Projecte SD, Barcelona, Spain
In his second solo show at Projecte SD, Inaki Bonillas presents an austere portrait of an extravagant character: the artist’s own grandfather, J. R. Plaza. Yet the subject is not properly Plaza, but biography itself – the formation of identity as it navigates, or flounders, through fiction. Bonillas draws from Plaza’s personal archive, a recent source for the artist that marks a departure from his former conceptual practice. At hand is a spectacular anecdote built from the archive: Plaza’s bootless dream to become the American cowboy.
Along one wall extend 74 typewritten transcriptions of Plaza’s journal, an anguished chronicle of his months as a Wyoming ranch hand. Pages, framed and hung shoulder-to-shoulder, tick off a tragic-comic timeline of hard knocks. The aesthetic monotony echoes the unrelenting struggle: Plaza never incarnates his idols, nor arrives at anything but a wish to return home.
Yet disillusionment proves no contest to fantasy. Around a central pillar, Bonillas has arranged self-portrait photographs by his grandfather in the iconic attitudes of the American cowboy, taken after his return from Wyoming. Plaza is a thorough mimic, a Cindy Sherman with the irony internalized. Each photograph has been transferred into its negative and framed in slender light boxes. The transfer catches notes on the photos’ undersides, like pentimenti that reinforce both the postdating of the self-portraits and their attempt to shroud Plaza’s written record.
The grandson’s narration thus reverses the grandfather’s willful amnesia. For a story told in images does not proceed linearly, rather it redoubles the tale through an accrual of sight and suggestion. Wretched ranch hand and glorified cowboy are made to co-exist in the exhibition space, as they do in any attempt to achieve an identity already occupied by an icon. In negative, the images become generic prototypes of the Cowboy, branded onto the surface of the most contradictory, soberly framed reality.
Bonillas hangs the cowboy fantasy photos around a pillar, while the pages from Plaza’s journal are arranged horizontally along one wall, like a flat horizon line to the pillar’s masculine, totemic rise. This symbolic nod is even more explicit in the altered photographs, which would seem to bridge Bonillas’ conceptualist concerns with his narrative work through the metaphor of transcription. Here, photographic process becomes allegory for his work as a storyteller, and for the psychological inversion of the icon on his grandfather. Yet the added step of the photographic transfer goes one too far toward exposing the artist ill-at-ease as storyteller. Departing from an established conceptualist discourse to work within a more personal mode means a risky transition, one Bonillas is bold to take. The departure, however, has the promise of fresh territory. If Plaza has a moral to tell, it’s that established images can exert a regressive, even annihilating appeal; looking back instead on personal ground may prove for Bonillas to be the surest way of moving forward.
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