BY Jenni Sorkin in Reviews | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

Los Carpinteros

BY Jenni Sorkin in Reviews | 10 OCT 01

The Havana-based collective, Los Carpinteros (the Carpenters), fashions cool, impractical structures that cross urban domesticity with futility. Comprised of three artists, Alexandre Arrechea Zambrano, Marco Castillo Valdes, and Dagoberto Rodríguez Sanchez, ), the group rearticulates the boundaries between the decorative arts and conceptual strategies. They are best known for their impossible wooden furniture, oversized and often figurative, for example, a jewelry box in the shape of a hand grenade, or boldly unusable, such as a bricked-in fireplace, denying any possibility of warmth. Furniture design has a long history of adaptation, morphing into different styles and movements, becoming both forms and ideas, and Los Carpinteros is no different in allowing their pieces to function simultaneously as metaphors and stylish objects. Think kitsch, think ergonomics: beanbag chairs, or the desk chair that conforms to your spine. Or how about the red plastic hand chair whose palm cradles your derriere? Somewhere between IKEA’s sleek design and Minimalism’s fabrications, lies Los Carpinteros’ elaborate, barren sculptures.

An accidental installation, the front room of the gallery consists of a sofa, a staincase, and a short wall but too-tall bar, all in white steel, as well as a red flat file cabinet. Angular, beautiful objects, the furniture is rendered unusable through its infatuation with fire: all are lined with multiple stove-top burners, eliminating the possibility of comfort or utility. At the bar, frying pans are more in order than martini glasses. But there is no pleasant hissing or low blue flame if you turn the knob, they don't work. So, in addition to no lounging, sitting, leaning, or climbing, there is also no cooking.

A disparate, witty piece, Flat File Cabinet (all works 2001) is literally that, the kind of gallery staple housing works on paper. However, this one opens to asphalt and road paint, literal slices of road, abstracted by their ambiguous and colorful directives—double yellow lines and blue curves that are rendered utterly meaningless without the accompanying signage. All the negativity—the no parking, no u-turns, no passing—has been banished, turning the Department of Transportation into an almost lovely and painterly institution.

A more pointed institutional critique piece, Library Part I, II, and III , a wall-based, room-sized installation, holds tape measures instead of books, but in the same precise configuration of rows and columns, each bearing an individual title and author. Rushdie, Lorca, Ellison, Arenas, Burroughs, Nabokov. It is a quick read: censorship. Mostly Western literature, each measure contains the first 25 feet of the offending novels, banned not just by the Cuban government, but at certain earlier junctures, around the globe. Perhaps a tape measure makes smuggling literature in and out of the country easier, but the first few pages is hardly a full novel. Easily digestible, there is more entertainment then dissent operating here. The piece becomes more about what you have and haven't read then the fact that these books were and still are banned. But visually, it is no more or less interesting then the official display in most bookstores and libraries around the US during Banned Books Week late in the month of September. Library is an infant attempt at political art, but only succeeds as a piece vaguely about politics. It is tempting to want art from Cuba to be political and subversive, rather than quirky and easy. But this assumption of oppression overlooks the reality that Cuba functions within the international art market. With the freedom to travel and make and sell work abroad, Cuban-based artists like Los Carpinteros will no doubt hit the biennial circuit deliriously soon.