If the latest exhibition of Glexis Novoa at the Lowe Art Museum was rendered as works on paper compiled into a book, the viewer might expect to be handed white gloves and a magnifying glass.
As it is, any visual enhancement of the Lowe exhibit likely would destroy the sense of vast nothingness that the artist seeks to convey. The show, on display through Oct. 1, is aptly titled Emptiness. It takes up an entirely white-walled expanse in a gallery toward the middle of the museum. Comprising 15 tiny graphite drawings — most images are less than an inch tall — the exhibit is an invitation from the artist to see beyond the art.
“I have the intention to induce the viewer into a meditation,” Novoa said in a telephone interview. “My inspiration came — the title of the piece is Emptiness — and the emptiness that I’m talking about is a Buddhist concept. The best way to explain this is the rainbow. It is something that it is not exactly an object, but it’s there and it happened, but at the same time, you get closer and it disappears.”
Novoa puts humanity into the same context.
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“You walk from one place to another and the rainbow disappears, but it is something huge and very obvious,” he says. “It’s that condition of being and not being at the same time. You are not compromised with a specific space, you are not compromised with a specific time. But you exist at the same time. That kind of idea is the main inspiration of this piece.”
To facilitate the experience of stepping into art as one does a rainbow, Novoa prompts the viewer to step closer to observe his miniature drawings that are at once romantic renderings of the past — with cloud-shaped air ships, crenelated towers, statues and steles — and futuristic images of what appear to be London’s yet-to-be built Millennium Tower and a modern take on St. Catherine’s Wheel.
A thin horizontal line connects the drawings.
“The line is supposed to be the ocean — it’s a horizon line,” Novoa explains. “The horizon line is at your eye level. The only way that you can get into this point of view is if you are swimming on the water, with the water all the way to your eye. Then the horizon line came to your real eye view.”
The horizon line also provides the artist with the ability to play with perspective. It provides the feeling of being on the water and watching a city from a great distance.
“It gave the sensation that you are approaching or leaving a city that becomes an island,” he says. “When you leave the city, it doesn’t matter how big is the continent, the last view that you have of the city looks like an island. It doesn’t look like a continent or a big land. Because the earth is round, you only see the tip of the building.”
The Cuban-born artist, who has studios in Miami and Havana, credits cities in general and Havana in particular with providing inspiration.
“My inspiration came from my own experience on the city, beginning in the city of Havana,” he says. “It’s a very eclectic city and I think the architecture is speaking to you all the time, because of the history, the different styles. Cuba is like a capsule of time — about the previous time and previous society that was there.”
His depiction of cityscapes — some of which are included in the permanent collections of the Lowe and the Pérez Art Museum Miami — has been likened to the way Italo Calvino writes about urban setting in his novels.
Lowe Art Museum Director Jill Deupi quoted from Calvino’s Invisible Cities as a means to introduce Novoa’s show: “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
Novoa acknowledges there is a secret language to cities and urban architecture. Whenever he sees the silhouette of a city from the air or sea, he says, he feels as if the city is calling out to him.
“It’s like the city is talking to me,” he says, “And that is related to how Italo Calvino sees the cities in his stories. He’s reading the cities, as well — his reading of the cities talking to him.”
Although the exhibition room at the Lowe has a minimalist sensibility, the miniature drawings are far from minimal. They are too elaborate — both in form and function. In this exhibit they function as a means to circulate the viewer around the room.
“It’s a tool to bring people around the whole space,” he says. “I’m very interested in what happened in the space. This is my goal, even more than the drawing. I want people to walk around the space and have an experience. Walking into the space. And that’s really what I’m looking for in this piece.
“It’s an anti-space, and I want people to reflect. The little drawings and all the ideas that you can read of these little drawings are only suggestions for you to reflect on whatever you like, whatever you are motivated at that moment. That’s the idea in terms of the size of the drawings. That’s why the drawings are so small.”
There is no beginning or end to the exhibit. Viewers can begin at any place, walking to the left, right or center. All of the four walls and one interior wall have tiny images of cities or architectural elements found in cities seen from a vast distance. One corner of the room simply exhibits a dark circle, while the adjoining wall bears the negative image of that circle, surrounded by a haze of graphite to give it shape. Those circular images serve as a palate cleanser. The viewer can free up his or her mind from the architectural images and reflect on the simple circular form, Novoa says.
“It looks like a planet — like the sun and the moon,” he says. “But it’s not the sun and the moon. It’s some phenomenon that you could reflect on that, your attention in a circle, in a very abstract form. So, your mind would be in that kind of abstraction as well. Or, at least asking yourself about this abstraction. And then you could go to another idea.”
Novoa also hopes to turn the typical museum experience on its head by transforming the viewer into the object.
“When you go to the museum, you go really to see objects,” he says. “I would like to redirect the attention on that space and what happens in that space — and not the objects. I am looking at the museum space itself as an object. More like space. But there is not an object in my space.”
Instead of simply looking at images, the viewer becomes the object and responds as much to other people looking at the drawings as the art itself. This is true whether there is a crowd or the viewer is alone in the space.
“When you are alone you have more to reflect on yourself,” he says. “You have more motivation to reflect on yourself because you are alone in that space. If there were other people with you maybe that would induce you to have more connection with those people, to have a closer encounter with those people, to negotiate the space at some point. That kind of experience is the experience what I’m looking for with the space.”
He likens the experience to a stilling of the mind, similar to what the poet W.B. Yeats described when he wrote: “We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.”
Before beginning his project, Novoa spent time walking around the exhibition space and everything that surrounded it. This afforded him the opportunity to use the adjoining galleries as counterpoint. His exhibit is placed between a gallery of contemporary art and the Alfred I. Barton Wing, with its display of Art of the Native Americas.
“Both of them are very good dialogue for my work,” he says. “Because on one space there is aboriginal art. This is an art made for a functional purpose. And on the other side there is art made for the market, like for the establishment. It’s a bourgeois conception of what should be the object of art. I’m having a dialogue basically between these two ideas — the object as a functional object and the object as a bourgeois object. And my work is in the middle. It’s looking for another proposition. It’s the space. The viewer is the object.”
He furthers that dialogue by incorporating a version of Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column into one of his drawings — a work that is repeated in Richard Pettibone’s Five Columns, located in the Native American exhibit.
Novoa’s column, like many of his drawings in the show, appears tethered to the earth by guy wires. The wires also serve to highlight the immense scale of the images the artist depicts. So, again, the artist plays with opposites. He invites the viewer to look closely at miniature drawings of monumental objects. On the one hand the invitation is similar to observing the inner workings of a bead of water through a microscope, where one sees the frantic activity of minute organisms. But Novoa’s works are static. These are no droplets teeming with life. They reveal the hand of man, but not humanity.
“Everything that you see in the drawings are supposed to be huge structures,” he says. “You don’t see the people because they are too little and you are far away, very, very far away from those places. The viewer is the presence of the humanity there.”
If you go
What: ‘Glexis Novoa: Emptiness’
When: Through Oct. 1
Where: The University of Miami Lowe Art Museum, 1301 Stanford Drive, Coral Gables
Closing Reception: Thursday, Oct. 1 at 6:30 p.m. The artist will close the exhibition with a lecture and a public “effacement” ceremony. This event will be followed by the LoweDown.