José Manuel Ballester’s exhibition, Concealed Spaces, at the Frost Art Museum was a disorienting experience for me. The Spanish photographer’s depopulated renderings of famous paintings take the familiar and impose new and sometimes discordant ways of looking at them.
By coincidence, I had recently been at Madrid’s Prado Museum, precisely to revisit some of the masterpieces that surrounded me at the Frost — except that Ballester’s versions were devoid of people. He photographs the paintings, digitally removes all traces of people and their actions, and meticulously fills in the voids before printing them actual size.
Stripped of the royal family and courtiers, Velazquez’s Las Meninas becomes a dark empty room; light coming though an open doorway in the background leaves us to anticipate who may walk through it, not knowing what will happen when the actors finally appear on stage. By contrast, we know all too well what has happened in Goya’s Third of May, even without seeing the soldiers and firing squad. The darkened city eerily looms in the background, a single lantern illuminates a pool of blood on the dirt,
Ballester’s technique can point a viewer in many different directions.
Without people, Bosch’s licentious Garden of Earthly Delights becomes merely a collection of phantasmagorical architecture. Da Vinci’s Last Supper becomes an object lesson in the Renaissance’s discovery of perspective.
Perspective is what remains of Fra Angelico’s altarpieces as well, but they also contain the backstory of Ballester’s technique. He marked the loss of a loved one by erasing all references of human activity from her favorite painting.
Her presence remains in its absence.
Concealed Spaces, Ballester’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States, is on display through June 23. It is part of the Frost’s commemoration marking 500 years of the Spanish presence in Florida. As part of its yearlong programming, the museum is also showing Deep Blue, a site-specific glass installation by Javier Velasco; Eugene Savage: The Seminole Paintings, depicting the tribe in the 1930s; and The Healing Spirits of the Waters, a juxtaposition of Voudou sequined flags with a video by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu.