Currently on view at the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO), No black / No white (no and) is the nonprofit’s 2017 Grants and Commissions Program exhibition. It’s also an anniversary celebration: for the past fifteen years, the foundation has granted funds to over 120 artists from Latin America, nominating and exhibiting their work. As such, this show isn’t “curated” in the traditional sense — it’s part showcase, part exhibition and, coincidentally, a mini-retrospective of the work of Daniel Joseph Martinez, a recent grant recipient.
The show’s title comes from a statement by John Cage, written in response to Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. As Phaidon writer Catherine Craft explains, “Cage viewed the White Paintings less as images that projected the artist’s expression, than backdrops against which the flux of the world might stand out … ” The White Paintings reflected light, converged with their surrounding space; they were not individualistic or personally expressive, but part of an environmental whole. Cage wrote this homage in 1953:
To Whom / No subject / No image / No taste / No object / No beauty / No message / No talent / No technique (no why) / No idea / No intention / No art / No object / No feeling / No black / No white (no and) / After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing in these paintings that could not be changed, that they can be seen in any light and are not destroyed by the action of shadows. / Hallelujah! the blind can see again; the water’s fine.
No black / No white (no and) explores that liminality: there’s no black or white here, no transparent messaging. Though many of the works allude to sociopolitical realities and global histories, they’re presented less as didactic truths than as stories to intuit. I was struck by Martinez’s Divine Violence (2007), a series of gold lacquered panels adorned with the names of various political organizations, their aims sometimes contradictory: the Caucasian Front, the Argentine People’s Revolutionary Army, the Stern Gang – Fighters for the Freedom of Israel. Presented together, the organizations feel like an innocuous laundry list, their goals inconsequential. According to a description of the piece, the title references Walter Benjamin’s term for violence of pure means for knowable ends — prescribed violence. The distance afforded by their presentation renders them simple enumerations of atrocities, for which justification is meaningless. They almost don’t feel real.
A self-portrait of Martinez (Self-portrait #9B, Fifth attempt to clone mental disorder or How one philosophizes with a hammer, After Gustave Moreau, Prometheus, 1868; David Cronenberg, Videodrome, 1981), in which the artist appears to reach into his own sliced-open belly, references Gustave Moreau’s painting of Prometheus, the mythological Titan who, in Greek mythology, gave humans fire. Though Prometheus’s intentions were good, he was ultimately punished — fire was used for destruction as well as warmth, fallible and destructive as humans are. I am unsure if Martinez is sacrificing or sharing himself, but it is probably both.
There’s a similar theme in Juan Carlos Osorno’s Fracasos necesarios (Necessary Failures) (2017), an installation featuring drawings and descriptions of failed, bizarre inventions. Osorno has re-created Ronald Mayer’s isolation helmet, a hybrid of gas mask and knight’s armor crafted in 1926 and meant to block out sound. Per an accompanying text by Osorno, the helmet never sold. Mayer became an alcoholic, dying after passing out and hitting his head on a sink. It’s ironic that his invention could’ve saved him; stranger still that there is an isolation helmet being designed today. None of the inventions seem real; or, rather, they feel hyper-real, truthful precisely because of their distinctly human absurdity.
Katherinne Fiedler’s Erosión, a massive, three-panel video installation, shows the erosion of Peruvian archaeological sites caused by mining practices —specifically the country’s coat of arms, depicted on the side of a rolling mountain in Cuzco. It appears to be shot from a drone, the views sweeping and the symbol fading. Mining practices are contentious; still, the image itself is slow and mesmerizing. Faced with an uncomfortable truth, you’re calmer for it.
Another, equally beautiful video illustrates a gradual, meditative process, albeit one more benign: in Alana Iturralde’s Baoding Balls, a hand rotates the titular objects in its palm, clinking them together. Placed next to her ceramic pottery and embroidered works, Baoding Balls alludes to the intuitive, calming aspects of a physical practice. Watching the scene, you may recall your own sense of calm. After sorting through inferred, suggestive stories, one must resign oneself to one’s own interpretation, to one’s particular lens. Iturralde’s work is a kind of palate-cleanser: there’s no grey area to glean, no complex story to tell, except perhaps one’s own.