ArtWeekend

Rescuing Art Sites on the Endangered List

The American researcher Jo Farb Hernández has led the charge to preserve fast-deteriorating, self-taught artists’ environments — before they’re gone.

José García Martín, Museo Mara Mao, Teguise, Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain, partial view, photographed in 2018; steel-infrastructure sculptures covered with concrete and painted; variable dimensions; photo: Jo Farb Hernández (courtesy of Jo Farb Hernández)

In a season of endless destruction — of political institutions by democracy-crushing autocrats, of the natural environment by corporations and consumers alike, of precious human lives by gun-worshipping fanatics, and of hope by these and other forces too complex to control — art, music, poetry, and the Muses’ other gifts should provide some kind of reassurance, refuge, or balm.

But what if some of their most soulful creations are looking more than a little vulnerable and endangered themselves?

Such is the case right now with dozens of site-specific art environments tucked away in numerous, overlooked corners of Spain, often in the rural landscape. Made by self-taught artist-designers, many of them are emblematic examples of visionary outsider art.

For almost two decades, these now-deteriorating sites have been the professional focus of the American art historian Jo Farb Hernández, the director of Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments (SPACES), a California-based, non-profit organization founded by the late photographer Seymour Rosen. SPACES documents the history of such art environments around the world.

Until recently, Hernández was a professor on the art and art history faculty at San José State University, where she also served as the director of the gallery administered by the art and art history department. She is now retired from those positions.

Antonio Cervantes García, sculpture in the artist’s environmental work in Balsareny, Barcelona, northeastern Spain, photographed in 2018, photo: Jo Farb Hernández (courtesy of Jo Farb Hernández)

In 2013, the bulk of her investigations up until that time appeared in Singular Spaces: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments, a big book co-published by SPACES and the gallery at San José State University. This authoritative volume, covering 45 Spanish art sites and filled with informative photographs, is a must-have reference for anyone with a deep interest in the methods and materials of outsider artists, and the most ambitious expressions of their visions.

Recently, Hernández spoke with me by telephone from her family’s second home in northeastern Spain’s Catalonia region, which she and her husband established many years ago, and which serves as a base for her research trips. About the many art environments she has been documenting in Spain, she observed, “Today, at least half a dozen are for sale, and without any protection for the artworks that are present on such sites, it is very possible that any new owners that acquire them could demolish the art and ‘clean up’ those properties.” Almost 20 art sites that Hernández has examined have already been mostly or completely destroyed.

Another category of artist-made environments, she noted, includes those whose creators have died. From what she has learned, those deceased artists’ families “are disputing” what to do with such properties, or, if they are not arguing about them, “just letting the artworks deteriorate on their own.” She added, “Lamentably, a number of the sites that I documented in Singular Spaces already have been destroyed, and the only formal trace of any of them is documentation such as my own.”

A list she compiled of more than 40 site-specific artists’ environments in Spain whose continued existence, she noted, is “threatened,” includes some she has classified as “currently at extreme risk but still possible to preserve in situ” and others that are “at extreme risk” to the point that their component artworks will only be able to survive if they are removed and placed in safe places such as museums, where they can be treated by conservators and properly stored or displayed.

José María Garrido García, Museo del Mar “Las Caracolas” (Museum of the Sea “The Conches,” now destroyed), Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Cádiz, southwestern coast of Spain, partial view, photographed in 2009; photo: Jo Farb Hernández (courtesy of Jo Farb Hernández)

Hernández explained that Spain, which is the home to “many world-class historical monuments — Roman temples, medieval churches, etc.,” ranks third among all countries, after China and Italy, for the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites located within its borders. As a result, she added, “there is no concerted effort to preserve anything that is less than 100 years old,” and environments created by self-taught artists “are not even on the radar screen of the national government.”

This means that requests for government assistance in rescuing endangered art sites must start at the level of the ayuntamiento (a local or municipal government), with regional governments or their agencies — those responsible for water services, environmental protection, or even highways, for example — sometimes becoming involved in response to such appeals.

However, there has been very little intervention by the government at various levels to help rescue endangered art sites. Instead, Hernández pointed out, “The preservation organizations that exist — mostly NGOs — are concentrating on the kinds of historical monuments I’ve mentioned. Beyond my own work, there is not even an [officially produced] inventory of art environments in Spain.”

For various historical, social, and economic reasons — not the least of which is that, traditionally, women in mostly rural settings tend to be homemakers with little time for art-making — almost all of the producers of the environments Hernández has discovered have been men.

María Asunción Rodríguez Rodríguez, “Jardín (Garden),” Guainos Bajos, Almería, southeastern coast of Spain, partial view, photographed in 2016; photo: Jo Farb Hernández (courtesy of Jo Farb Hernández)

Among their creations was the Museo del Mar “Las Caracolas” (the Museum of the Sea “The Conches”), which the former fisherman José María Garrido García (1925-2011) established in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a costal town in the province of Cádiz, on Spain’s southwestern coast, where the Guadalquivir River meets the Atlantic Ocean. He began developing his grand homage to the sea and the men who dared to make their living from it after losing a close fisherman friend in an accident in 1959, when their boat was battered in a storm; Garrido was 34 years old at the time.

He never returned to the sea but after finding an old building that had served as a bordello before he acquired it, he began covering its interior walls with seashells and filling its rooms with hand-lettered signs, models of ships, treasure chests, and other objects evoking “the life of the sea.” Sadly, Garrido’s site has been destroyed. “The building is still there,” Hernández said, “but all traces of his museum have been erased.”

By contrast, the Casa de Dios (House of God) of Julio Basanta López (1933-2018), located in Épila, in northeastern Spain, still exists but it has considerably deteriorated. As of last autumn, Hernández recalled, when she made her most recent visit to the site, she found “lots of chipped or faded paint, cracked concrete, and, as a result of the cracking, exposure of the [multi-artwork environment’s] infrastructure to the elements.”

Julio Basanta López, “Casa de Dios (House of God),” Épila, Zaragoza, northeastern Spain, partial view, photographed in 2018; photo: Jo Farb Hernández (courtesy of Jo Farb Hernández)

On his property of less than one-fifth of an acre, Basanta, who came from a poor family with 11 children, built three small “castles” featuring turrets, towers, and crenellated roofs. On and around these boxy structures he placed typical garden decorations, such as gnomes or animal and angel statues.

Over time, though, he replaced the heads of some of these figures with heads he crafted and painted himself, adding demonic figures of his own creation to his groupings of statues and infusing his site with a sinister, macabre ambiance. Basanta and his family were deeply moved by two killings by the police: first, of the artist’s brother and, later, of the artist and his wife’s only son. Hand-painted signs integrated into Basanta’s art environment declare, “Thou shall not kill.”

Hernández noted, “Basanta’s site is visually and conceptually challenging for many viewers: the work is aggressive and violent and includes figures such as Hitler and other historical and religious villains. There is coursing blood, glaring demons with red eyes, and people being shot at or hung with guns and chains. This doesn’t make for a kindler, gentler experience in terms of taking the family to enjoy a lovely weekend outing to the site, and this is an important reason why saving and preserving this work in situ will be tough.”

Most recently, Hernández has been documenting the Museo Mara Mao, an art environment created by José García Martín (1932-2019) along the main road leading into the town of Teguise on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean that is part of Spain.

José García Martín, Museo Mara Mao, Teguise, Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain, partial view, photographed in 2018; steel-infrastructure sculptures covered with concrete and painted; variable dimensions; photo: Jo Farb Hernández (courtesy of Jo Farb Hernández)

Known by his friends as “Pillipo” or “Pillimpo,” García died in May of this year. On his property, he had erected hundreds of concrete statues and some mixed-media assemblages. Late last year, shortly before Hernández’s visit to García’s environment, the artist had painted all of his statues bright white. “They looked ghost-like and eerie,” she recalled, and perhaps served as “a premonition of his impending death.”

However, she noted, “Even the fresh paint couldn’t hide issues of cracking infrastructure and deteriorating found objects.”

Hernández added, “How will this site be preserved over the long term? The good news is that it’s right on the road, but the bad news is that it’s right on the road. It’s a tempting target for vandalism. The best situation would be for a live-in caretaker to watch it 24/7, but José lived very simply — he had electricity but I’m not sure about running water — so it would have to be modernized for someone to want to do that. I’d hate to see a fence around it, like with the Watts Towers [in Los Angeles], but the sculptures are fragile and will need constant vigilance and maintenance.”

Hernández will discuss Spanish art environments, placing them in the broader context of the history of art brut and outsider art, as well as the special conservation and preservation needs they pose, when she appears at a conference focusing on the fate of such sites at the Harinera Zaragoza, a cultural center in the city of Zaragoza, on September 14.

Hernández said, “I will be speaking about Basanta’s work in order to help members of local organizations understand the relationship between this art environment and the field as a whole, and why removing figures from the site is not in the best interests of the artist, the community, or the field. I hope that the conference will help rally the community in support of saving the site.”

Meanwhile, even as this dogged art historian champions her cause, in many parts of Spain, some of the most unusual — and strangely compelling — parts of the nation’s cultural heritage continue to crumble.

Singular Spaces: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments (2013) by Jo Farb Hernández is published by San José State University / SPACES and available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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