Façades of Fear
Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina's military dictatorship systematically tortured, killed, and "disappeared" 30,000 people suspected of opposing the government.
During the so-called Dirty War, many citizens were dragged from their homes in the middle of the night and never seen again. The military junta deployed terror tactics, torturing victims at hundreds of clandestine detention centers in Buenos Aires and across the nation.
Often these torture chambers were located in plain sight inside hospitals, banks, and office and government buildings in the middle of bustling barrios where husbands, wives, children, and parents were unsuspectingly within earshot of their loved ones' screams.
At Pan American Art Projects' latest show, "Reaching Beyond ...," Santiago Porter's large-scale series of color photographs document the decaying façades of many of the buildings where these crimes were perpetrated. The structures appear as if vacuum-sealed and soundproofed to hide the violence and despair staining the walls within.
Now these decrepit symbols of power seem forlorn, sooted only with silence and sadness. They are the abject settings, perhaps, for miserable memories of human cruelty in the fleeting thoughts of a passerby.
What leavens their bleakness is Porter's attention to detail. His buildings' fissures and cracks are inhabited with secrets that demand scrutiny now more than ever, he seems to suggest.
Edificio Militar I is a diptych offering two views of the same heavily fortified entrance to an unmarked military facility covered in granite stone. A solitary security camera guards an imposing bronze door. In the photo on the right, the façade registers harmlessly enough. In the other image, a human body, cocooned in a plastic garbage bag, lays blocking the building's threshold. Porter offers up the sacrificed victim as testimony to the catastrophic events that occurred inside.
One of the more haunting works in the series is Hospital, a picture of the Policlínico Ferroviario Central, where many members of the railroad workers' union are thought to have met their demise. Pregnant women who opposed the junta were also brought to hospitals, doubling as detention centers, to deliver their babies, who were ruthlessly snatched by military members eager to adopt. The mothers were consequently dispatched without a trace.
Porter also alludes to Argentina's recent economic collapse in works capturing the exteriors of the country's treasury and the ministry of the economy. Another shot, of a dirt-streaked courthouse, telegraphs that in many ways the system still remains corrupt.
From the haunted husks of these buildings, framed as vitrified tombs, the artist succeeds in preserving the memory of the nameless dead clamoring across Argentina's abyss for justice from their graves.
In the rear gallery, Jorge López Pardo's graphite-on-canvas and board paintings evoke a stark sense of isolation and loneliness.
His scenes look like cinematic negatives fished from a melancholic reservoir. The landscapes, dramatic in tone and mood, hint at an unknown elsewhere marked by crepuscular gloom.
In Avistamineto IX, a railroad track evaporates straight into the onyx yawn of a night cloaked in oppressive silence and an impending sense of doom. The visible stretch of track at the bottom of the composition is brightly lit in a staggering chiaroscuro effect, but the emptiness beyond it creeps under the skin.
An untitled charcoal-on-board piece depicts a pitch-black background as wicked as Vice President Cheney's soul. A chainlink fence runs across the lower half of the painting as if to warn the spectator against tempting the malignant forces hidden in the darkness on the other side.
One of the young Cuban artist's diptychs shows front and rear views of the same lifeless thatch-roof hut illuminated by unseen tractor beams in the middle of some godforsaken tropical backwoods.
Forget any signs of a human encounter with nature here. These scenes are leaden with inertia, but somehow the artist still entices the viewer to risk becoming lost in his somber spaces.
In Pan Am's project room, Andrea Cote livens things up with Cathexis, her installation featuring a video projection, photography, and a wall painted with clumps of her own hair.
The hourlong video, Cut, captures the white-clad artist during a performance in a New York gallery in which she is seen snipping off lengths of her locks and dipping them into black paint. She then tamps out the sodden strands on paper towels, before using the tresses as brushes to create vinelike abstract impressions braided across the ceiling and walls.
Cote, who often keeps clusters of hair from previous performances for up to 10 years, used some of these to encrust three walls here, knotting the space from floor to ceiling with inky tendrils. The floor is covered with piles of hair-slimed paper towels.
Outside the project room, Cote has included several digital prints in which she appears nude, painted white, and entangled in a web of her shorn locks.
In one of these striking images, her hands are isolated close up and gingerly cradle a grapefruit-size hairball.
During Victorian times, the hair of the dead was often shorn at a funeral parlor and incorporated into "mourning jewelry," typically consisting of necklaces, bracelets, and rings.
Cote appears to raise questions of mortality and loss with her show, but does so in a fashion in which her hair is transformed into art by the grace of hope rather than a descent into morbidity.
Although Pan Am's three artists cycle through different themes, they draw attention through works reflecting on the terrors and erratic nature of life, and the desire for tranquility they inevitably provoke.
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