What constitutes “quality time”? In the American imagination, the concept summons a panoply of feelings and moments — shared family meals, phones screen-side down, trips taken for pleasure, the mandate to “treat yourself” — at once quotidian and rarefied. Conversely, the phrase might fill us with dread at the thought of wasted time. At ProxyCo, a gallery in New York’s Lower East Side that specializes in contemporary Latin American art, the exhibition Quality Time takes the deceptively innocent cliché as a provocative prompt, inviting us to think through its myriad cultural, sociopolitical, and psychological implications. With subversive wit and trenchant humor, the artists in this show expose the arbitrary nature of society’s benchmarks for meaning-making — and the consequences such staged modes of living can have on our modern existence.
Curated by Iván Krassoievitch and Daniel Garza-Usabiaga, who co-founded the magazine ERAS in Mexico City along with Marco Rountree, the exhibition coincides with the release of the publication’s latest issue, also dedicated to the theme of quality time. ERAS was conceived in 2017 as a collaborative project that invites a diverse cast of thinkers, from painters to scientists, to develop texts, images, and other works around a given subject. Its guiding principle is absolute liberty of expression: contributors are given carte blanche to interpret the theme as loosely or stringently as they wish, and their pieces are never edited; as “editors,” Krassoievitch and Garza-Usabiaga only select the order in which submissions are printed through a process of “free association and bizarre connections,” according to the gallery’s press release.
The two were inspired in part by the periodicals produced by groups like the Surrealists, which featured scientific findings, word puzzles, and poetry in addition to visual art, and by anarchistic publications, such as the Mexican magazine CAOS, of 1970s and ’80s collectives in Latin America. As Garza-Usabiaga explained when I asked him about the magazine’s origins, “ERAS emerged at a time when we observed local exhibition spaces and platforms favoring a certain type of work. We thought of the magazine as a container of multiplied perspectives, without an editorial component.… Each issue would be like an exhibition.”
Quality Time at ProxyCo translates the unique parameters of ERAS into a curatorial method, maintaining above all the magazine’s irreverence toward traditional separations between mediums and disciplines. Included among a group of cross-generational creators, primarily but not exclusively Latin American, are both formally trained and self-taught or so-called “outsider” artists, as well as a poet and an art historian. On the floor by the gallery’s entrance rests “Tejiendo Cuerpos 2” (2019), a large sculpture by the Mexican María Antonia Eguiarte made of stuffed synthetic felt tubes that looks like a pile of tangled noodles. Visitors are encouraged to twist, coil, and sit on the work, manipulating its looping components with their bodies to create their own personal nest.
The invitation to use an artwork is more common to design than fine art, but the exhibition’s organizers are unfazed by rigid categories; to the contrary, they delight in tensions and contradictions. While Eguiarte’s ergonomic piece imagines the function of an art object, Débora Delmar, a Mexican artist known for subverting capitalist tropes and systems of value, strips a utilitarian object of its use with her sculptures of pod coffee makers in porcelain and volcanic rock, titled “Oblo White” (2016) and “Latissima Touch Black” (2019) after Nespresso® and Nescafé® models, respectively. The polished steel capsules that accompany each sculpture — one placed on a platform in the main gallery, the other on a side table in a downstairs viewing room, nearly indistinguishable as a work of art — flash with a minimalist sheen, highlighting their uselessness. Delmar has intelligently tapped into the absurdity of a coffee-making device that functions primarily as a symbol of status.
Some of the works in the show address the question of “quality time” directly by exploring different forms of time management, especially as it applies to the artistic profession, which rarely follows a schedule. “As an artist, you never stop working: there is no nine to five,” commented Krassoievitch during a walk-through of the exhibition. Writer Alberto Blanco contributed four abstract gouaches, all titled “Quality Time” and painted during the 2009 swine flu pandemic in Mexico, when schools and other public spaces shuttered in an effort to contain the virus. Blanco, who is primarily a poet, viewed the quarantine as an opportunity for introspection and serenity, resulting in artworks of meditative beauty produced under unlikely circumstances. On an opposite wall, Alejandra Venegas, an artist from Xochimilco, a mountainous borough of Mexico City, similarly locates quality time in moments of solitude during which she observes her changing environment. In “Paisaje #1” (2019), a relief carved in Ahuehuete wood from Mexico’s national tree, she captures the sloping hills and winding rivers of her landscape in fluid curves and bold lines.
The exhibition’s centerpiece is the work of Miguel González, whose kaleidoscopic sculptures, composed of glass bottles, boxes, and mirrors delicately wrapped in metallic paper, velvet, twine, scraps of material, and found objects (all “Untitled,” 2000-2004) recall festive trinkets, gem-encrusted treasures scattered atop an antique vanity, or the fanciful towers of an imaginary city.
The story of González’s life is as fantastical as his works: after studying economics in Mexico City, he directed a psychiatric hospital in the 1970s, but suffered a psychotic break that forced a retreat to his family home in Veracruz. He emerged in the capital 20 years later, where he returned to work at a different mental institution, this time in charge of washing cars at the facility. It was during his time off that he produced the pieces on view at ProxyCo, selling raffle tickets to hospital staff who hoped to score one of his beguiling creations. In actuality, the raffles took place in González’s head, and Dr. K (Krassoievitch’s father, who hosted González for weekly family dinners) was always the winner. As of 2005, González’s whereabouts have remained a mystery, but his sculptures glow with an insistent presence, and speak to an artist on the fringes of society whose assiduous need to create was greater than the limitations imposed by his disorder, by those around him, or by time.
In a corner of the gallery, the Dominican-born, Mexico City-based artist Madeline Jiménez presents three irresistible kinetic sculptures, created by setting vibrating sex toys in circular openings on small, rectangular canvases adorned with geometric patterns and titled “Bitch/es-bichos I, II, and III” (2019). When switched on, the creatures scurry across the floor in a frenzy, like eager puppies or dysfunctional domestic robots. Nearby, a group of potted plants dotted with plastic eyes stare at us quizzically. At once monstrous and endearing, Jiménez’s anthropomorphized objects bind innocuous notions of free time and leisure to still-prevalent prejudices that perceive female sexuality as a frenetic, uncontrollable pathology.
Some of the exhibition’s participants, such as the Indonesian-born, Mexico-based art historian Carla Stellweg and the Mexican artist Cisco Jiménez, who contributed their collaborative wooden maquette sculpture “Casa de Descanso” (2019), considered the words “quality” and “time” individually. It dawned on them that Cuernavaca — the capital of the state of Morelos in Mexico known for its consistently mild climate and lush flora, often referred to as an “eternal spring” — embodies many of the utopian ideals contained in these terms. A favorite vacation spot of affluent Mexicans dating back to the Aztecs, Cuernavaca has also been the site of radical architectural undertakings, such as Félix Candela’s parabolic concrete chapel. As a text accompanying the work explains, Jimenez and Stellweg’s structure builds on this history as well as the tenets of Mathias Goeritz’s “emotional architecture,” its miniature plaster tenants lounging about loosely defined rooms amid quasi-surrealistic, enlarged body parts, all heightening a metaphysical, rather than functional, connection to the spaces we inhabit.
To many of the exhibition’s multicultural participants, “quality time” is likely a foreign concept, and a fiercely North American one at that. Allusions to commodification and exchange, rest and activity, and pleasure and guilt are plentiful in this uncanny, refreshing exhibition, as is a recurring concern with the experience of art. Krassoievitch chose to include eight paintings from his series Poemas cancelados (2019), created by sourcing poems and transcribing them to canvas, then blurring the words with his brush to achieve abstractions that retain the structure, but not the content, of the original compositions. Several of his selections are works of the 1970s left-leaning Language Poets, whose unconventionally fragmented verses sought to make the reader a participant in the construction of meaning. With Poemas cancelados, Krassoievitch stunts our ability to read the poem, teasing us instead with the mere cipher of one. Equipped with print-outs of the poems, I attempted to match them to their illegible painted counterparts, William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say” (1934) no more than a thin column of skittish lines. Thwarting our frantic grasp for immediate significance, the work resists the severity of “quality time,” suggesting in its place a sense of play, an unstructured space, and the possibility that all time is valuable.
Quality Time continues at ProxyCo Gallery (168 Suffolk Street, Manhattan) through August 29.