to impose his own voice.

In one, a three-eyed, pus-oozing woman holds a tome titled The Social History of Art, while next to her a megacephalic mook peruses a reference book examining historical images of the body. Underneath a line reads, "Beyond all the problems, my love for painting remains intact."

Another drawing shows a man farting spider webs over text that informs, "In any regard we already knew that when it came to painting we didn't hold out much hope."

For non-Spanish speakers — or anyone else, come to think of it — deciphering the riot of visual noise can be a taxing strain. What is a viewer to make of the jumble of paintings of ghoulish freaks, dead dogs, giant crabs, rotting fish, and even a portrait of a senile old man scattered throughout? Or of the painting of the exterior of a condo in which the artist's alter ego, Captain Carrot, peers from behind a balcony rail? Or for that matter, the series of eleven napkin-size paintings directly below? They depict a used condom, a penis, diseased organs and bones, and what even appears to be an unsightly ode to a turd.

Perhaps the best way to ingest Oyarzun's festering fable is to follow the tiny pictures of Captain Carrot — who looks like a poor cousin to Mr. Potato Head — wending their way through the wacky imagery clogging the walls.

You don't need to understand Spanish or have a plot outline to catch on to the critter's travails.

The homunculus burnout is seen shambling through the weeds, scaling ramparts, and excavating a hole. As his journey toward becoming art-savvy unfolds, Captain Carrot is seen wrestling a dinosaur, engrossed in an art publication, and confronting a hare. He later enters a museum made out of a cardboard box, and becomes transfixed by a huge portrait of himself, before falling fitfully to the floor.

In doing so, the slaphappy taproot seems to echo a line in one of Oyarzun's squirrelly drawings that ironically spoofs the self-taught: "Neither in favor of nor against but rather well-assimilated — or an I don't know what from the profoundly idiotic."

There is no denying that Oyarzun is a talented painter with a sharp attention to detail and an unerring eye for humor. But after lingering for more than an hour trying to absorb the stew into which Oyarzun seems to have poured every can and box from his kitchen cabinet, one walks away convinced his cockeyed vegetable gets the last laugh.

In an adjacent space Restrepo, one of Colombia's video art pioneers, tomahawks spectators with some old-time religion tweaked with a bit of stunningly blunt, modern hyperviolence.

Estigmas (Stigmas), a series of five fiberglass sculptures housing mini video monitors, lassos the viewer into engaging with the work from mere inches away. In one piece a pair of outstretched arms jut from the wall as if reaching for the spectator. Thick cords of electrical wire run like brachial arteries from the hollow of the forearms to the floor. The Christmas lightbulb-scale screens, embedded in the palms to denote stigmata, depict a man driving nails into a penitent's hand with a brick.

Disembodied feet on the floor and a head on a column serve up more of the same. Restrepo knocks a hole the size of a quarter next to the mug's left ear, where he places the twitchy video as if to deliver a coup de grace.

Isolated in its own room and made spookier by sombre organ music, Viacrucis is a twenty-minute video montage riffing on the fourteen Stations of the Cross — the path of Christ to his death on Calvary. The disturbingly graphic piece culls current events from mass media sources, fusing images of people inflicting harm to themselves with the social unrest and political malaise plaguing the artist's homeland. He does so as a metaphor mirroring religious martyrdom. In one scene a man in a cloth codpiece, yoked by a sign identifying him as a thief, is beaten and stomped by a crowd. Another segment depicts a suicide calling for his mother on the evening news before shooting himself in the head. The funeral of Pablo Escobar gets big play as throngs of people are shown storming the open casket to paw at the drug baron's remains. Shouts of "Pablo! Pablo!" stain the air while wild-eyed police in riot gear try in vain to gain control of the mob. Other segments include a masked wrestler buried alive in a pine box, a bald parishioner wearing a crown of thorns in a church, and a man trying to wash a hooker's feet on a street. A bit of levity is injected in the provocative piece when customs agents in Canada discover a statue of baby Jesus shipped from Colombia and stuffed with a kilo and a half of cocaine.

Exiting the room, a siren's wail rises through the space. It comes from Restrepo's Protomartires (Protomartyrs), commissioned by CIFO for the show. The 42-minute video is designed as a contemporary santoral, or calendar of the lives of saints.

Entering the separate viewing room, the racket is seen coming from a virgin draped in white who bellows, "I love God, but he is sad" into a bullhorn. Other saints and mystics include a nun dragging skeletal remains on a rope across a courtyard, then forcing her arms through its ribcage. Some of the segments show a friar fanning the air with a palm frond and a priest pushing a rock up a ladder until he disappears from the screen.

There is a bone-jarring exaltation of violence in much of Restrepo's work, but his imagery is impossible to tear away from, and considering the subject matter, astonishingly fresh. It suggests how Christianity took root in the New World at the point of a sword, and how for many the shaky path to paradise still seems paved as much by death as by faith.

The recipient of CIFO's 2007 Achievement Commission, Eugenio Espinoza deservedly gets the marquee treatment at the space.

The Miami-based Espinoza, whose work has rarely been seen locally, first wrenched necks in 1972 during his debut museum solo show in Caracas, when he was only 22 years old.

At the time his work offered a direct challenge to the geometric abstraction that had a chokehold on Venezuela and much of Latin America.

That same year he also presented El Impenetrable (The Impenetrable), an installation of reticulated fabric covering the floor of the Ataneo de Caracas, which restricted the viewer from entering the exhibition space.

During the past three decades he has explored the parameters of the grid, the underlying structure of modernist visual arts, with both a conceptual rigour and a relentless sense of purpose reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog samurai warrior.

His exhibit is rife with wonky variations on the grid, including a nifty suite of digital c-prints documenting a happening staged in 1973, during which people tied strips of grid-covered canvas to each other's legs and ran through a parking lot; others chewed through the stuff, or cocooned themselves in it

Other works from the Seventies include a series of artist's sketchbooks, neatly displayed in a vitrine in the middle of the gallery, that add to the highly polished museum quality of the show.

A series of recent black-stripe-on-white-paint canvases cover the walls of an entire room and hopscotch between traditional notions of painting, sculpture, and installation.

Otro Geometrico (Another Geometric) literally stands the grid on end. Overlapping acrylic on canvas panels are arranged against a wall in what suggests an animal shape nesting on a pair of car jacks.

In a nearby corner, Bloque y Pedazo de tela is a wedge of gray-carpeted two-by-four wooden blocks stacked on the floor.

Other playful, smartly composed pieces are precariously balanced on a ceramic bear, portable file cabinet, or a glass jar full of herbs, like a ball perched on a seal's nose.

Those wondering if Espinoza might soon tire of strumming the same song need only enter Negativa Moderna, his site-specific installation created for this show, and a raucous answer to his Impenetrable.

In it Espinoza has put his grid paintings through a thresher and arranged their guts on the gallery floor. He invites spectators to enter the room without fear of getting tangled up in the tentacles of geometric abstraction, but rather to be free to join him in continuing to gleefully trample over the ubiquitous grid instead.

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