Art comes at a price — and not always just for the collector. In Fernando Mastrangelo’s case, he earned a visit from the DEA, as in Drug Enforcement Administration. To be fair, the Brooklyn-based artist did smuggle some 28 pounds of cocaine into this country in one of his sculptures.
But not to worry, it was mixed with resin and no longer of the variety that readily could be used for extracurricular activities. At the DEA’s insistence, the artist broke the sculpture’s mold and vowed to never again dabble in that material, even for the sake of art.
“I’m not interested in reopening or rehashing anything with law enforcement,” Mastrangelo says, honoring his commitment to the DEA to keep quiet about certain details concerning the sculpture and its production. “They are f------ scary,” he says of the DEA agents that spoke to him about his sculpture. “The guy looked at me straight in the eye and said, ‘This is worthy of 150 years in jail.’ I broke down crying. I get emotional even telling you.”
Mastrangelo spent four months in Brazil and $70,000 dollars creating his cocaine-infused sculpture, Felix, which means “happy” in Latin. The image is that of a peasant reaping the coca leaf somewhere in Colombia.
Dressed in a broad-brimmed straw hat and Wellingtons, the man stoops over an imaginary crop, his image reflected in mirrored tiles shaped to resemble the outline of Colombia. The cocaine-based sculpture was a bold political statement. The poor peasant toils in the coca fields to produce a luxury item. Both the sculpture and its message resonated with art aficionados when shown at the Volta NY art fair in 2009.
Today, Mastrangelo, 35, works in more mundane materials — such as cornmeal, sugar sprinkles, black beans and rock salt, all staples whose prices are subject to manipulation and whim. Some of them are found in the three- and six-foot medallions now on display at Wynwood’s Kowal+Odermatt Project Space.
The show is the inaugural exhibit for Kowal+Odermatt’s just-launched artist-in-residency project, which provides emerging artists with a place to stay for up to three months, studio space and a small stipend. A French couple who split time between Montreal and Miami — Isabelle Kowal, who has worked as an artist, and François Odermatt, a prominent aficionado whose collection is shown at a former shipbuilding site in Montreal called the Arsenal — are underwriting the project, says director Kai Heinze.
A key element that makes this residency unique is that Kowal and Odermatt bring small groups of people together for low-key dinners at the opening and closing of each exhibition. “We want to put the people in connection with the real collectors and decision makers,” Heinze says. “It is very important that those works being produced in Miami during the residency are being seen by the right people, and those must be museum people and collectors.”
Similar to a MacArthur grant for artists, there is no application process. Kowal and Odermatt select the artists based on a belief that the opportunity will provide an important push to advance their careers and increase their recognition. The project may expand to Paris and Montreal, Heinze says, adding that Miami will serve as a recurring residency. British artist Oliver Clegg is slated to be the next artist in residence at the Wynwood studio.
Eric Charest-Weinberg, who represents Mastrangelo and used to run a gallery in the space now rented by Kowal+Odermatt for its residency program, introduced the artist to Kowal and they hit it off.
“We had an amazing connection in terms of my work,” Mastrangelo says. “She got what I was trying to do.”
Mastrangelo, who studied sculpture at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, uses his art for social commentary, both in the materials used and the images represented.
His sculptural works begin with a handmade model made from wood, plaster, clay, or a combination of all three. He makes a silicon mold of that image and then adds resin to bind whatever material he plans to use to highlight the political message in the art.
Sometimes the image needs no special embellishments, such as the gender-neutral sculpture he made partially in his image for a work titled Al One, which is a play on the word “alone.” In 2010 he and Napster creator Shawn Fanning collaborated on Al One, with Mastrangelo creating the sculpture and Fanning handing all of the tech coding. The project is up and running, and people can communicate with Al One via www.alone⊗.us.
Mastrangelo is not the first artist to use unusual materials in his works. Andres Serrano used his own urine to create his controversial Piss Christ; Vik Muniz recreated Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in chocolate syrup; Miroslaw Balka created six-foot-tall sculptures out of pig intestines. However, unlike the other artists, Mastrangelo often put himself in harm’s way both when obtaining the materials and then in how he used them.
Immediately after the Felix exhibition at Volta, Mastrangelo moved to Los Angeles for a project involving the MS-13 gang, which one U.S. congressman described as a terrorist organization and another labeled “the most dangerous gang in America.” Because the gang is so closely linked to death — of its members and outsiders — Mastrangelo decided to use human ash from cremations to create wall sculptures of various gang member tattoos.
“I learned a lot about cremation,” he says, explaining the intricacies of obtaining abandoned remains. “There are hundreds of thousands of bodies in crematorium basements. The cremator cannot do anything with them. It’s a weird glitch in the system. I was like, listen, I am solving your problem. One guy in Michigan, where the law was a little fuzzy as to whether you could relinquish the ash to a third party, I convinced this man to give me the ash.”
He has had a far easier time finding materials for his medallions. “They use a lot of common-day commodities,” he says.
Mastrangelo began making medallions in 2008. They evolved from his sculpture titled Avarice, which was a modern take on the Aztec calendar stone. He used white corn and cornmeal to represent a Mexican staple that has been co-opted by the corporate world to make anything from corn syrup for soft drinks to ethanol to run engines.
“The depiction of corn-based products draws attention to Mexico’s mass cultivation of corn to meet energy needs [via ethanol] and foreign consumer demands,” states a caption created for the sculpture by Brooklyn Museum, which now includes the work in its collection. “At the same time, an iconic Aztec image suggests parallels between the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, centuries ago, and the present-day exploitation of local Mexican corn production by North American agribusiness.”
Mastrangelo describes how the medallions grew out of the project.
“I was making this piece, Avarice, which is a large Aztec calendar sculpture, and I was looking for a way to produce off-shoot sculptures for that same sort of conceptual idea. So, I was looking at Aztec gods and thought that they were so beautiful, the colors and things. So, what I did, the first four medallions that I made were based on Aztec gods.”
Using the color palettes unique to the Aztec deities for death and war, he translated those colors using household staples.
Black beans represented the obsidian rock that is so popular in Mexico. Turquoise-colored sugar symbolized the turquoise stones that were considered precious gems by the Aztecs. Chili peppers recreated the blood from human sacrifices. Corn produced a beige tone that represented the body paint used in Aztec ceremonies.
“The medallions were taken from the 1920s,” he says. “They were these ornate objects that basically adorned rich people’s homes. I was clashing these commodities that you will find in any grocery store — black beans, sugar — these low-end [objects] clashing with the high-end things to make contemporary art. It was conceptualized historically by it being about the Aztecs.”
The first four medallions were created in 2008, and they sold out the same year at the Zona Maco Mexico Arte Contemporaneo art fair, Mastrangelo says. The collector was none other than Mexico’s former president, Vicente Fox, he adds.
Based on that early success, Mastrangelo’s dealer asked him to reprise the medallions this year. The artist says today the political message is more subtle. His days of risking life and limb working with banned drugs or murderous gang members may be a thing of the past.
“Today I would never do it,” he says. “I would never compromise my life, my situation, my finances, to make a work of art that has a political point.”