Sandra Gamarra's mystical journey at the Bass Museum
With the exception of a missing pew and some hymnals, a modest room near the entrance of the Bass Museum of Art could be a private chapel.
Approximately the size of an average South Florida bedroom, the space called the Cabinet houses a suite of 15 paintings, suggesting that art museums can be seen as sites for pilgrimage and worshipful contemplation.
The room is painted a rich burgundy color. A large triptych commands the wall across from the entrance. Seven book-size canvases are arranged at eye level on each of the adjacent walls, alluding to the 14 Stations of the Cross.
The space is dimly lit, forcing viewers to belly up to the works for closer inspection. The predominant tone of the canvases is the same overpowering wine color of the room's walls.
The paintings — on view as part of "Sandra Gamarra: At the Same Time (Al Mismo Tiempo)" — depict former visitors to the Bass observing mostly religious-themed 16th- and 17th-century master paintings from the museum's permanent collection, exhibited in the Taplin Gallery, next door to the Cabinet. It's part of the Bass's efforts to complement its older works with contemporary art.
Gamarra, who based the paintings on a similar suite of canvases for a show in Mexico also inspired by the Stations of the Cross, says she wants them to be viewed as if encountered in a place of worship.
"I wanted to use the space so that it looked like a little chapel that mirrored the bigger Taplin Gallery," Gamarra says. "I decided to lower the light so that people's senses become a little more stimulated. If the light is low, you might look in a different way, pay more attention to the sound, smell. It is like when you go in a church, the light is low and people turn introspective... In fact, once you position yourself in front of the work, your shadow covers it. It is a way to question the image."
Also inspiring contemplation is a suite of 15 paintings, titled At the Same Place, arranged at the museum's entrance. In them, Gamarra depicts outdoor scenes of people visiting sculpture gardens and public art. A large triptych from the series is titled Fatima, after the Portuguese town where in the 19th Century the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherds.
"I wanted to do a parallel with a mystical experience in a chapel and with the idea of apparition of a Virgin," Gamarra says. "I tend to see public sculpture as if they had this sort of relation. To some extent, they suddenly appear in an urban context or sculptural garden and surprise you.
"I like to look at the At the Same Place series as a place where artgoers conduct an outdoor pilgrimage and witness some sort of transcendent event on the road," she explains. "When religious people go on a pilgrimage to a place of devotion, they ask for some sort of miracle, make a wish, as well as want to witness that mystic place."
In both series of works on view at the Bass, Gamarra incorporates images of viewers contemplating art. Visiting first the Cabinet space and then the Taplin Gallery next door and reflecting on Gamarra's uncanny images underscores the relationships among the maker, the work, the viewer, and the point where they meet. The images also evoke an eerie sense of déjà vu, which for the artist reflects notions of how we experience the world.
"I like the idea of coming back to look at something," Gamarra says. "Although one might see the same thing again, the situation is always different and makes this experience seem as if it was brand-new again. The déjà vu is similar to a going-back; it is like the notion of pilgrimage."
To create the paintings, Gamarra, who was born in Peru and is based in Spain, visited the Bass this past March to snap pictures of museumgoers contemplating art.
After taking countless photographs over three days, Gamarra returned to Madrid, where she decided to base her suite of the 15 At the Same Time paintings on pictures snapped in the museum's Taplin Gallery housing the ornately framed baroque works.
"When I take pictures of people visiting museums, I always tend to find details that strike me," she says. "In this case, I got a few pictures of visitors dressed up in a very similar way to the works they were looking at. It's a coincidence, but I like to think of it as a pattern that repeats itself in a museum... I like to look at people and their behaviors within museums."
In At the Same Time 4, for example, Gamarra depicts a couple seen from the back who appear to be venerating the multiplex-screen-size Flemish tapestry engulfing an entire wall. The man and woman in Gamarra's jewel-like painting wear brightly patterned garb echoing the salmon and light-blue hues dominating the soaring early-16th-century masterpiece, which features a pair of jousting knights astride royally caparisoned steeds while their lavishly decked-out lords and ladies look on.
Several of Gamarra's other small canvases depict solitary museumgoers or entire families in rapt attention as they contemplate classical biblical scenes.
"When I refer to art as a mystical experience, I pursue a pattern of where art comes from," Gamarra says. "I just pursue a pattern where art maintains a tension between the real and the unknown, which still seems to open up mystical or shamanic functions for reflection."
As part of her project, Gamarra tweaked the labels of the works on view in the Taplin Gallery to infuse new meaning into old paintings of religious or mythological scenes that took place 2,000 years ago.
"In our age of overinformation, I like to think about the flux of information found within works of art and what stays or disappears," she says. "Most of the scenes that the paintings depict have many similarities with daily events that you read about in the press."
In the Taplin Gallery, Gamarra labeled the scene in Gerhard Seghers's 17th-century painting of Christ and the Penitents, "A suspect detained at night by police in Petare, a Caracas slum where more than a dozen homicides are reported every weekend."
She culled that label and others from "a huge archive" of newspaper clippings she keeps in her studio. Gamarra thinks the captions accompanying the press pictures easily reflect the images on view at the museum.
"I wanted to establish this tension with what is inside and outside the image — what you see and what you can't see," she says. "What is inside the formats, the paintings, the labels, the rooms, and how to find cracks within established structures within the arts. This intervention... blurs the relation between fiction and reality."
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