Pushing an Ism at the Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires (MAMBA) is a contradictory proposition. It urges us to re-acquaint ourselves with the original inspiration of much abstract art of today and the last century: the body. However it also presents us with much that has a tenuous relationship with the outside world.
The abstract works presented have “strong roots in the body and in the world,” according to the curators. The exhibition features emerging and established – mainly Argentine – artists and spans performance, painting, installation, sculpture, photography and drawing. The curators claim they have “a new way of thinking about abstraction,” but unlike other contemporary art exhibitions that make a similar claim, Pushing an Ism does achieve what it sets out to, even if this doesn’t take the form one might expect. It is a muddled curatorial mishmash of styles and movements, but there is method in the madness. The chaos knocks us off balance, and makes us question the fundamentals of abstraction.
Take the photography on display here by Flavia Da Rin, in which abstraction barely figures. In these curious untitled photos, Da Rin has re-created photographs of the Romanian ballet dancer Lizica Codreanu taken in the 1920s. Codreanu was a member of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and a popular figure in avant-garde circles in Paris’ heyday. In Da Rin’s re-creations, the models wear surrealist cone-shaped head-dresses and vintage stripy dresses. They pose to a backdrop of incongruous objects. Da Rin, who herself has described her photos as a game of “representation of representation,” successfully recreates the magic of the original photos and adds a contemporary knowingness.
Coagulation (2014) by Florencia Rodriguez Giles, is another work which has little, if any, connection to conventional definitions of abstract art. This enigmatic watercolour, which has the appearance of mystical outsider art, is esoteric in the Argentine tradition of Xul Solar. However, Rodriguez is more firmly rooted in the art world than one might think. The 38-year-old artist has already built up a considerable reputation in her own country, studied in Germany and has received numerous scholarships. Her work does not leave us in any doubt as to why. Though one of the smaller works on display, it is among the most intriguing of the exhibition, exuding a quiet intensity. Figures sit or stand in a dream-like landscape, surrounded by paintings, some on easels and some of which appear to be floating. Gentle pastel-hued mountains rise behind these peculiar figures.
Equally a series of paintings depicting human heads merging with animal heads shows Rodriguez at her most inscrutable. The artist has spoken of finding inspiration in sacred dances and in the work of the Armenian spiritualist teacher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. She has said that both religion and theatre offer people the chance to escape themselves. Her artwork would seem to aspire to do the same. She is a fresh, memorable addition to this exhibition, though her relationship to the body is flimsy, and to abstraction even more so.
A series of 11 untitled paintings by Peruvian artist Juan Tessi brings the exhibition back down to earth, and re-engages the viewer in the quest of seeing abstraction afresh. Tessi’s sensual paintings occupy a middle ground between abstraction and figuration and he is a skilled colourist. Abstract and figurative merge, and as viewers we begin to search for objects in the generous, often circular, proportions of his work. They are more obviously abstract than other works on display and their connection to the body is evident, yet they are less puzzling than Da Rin and Giles’ work. We sense there is less personal vision at play.
Those works which would appear to sit both within a recognisable abstract tradition but also offer a new perspective are the light-filled canvases of Rosario Zorraquin. Cut 1 and Cut 2 (2014) have a blinding effect similar to that of looking through a kaleidoscope. They work almost as optical illusions, inviting the viewer to move forward, backwards, crouch down, all in an attempt to grasp the essence of the paintings, which appears to be constantly-shifting. This is perhaps Zorraquin’s way of reminding us that as humans we are distinct from art. The body is resolutely absent as the muse in Zorraquin’s canvases, but it is our bodies that become the obstacle to us fully appreciating them. Our bodies cannot move fast enough to keep up with these works of light and movement.
These paintings would seem key to an understanding of what the exhibition is telling us: that abstraction can return us to a deeper appreciation of our own bodies, even when the body is absent from the works themselves.
Pushing an Ism, until 29 March, Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires (MAMBA).
1. Flavia Da Rin (Buenos Aires, 1978) Sin título (Codreano-Brancusi), 2014. Ink-jet sobre papel – Ed. 7 + 2 ap. 24×16 cm. Cortesía Galería Ruth Benzacar.