So much of contemporary art today is labeled conceptual art, a broad term meaning almost anything that is not traditional, figurative painting and sculpture. That would include installation, video, mixed-media collage, performance and anything created with modern technology.
However, there is a tendency to think of conceptual art as having been born in a void, without many ancestors, created in the brand new modes only possible in a post-moon-landing world. The latest exhibit at the space run by the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation — whose exhibits would most often be categorized as conceptual art — aims to correct this, giving those contemporary strains a parent: abstract art.
Impulse, Reason, Sense, Conflict explores those origins with more than 100 works from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection — an exhibit made up of recently acquired pieces or ones never previously shown — that reveal deep roots in the movement that emerged more than a century ago.
In fact, the vast scope of this exhibit seems to reject the idea that abstraction was even a force so fleeting as a “movement.” The radical nature of abstracting the image and the narrative would change art forever, according to CIFO’s director and curator, Jesus Fuenmayor. Abstraction, he writes in the extensive catalog, “has provided a range of artistic practices with a series of models that are still paradigmatic and exemplary of how we understand art in modern and contemporary times.”
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That’s heady stuff, as is the exhibition’s title. But it shouldn’t in any way keep you from this important, thought-provoking and, yes, wonderful exhibit that dares anyone to call Miami a lightweight. With a combination of Latin, North American and European schools and decades represented, and with names attached to works that include Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Gabriel Orozco, Liliana Porter and Gego along with stars of today such as Olafur Eliasson, Theaster Gates and Rashid Johnson, this is serious in the best sense of the word.
Up until the late 19th century, art generally was viewed in a prescribed way — a painting could be placed in any setting, and it would look the same to whoever saw it. With abstraction, physical space and spatial dynamics came into play, and perception of a piece could change depending on placement. One result was patterning made from lines and geometric grids and nontraditional materials that formed optical illusions, which changed depending on the viewer’s position.
Venezuela became fertile ground in the second part of the 20th century for what is called kinetic art, and there is a prime example here from one of its pioneers, Jesus Soto. In the almost colorless Tes Blancas from 1971, the metal wires attached to a wooden square seem to shimmer and undulate when one looks at the piece head on. When looking at it from the side, when you can see the mechanics of the design, it is stationary.
Another Venezuelan who used to make Miami home, Eugenio Espinoza, has an accompanying piece in this section, but with a different take on the kinetic form. Against four identical white triangles painted on deep blue panels, Espinoza has placed black metal rods that actually do move when the viewer hits them. The illusionary elements here can be physically manipulated.
This is just one tiny corner where the trajectory of abstract art’s influence on contemporary art is plumbed.
Playing with perception and with settings — when the unexpected surfaces in what we are trained to see or experience — is a theme here. And one of the most amazing examples covers one wall in yellow, white and black markings, from Italian-Brazilian Anna Maria Maiolino. Encased in small rectangles that resemble dominoes are individual letters, or isolated bits of calligraphy — Arabic, old Sanskrit? In fact they don’t belong to any alphabet; on top of that they are not even drawn, they are created from drops of paint and randomly shaped.
A beautiful piece that sits on the floor in the same room explores similar mark-making. When you stare down at the wood-framed square, you are swallowed up in an infinite universe created by another Brazilian, Carla Chaim. Tiny planets and constellations swarm around in a black space. Or, maybe, we are viewing a molecular structure through a microscope; the macro and the micro of our observed world can appear eerily the same. But again, Chaim’s piece is not plotted, it is randomly created, made from the interaction of soup bubbles and white paint on paper.
In another section, the wood sculptures fall clearly into the genre of conceptual art. Here again they also are put in context with the long history of abstraction, in a sense threading together all aspects of what it spawned. There is a sense of whimsy to the three blond-wood drawers placed into the wall from Gabriel Sierra. At first they are a study in material, space and, like so much of abstract art through the decades, of geometry. The three drawers have their knobs removed; two were on the left side, one on the right. So initially we are looking at rectangles and circles, whose placement within the wall would not have the same effect anywhere else. But then, in a performative touch, if the bottom drawer is opened you find bananas inside. The whole sculpture changes.
In a similar vein is a nearby piece by Theaster Gates. For this work, it is necessary to read the title and even know a little bit about the artist, who has built his career around community activism and repurposing discarded objects as much as through the practice of fine art. A Casual Evening Leaning From My Room To Performances Below Me is made up of three sculptures made of found-wood planks; one hangs from the wall, and the other two lean against it. Although there is no trace of the figurative here, you begin to wonder if the hanging piece is the window from which he might be watching the two plank sculptures performing.
That’s just a taste of the pairings in the exhibit. This isn’t just any group show; it is painstakingly divided into four thematic sections, with sub-chapters within, and documented. While describing these sections (which often blur together, not unintentionally), director Fuenmayor emphasizes that CIFO doesn’t just want to expose art to the public. It has a mission to be part of expanding Miami’s cultural knowledge, of educating a public in the trends and histories that have shaped contemporary art across both hemispheres, to which he hopes this exhibit contributes.
But even if you don’t want to take this particular “course” on abstract art, you can just enjoy the individual pieces. Like the sublime 2005 charcoal drawing from William Kentridge, with its spheres whipping around and leaving a cosmic splash; the white table from Adrian Villar Rojas with bowls cut out from it, bowls that also look like Saturn and its moons; or the 1939 black-and-white-photograph from Karl Hugo Schmolz of a German bridge — it’s all about the lines and structure.
Whichever way you want to experience Impulse, Reason, Sense, Conflict, you’ll have a lot to take away.
If you go
What: “Impulse, Reason, Sense, Conflict: Abstract Art from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection”
When: Through March 29.
Where: CIFO, 1018 N. Miami Ave., Miami.
Info: Open Thursday through Saturday, www.cifo.org.