When Alejandro Mendoza flies, his carry-on luggage includes the usual items: a toothbrush, spare eyeglasses, a 35-foot sculpture.
As the creator of a nomadic public art exhibit called "Giants in the City," the Cuban-born, Miami-based artist totes massive inflatable sculptures to urban spaces around the world. But when there isn't a show in Monaco, Aruba, or Mexico City, the sculptures -- a nearly 50-foot arm grasping for downtown towers, a cloud pulled down from the sky and trapped beneath a net, and others -- are deflated, wrapped in cling film, and piled under a desk in the backroom of Mendoza's Little River studio. They look like a cross between forgotten wash-and-fold bundles and steamer trunks from some lumpy alternate universe plastered with airline destination tags.
"I began in 2008 with a single 18-foot sculpture that I thought was massive," Mendoza says. It was a large baby bottle upholstered in cow spots and squirting a slick of milk that visitors could lounge on. "Now, though, we have giants that are taller than four-story buildings."
His studio has enough paint spattered on the floor that he could probably pry the tiles loose and sell them to collectors. A haze of incense and Salem smoke hangs low among the knickknacks that are raw materials for his mixed-media wall sculptures. ("No one wants to fill a house with coffee tables, but homes are made of walls," he explains.) There's a shelf with glasses -- more shot glasses than any other kind -- for visitors to use, and the front door is blocked by a pile of white and gray fabric.
"I love this," Mendoza says. "Look at what it is." He taps a thick, tanned finger on a photograph of a white-and-gray pyramid small enough that it could hide under the mound of fabric and no one would be the wiser. Though some of the "Giants" are Mendoza's own designs, most are collaborations with artists who need Mendoza's technical knowledge to turn an idea into, say, a colossal love seat that can hold 15 people and requires a ladder. In the case of the pyramid, it will be filled with lights of shifting colors and intensities.
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"It's really tricky to design something soft," Mendoza explains. "You have to control air to get a shape, and flat shapes don't exist when you fill something with air. Convex shapes don't exist. And sometimes you need to design something inside the Giant, a smaller Giant, to get the shape you want."