Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz are not the type to gingerly test the depths of mythology. Instead the Miami-based pair has plunged headfirst into the unknown, seeking to fathom the common lore that binds humanity in an Ariadne's thread across the globe.
At the Carol Jazzar Gallery in El Portal, the conceptual duo has conjured a realm of enchantment by creating iconic imagery of fantastic creatures lost to time, yet which appeared very much alive to the bygone civilizations that venerated them.
Their richly symbolic exhibit "Otherworld" offers an imaginative portal through the ages. It deploys found objects and garments to evoke mystical beings that have transcended space and time.
The Cuban artists, who have collaborated under the name Guerra de la Paz since 1996, share a studio in Little Haiti, where they have plumbed the neighborhood's streets and shops for the discarded materials that make up their art.
To create the eye-popping mermaids, unicorns, witches, warlocks, and angels in their show, they play the role of backyard archaeologists, dumpster-diving and rifling through piles of clothing at local shops that work in the rag trade shipping used garments in bulk to Haiti.
"These businesses toss out furs, sequined items, and stuff like prom gowns in the dumpster," de la Paz explains.
Adds Guerra: "What we collect from these places, thrift shops, and friends and family is the driving force behind our work."
The pair has become known for creating sprawling installations evoking whimsical landscapes. "A lot of these places would toss the clothing they had no use for in the trash," de la Paz says. "The weather would change the garments, giving the metallic thread and sequins of some fabrics a glistening sheen. It was all destined to become part of a landfill, and we thought it would be great to create these surreal landscapes out of them."
At Jazzar's space — a retrofitted garage located behind the French dealer's home, in a lush tropical setting reminiscent of the duo's earlier installations — it's evident the artists' work continues to evolve.
Great White is a non-garment minimalist piece fusing the body of a fiberglass shark with a female mannequin's head. The sculpture mixes Hellenistic and Polynesian references, the pair says.
"In Hawaiian myth, there was a good shark that protected people during shipwrecks from bad sharks, leading them safely to land," de la Paz says.
"This piece is more pristine than past works and also references classic Greek statues which were once painted but have been stripped of the pigment by the elements," Guerra adds.
According to legend, Ka'ahupahau was the shark goddess of Pu'uloa (Pearl Harbor) who protected Oahu from sharks. She and her brother, Kahi'uka, were born as humans with red hair. Later the siblings were changed into sharks. The Ewa people fed the goddess and scraped barnacles off of her back.
"We found the shark on the street near our studio," de la Paz says. "It stunk like crazy when we sawed into the fiberglass, which is very toxic. We erased history from our palms sanding it. It was one of the most time-consuming works in the show."
For the Babylonians, Phoenicians, and Assyrians, fish with human features were a symbol of fecundity and spirituality, and in some ancient cultures, priests associated with fish-worship were forbidden to eat them.
Both artists explain they are interested in searching for the universal themes common to diverse cultures and found in recorded narratives handed down through the ages.
At the same time, they lament the rampant consumerism and lack of originality in modern culture.
"We are interested in creating a new mythology combining the old and new," de la Paz states. "Everything recorded in the past continues to reach into the present." Guerra finishes the thought by noting that "it is also about the idea that certain imagery has transcended the societies that created them and still impact us today."
As children, the artists say they were mesmerized by mythological beings and stories of the mysterious and unknown. Both tinkered with notions of pursuing careers in archaeology.
In 2007, they spent two weeks in Istanbul, staying at a hotel built over an ancient hippodrome. Through the window of their room, they could see a soaring column that marked the center of the Roman Empire, de la Paz informs.
"There were all of these incredible ancient artifacts everywhere one looked," Guerra says.
"You would encounter these layers of Greek, Roman, and Ottoman culture next to contemporary vendors," de la Paz adds.
The artists say they felt at home in those surroundings because the environment reminded them of excavating through piles of clothing and urban detritus for their cast-off finds back home. The trove of mystical beings, such as a horned dragon they saw at a Turkish museum, also inspired one of the pieces in "Otherworld."
Tip Toe is a unicorn they created from a female mannequin torso and two sets of mannequin legs. A woman's coat trimmed with Icelandic sheep's fur serves as the creature's mane. A horn that was once a wine decanter, which one of the artists inherited from a Spanish relative, crowns the beast's head.
The sculpture appears to be on the verge of movement and also references a Middle Age tapestry bearing the image of the Virgin falling in love with a unicorn symbolizing Christ, which was a popular myth during medieval times.
One of their most striking pieces is a life-size sculpture of a shaman called Witch Doctor, which bears a resemblance to a Native American kachina doll.
The figure's torso was confected using an old gorilla suit. In a past incarnation, its neck piece was a hand-crocheted dress. "We used a doggy sweater and a Bavarian hat for its head," laughs de la Paz, who says the sorcerer's face was crafted from a girl's ruffled bloomers.
The artists agree that many of the archetypes they are tinkering with can be found today in superhero comics and TV soap operas.
"The symbolism is present everywhere in contemporary culture, especially in marketing," says de la Paz, expressing regret that in a disposable society, identity can be shopped for with a credit card and cultural meaning becomes increasingly unmoored from the past.
"Alain and I are not mall people," he says. "We avoid them like the plague. I am not interested in fitting in. Today everything is mass-produced and everyone seems to wear the same uniform. Even people who seek a primitive side by getting a body-piercing realize that everybody now seems to be getting a tattoo."
De la Paz pauses to relate a story about a youngster he encountered in his gritty neighborhood. "There were these clothes that were strung up on a barbed-wire fence almost reminiscent of a prison camp. Alain asked the kid if he thought the clothes and wire were art. The boy responded no, laughing. Alain went to get his camera to capture the scene. When he showed the kid the picture and asked him if he thought it was art now, the boy was surprised by the image and said yes."
Not unlike forgotten fables, this artist's story has a moral. It's that art is everywhere, he says, and all the more surprising when found where least expected.