Found and Lost
For over a decade Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas has made sculptures from objects as disparate as cake, scythes, boxes, plants and magazines
There remains, of course, the problem of the material of some objects.
Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1961)
It’s not customary to begin with a cake, but in the case of Abraham Cruzvillegas it makes a certain kind of sense. In 1999 the Mexican artist baked a coffee cake in the shape of a friend’s Renault 5, a vehicle that he had earlier personalized with a mocha paint job, based on the colour theories of the Bauhaus painter Johannes Itten concerning the individual’s psychological responses to certain hues. To look at, Cruzvillegas’ R5-Cake (1995) was a poor approximation of an automobile (it’s nearly impossible to mimic the sleek planes of a Renault using just eggs, flour and sugar), but its spongy form was alive with tensions, with various degrees of resistance and give that spoke of the wider preoccupations of his art. Despite its crumbly impermanence, the cake staged a plucky battle against obsolescence by referencing both the notion of perfectibility implicit in Modernism (‘this is the last car, or teapot, or poem you’ll ever need’), and the persistence of the handmade, handcrafted object in the face of historical flux. Cruzvillegas’ dessert may have been long ago digested, but it still provides chewy food for thought.
For all the impact of modernity, our species still engages in many types of productive activity that know nothing of Fordian or post-Fordian methods. One such activity is traditional crafts, an area Cruzvillegas returns to time and again, not merely because crafts are a repository of (sometimes semi-fictional) cultural identity but also because – counter to their apparent conservatism, their dependence on the saline drip of the tourism and nostalgia industries – they offer an ambulatory alternative to the rocket-fuelled velocity of contemporary capitalism. So far, so familiar, but there’s another factor in play in the artist’s work: art, or the process of something becoming art. Cruzvillegas has said that: ‘After transforming something, I want it to be ready to be transformed again, by interpretation, by physical decay, by its own weight, by time. It happens anyway. That’s why I don’t like the idea of production, because it means arriving at the end, not a beginning’. Art, for Cruzvillegas, is always happening – spiralling into eternity like a Fibonacci sequence, or the delirious plume of bubbles that trail a speedboat’s whirling propeller.
Abraham Cruzvillegas’ early works date from the beginning of the 1990s. In these sculptures he employed folk art made by his father during his childhood (at that time the Cruzvillegases’ only source of income) that had failed to find a buyer but had somehow lingered on in his family home. One such work is an untitled piece from 1993, whose form recalls Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913), the French artist’s first ready-made. In Cruzvillegas’ version, however, the wheel’s spokes have been replaced by a circular panel on which his father, now an academic, once painted a bouquet of red carnations. There are two very different models of paternity here: the aristocratic father-figure Duchamp, who innovated through what some might argue was cultural necessity, and Cruzvillegas Senior, whose artistic conservatism (and maybe even his artistry itself) was born of economic need. By bringing the work of these two men together Cruzvillegas not only expands the notion of ‘influence’ so that it might include the micro-stuff of specific domestic context alongside the macro-stuff of art history, but also casts into doubt the purity of the ready-made – which is to say, its inconsequentiality, its mute object-hood. Everything humans make, after all, speaks of a particular history of production and a particular set of socio-economic circumstances, mass-produced bicycle wheels or bottle racks no less than handcrafted objects. But if this piece points to a problem in Duchampian alchemy, it also makes use of this alchemy to transform Cruzvillegas Senior’s carnations into ‘proper’ art. It’s a move that’s at once admiring and mired in disappointment, at once guilty and aggressive – a cameo, in fact, of the difficult traffic between fathers and sons.
Looking at Cruzvillegas’ sculptures, I keep returning to the same question: does a ‘found object’ know (somewhere in its morphic field, perhaps?) that it will one day be found? In the artist’s La Moderna (The Modern, 2003) six scythes circle the head of a weathered, broken oar, their points converging on its centre, so that their curved blades resemble a cartoonish fountain of water, sprung from a hole of their own creation. So perfect is this arrangement (in its form, in its chicken-and-egg circular narrative) that one might fantastically conclude that its parts had waited their whole lives to come together. Similarly, La Tarasca (2003) – a sculpture comprising the jawbones of three successively smaller marine predators, stacked on top of one other and then ornamented with feathered fishhooks – seems to have always anticipated its own making, its headlong rush towards demonstrating that there is ‘always a bigger fish’. Perhaps all Cruzvillegas has really done is to transform these objects into themselves. A self, though, is as temporary as the moment between tick and tock, and like matter is infinitely mutable. As the artist has written: ‘However art makes itself evident, it shall remain, above all, raw source material in its natural, unstable, physical, chaotic and crystalline states: solid, liquid, colloidal and gaseous. It is the joy of energy.’
This notion of art as ‘the joy of energy’ is exemplified by Cruzvillegas’ Las guerras floridas (The Florid Wars, 2003), a work first installed in the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, in 2003 as part of the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the USA. Comprising an oblong grid of fresh leaves from the maguey plant (the source of mescal, and an important crop in the economy of Pre-Columbian Mexico) nailed to the gallery wall, the piece slowly deteriorated over the duration of the show, the green fronds wilting, browning and crisping up, its form perpetually uncertain, perpetually new. In a sense Las guerras floridas might be interpreted as a kind of clock, measuring out the exhibition’s lifespan in steady increments of decay, but that doesn’t seem quite right. For every day the show went on, the leaves lost a little more of their chemical vim, yet the longer this entropic process continued, the longer the list of viewers who saw the work became. While the beginning- and end-dates of the Houston exhibition appear to book-end the ‘life’ of the piece, they really did no such thing. Just as particular sunbeams and droplets of rainwater sustained the maguey leaves before they were plucked by the artist, so the visitors to the show may in future transfer something of Cruzvillegas’ piece – something of its power – into another sphere of life. Energy, here and elsewhere in the artist’s practice, is not something that is expended but is rather something that transforms.
Before moving from Mexico to France in 2005, Cruzvillegas was faced with a problem: what to do with the 500 or so objects – some useful, some not – that were cluttering his soon-to-be-vacated studio? The artist’s solution was simple. Using half glossy pink enamel and half matt-green blackboard paint (the colours of Rio de Janeiro’s Mangueira Samba Club, where Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica would strut his stuff in the late 1960s), Cruzvillegas slathered each of the objects in pigment so that it resembled the product of a malevolent candy-maker. Arranged into a kind of Mandelbrot set fractal and going under the title Horizontes (Horizons, 2005), they formed his contribution to the 2006 Turin Triennial. Cruzvillegas’ intention, here, was to cancel out the virtues of these objects, to strip them of their previously seductive qualities – as he said to me, ‘cruelly [to] transform them into themselves’. It’s hard not to read this as a nullifying of that which he was forced to abandon, and just maybe as a barbed take on the popular Brazilian carnival song ‘Atrás da verde e rosa só não vai quem já morreu’ (‘Only the dead don’t follow the green and pink’). To extend Horizontes, to follow its logic, is always possible for Cruzvillegas – all it demands is another self-exile, another set of objects left behind. This, though, I suspect, would feel a little too like an ending, a point at which energy terminally expires.
Cruzvillegas’ most recent work is characterized by a single colour: black. Black pigment covers his National Geographic: Africa (2006), a poster of Africa pulled from the magazine, painted on one side and displayed on the gallery wall like a funerary flag. The same substance slicks his Carte Muette (Silent Map, 2006), a collection of Parisian garbage displayed much as it was found, and his Totem and Taboo (2006), four Tlingit mask-like objects made from opened-out beer boxes, accompanied by two found masks made by children, which possibly represent bears. What might we make of this black-out, this seeming desire to obscure? Paint something white, and it will reflect light. Paint it black, however, and it will store it as heat, as thermal energy. Sometimes when we find something that’s been left for dead, it surprises us with the vigour of its pulse.
Tom Morton is a contributing editor of frieze and curator of Cubitt, London.
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