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Issue 239

Pedro Reyes’s Iconographies of the Future

Inspired by Mesoamerican culture and Mexican modernism, the artist’s materially lush sculptures and drawings aspire to a time beyond geopolitical violence

BY Armando Pulido in Exhibition Reviews | 25 AUG 23

In Pedro Reyes’s first exhibition with Lisson Gallery in Los Angeles, centuries-old artistic practices are carefully interwoven with quietly insistent calls to political action. A new body of volcanic basalt sculptures stands surrounded by paintings on amate – a form of paper made from tree bark using an indigenous technique. Though the work’s hybrid abstract and figurative forms cull from Mesoamerican visual languages, Reyes’s sustained concern with non-violent activism brings it into the precarious present moment of global hostility.

An extraterrestial-looking smooth skull atop a rough red mound
Pedro Reyes,Tsontekotl, 2022, volcanic stone, 78 × 70 × 75 cm. Courtesy: © Pedro Reyes and Lisson Gallery

A number of Reyes’s sculptures – especially Tsontekotl (2022), with its smooth, extra-terrestrial-like bust atop a jagged mound – are reminiscent of the early Olmec colossal heads (c.1,200–500 BCE) that were made of the same volcanic basalt. Its polished symmetry, however, deviates from such ancient Mesoamerican representations, and Reyes’s stylized skull is a visual marker of death that expands a legacy of busts commemorating the living and the recently deceased. The production of these works transcends time-bound notions by adapting indigenous practice and tradition while subverting contemporary industrial processes: take Tlapacalli (2021), for instance, in which tezontle has been hand-polished in the artist’s studio to generate spotlessly smooth stacked geometric shapes. Within this material conversation between past and present, Reyes seems to be looking to a future in which these objects can be housed in a more benevolent society than that in which they were created.

A sculpture of what looks like an abstracted open hand on a rough gray pedestal
Pedro Reyes, Detente, 2023, installation view, marble, 55 × 114 × 43 cm. Courtesy: © Pedro Reyes and Lisson Gallery

Détente (2023) builds on the tradition of tezontle carving while speaking to a wave of labour movements in the United States. Historically a symbol for peace, the white dove is here abstracted to appear as an open hand, perhaps co-opted from the raised-fist symbol utilized in historical movements such as the Industrial Workers of the World (1905–ongoing) to signify solidarity and unity. In doing so, Reyes also nods to the history of Mexican modernism that drew from Marxist ideals and iconographies to create a post-revolution national identity that looked to indigenous culture for its values. This legacy is evident in Cihuacóatl (2022), a large-scale bust in volcanic stone that represents the Aztec fertility goddess. Such works carry increased charge at a time when another presidential campaign cycle sees Republican Party candidates embrace militarized action against Mexico.

Two abstract black and white works that almost look like inverses of each other
Pedro Reyes, Signos, 2023, installation view, oil on amate paper, each 2.4 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: © Pedro Reyes and Lisson Gallery

Providing a counterbalance to the volcanic sculptures, Reyes’s abstract paintings recall mid-20th-century, Brazilian neo-concretism in their emphasis on colour, rhythm and movement. Here, however, on handmade amate paper, the forms take on new life. For instance, Signos (2023), a black and white diptych on amate bleached to resemble canvas, creates an optical equilibrium via mirroring and inversion. Elsewhere, on amate that retains its original brown hue, Quipú (2023) – named for the titular device used to record information by Andean South American civilizations from 2,300 BCE – suggests a contained history of the universe via its nebulous network of connected circles branching from a central point.

A brownish and white drawing of various square tubular shapes
Pedro Reyes, Yerma, 2023, installation view, oil on amate paper, 2.4 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: © Pedro Reyes and Lisson Gallery

Meanwhile, the oil-on-amate Yerma (2023), which masterfully captures the texture and geometry of carved rock in a network of intersecting rectangular prisms, is one of the most successful works in the show. The shapes undulate and weave into each other in no set pattern, like the matrix of threads in amate paper. The longer you look, the more you are rewarded with movement and optical illusion. Yerma captures the essence of the show as a whole: a network of subtly charged works with a shared connection to tradition, memory and legacy that is best revived via a collective practice of patience and diligence. For it is through these values that we can chart a path toward community and societal progress.

Pedro Reyes is on view at Lisson Gallery, Los Angeles, until 1 September. 

Main image: Pedro Reyes, Quipú, 2023, oil on amate paper, 2.4 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: © Pedro Reyes and Lisson Gallery

Armando Pulido is a writer and curatorial assistant at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, USA.