The Post-Postmodern Artist

A view of the retrospective room of the Consuelo Castañeda show (photo by Arturo Sanchez for the Americas Society)

Yasmeen M. Siddiqui is an itinerant curator and critic currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. Last year, she curated Do Ho Suh’s A Perfect Home: The Bridge Project at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Soho and this year she returns to New York for a new project at the Americas Society featuring a mini-retrospective of Miami-based Cuban artist Consuelo Castañeda.

The show, titled For Rent: Consuelo Castañeda, is the first of three exhibitions devoted to mid-career artists from Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada at the Americas Society.

Artist Consuelo Castañeda points out some elements in her work to co-curator Yasmeen Siddiqui (photo by Arturo Sanchez for the Americas Society) (click to enlarge)

Consuelo Castañeda, who is considered a major figure in contemporary Cuban art, is considered a conceptual and appropriation artist and she has explained her conceptual foundation this way:

In Cuba, all the artists learn from reproductions. We have seen very few original works of art. Consequently, many pieces have the formal finish of a reproduction.

For the exhibition , Castañeda has taken up two of the three rooms at the Americas Society’s Park Avenue and 68th Street space. One is a reimagining of a 1969 work by German-Venezuelan kinetic artist Gego’s Reticulárea, the only version of the series to be shown outside Venezuela, and the other room is comprised of an unorthodox “retrospective” featuring wallpaper printed with images from over three decades of her work.

Siddiqui has co-curated the project with Gabriela Rangel and she spoke to me briefly of what to expect from this show about an artist described by Joseph Kosuth as a “post-postmodern artist.”

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A view of Castañeda's installation (photo by Arturo Sanchez for the Americas Society)

Hrag Vartanian: What are two things about Consuelo Castañeda that people should definitely know?

Yasmeen Siddiqui: She embraces freedom and lives fully with passion and empathy as her driving forces. She consumes and is nourished by art history and philosophy. Plus, I know I’ve breached two … but I have to add she is a damn good painter and hysterically funny.

HV: How would you situate her work in the contemporary art scene? Where do you think she fits in?

YS: That is a tough question. I would have to ask someone to ghost answer, and probably should … would you do it … ha!

I am a terrible judge of any scene, especially contemporary art. By the same token, I am able to locate Consuelo in an established art historical framework.

She is a cultural, social and political critic operating with the skills of a gifted painter who prefers to experiment with everyday materials in three-dimensional space. Her work is visibly tied to the Conceptualists via Constructivism. Soviet propaganda, Joseph Kosuth, Hans Haake, Barbara Kruger … they live and breathe in her work.

She was born in 1958, Cuba was in a revolutionary state. She came to the US because she wanted to leave a modern place and live in a post-modern one. By 1994 she was an exile, living in Miami. So now, I would argue, she fits in the interstitial places where film, advertising, performance, theater and art meet and exchange ideas and impression about our world.

A deck of cards designed by Castañeda that depicts Cuban dissidents and politicians who were unjustly tried or imprisoned by the Cuban authorities. They had been widely ciruclated in the Cuban prisons and this is the first time they were exhibited. (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

HV: Why did you make the controversial choice of creating a “retrospective” based on manufacturing a wallpaper of reproductions of her work rather than showing the original art? That seems a daring choice.

YS: Consuelo makes wallpaper. She has made many. They have been used in a wide range of settings and they have allowed her the chance to reconfigure three-dimensional spaces with a two-dimensional image. This is a long standing inquiry that radiates through her four decades of art work. She makes the methods of tromp l’oeil contemporary!

The decision to make her retrospective in wallpaper evolved over the course of designing the exhibition, rather organically, and with our primary attention on working to create an exhibition of quotations from her history, the archives of the Americas Society and the Cold War.

HV: Aren’t you afraid that people will walk away from the exhibition and not really understand her work? The art world often disparages reproductions (particularly online or in print) as nothing like the real thing but here it’s the only thing.

YS: What is real? Consuelo, like many artists, did not have the chance to frolic around Europe on the instituted summer or semester abroad. Instead they rely on books, reproductions and their close readings of the sources, critical writings, artists books and philosophy to garner as complete an understanding of different, foreign art works. The audience is allowed that same experience here. Which is anomalous in this city where we have infinite access to see most everything.

So here, scale is distorted, the crop not always true, and materials are ambiguous. Consuelo is a tremendous painter, while the wallpaper conveys this, you know it by walking among the reproductions of paintings, you are denied the sensual pleasure of her brush stroke. The same can be said for her photography and installations.

This decision has multiple results. The audience is transported to a place very different, where access to the real thing, “real art” is not possible. That is one point. The other is that the wallpaper maximized the amount of real-estate we could use and also, as a result, allowed us the freedom to choose what we thought was significant regardless of logistical factors. The wallpaper erased the practical considerations that drive this kind of exhibition: physical space as well as the politics of dealing with collectors and institutions. We removed these factors and entered a free space for story telling. This process and its requisite and related decisions establish a situation that in ways stages some of the qualities of Consuelo’s experience living in Cuba and now in exile.

Visitors examining the wallpaper plastered with over three decades of the artist's work (photo by Arturo Sanchez for the Americas Society)

HV: As part of this show, Castañeda has reimagined Gego’s New York Reticulárea, which was the kinetic artist’s only version of the series to be shown outside Venezuela. But instead of colored wires, stainless steal, iron and aluminum, she is using drinking straws and other more pop materials. Why?

YS: Straws strung together with fishing line and hung from the ceiling with tape is a materials list of pedestrian proportions. Consuelo has always been and continues to be fascinated by pop culture and Pop Art.

Straws are a funny old invention that is part of our everyday. They have been used since ancient and prehistoric times and have become ubiquitous. I remember them in all sorts of colors, but now they are almost always white and wrapped in the thinest white paper. They are constantly wasted but still useful in many settings. Kids need them, people afraid of contracting herpes at restaurants use them and they serve the sick, easing the flow of fluids, offering relief and sustenance.

For Rent: Consuelo Castañeda continues until July 30 at the Americas Society (680 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).


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