Magnan Projects and Magnan Emrich, September 12 – October 25, 2008
When I first saw Alejandro Almanza Pereda’s precariously arranged constructions a few years ago, I remember thinking that he must have been the kind of kid who tortured his mother by rollerskating around the pool with scissors in his hands, drinking Coca-Cola and eating pop rocks. The safety-be-damned type who was always having you sign his arm casts at school. After looking at his work for a little while, even as epinephrine continued to course through my central nervous system, it occurred to me that the intense effect of his sculptural gambit might not be sustainable. Pereda’s work succeeds in precisely the same way that a combination of decay and physics (and a significant amount of neglect) destroyed the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis and the levees in New Orleans: by exploiting the weaknesses of an unstable structure. Though he is using the physical to elicit the aesthetic, his viewers’ sympathetic nervous systems don’t know the difference. Pereda’s art is masterful at taking advantage of our ignorance of physical and structural laws, and capitalizing on our mounting paranoia over the fragility of our country’s civil infrastructure. But, unfortunately, the apprehension of danger is relative, not absolute, so I had to wonder if Pereda’s art would desensitize its viewers the same way that the United States public seems to have become inured to the seemingly relentless spate of calamities over the past seven years.
With THE FAN AND THE SHIT, his second solo exhibition with the affiliated duo of Magnan Emrich and Magnan Projects, it seems as if Pereda has been reading my mind. Though this exhibition is a much more varied effort than his previous one, it is also a much more reflective and nuanced one. He has done well to delve into the subtle crannies of our collective fears, eschewing some of the Wile E. Coyote vs. the Roadrunner beware-of-blunt-trauma scenarios some might have expected. Right off the bat, Pereda’s work looks somewhat reinvented. In “RPS (you might kick my ass but that feeble adversary behind you will kick yours)” (2008), cumbersome objects such as hammers, axes and cinder blocks are functionally incapacitated, lying safely in a compartmentalized, vertically-oriented vitrine. The would-be inflictors of physical damage are here stabilized by their orderly enclosure, even as the combination of glass, rock and steel seem potentially hazardous. To complicate issues, the vitrine’s stacked cubes, which house other loaded objects such as cash, coal and confetti, clearly allude to the events of 9/11. Structural integrity and entropy compete to a tenuous stalemate, functioning formally like the decisive moment in a Cartier-Bresson photograph, or the frame in Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse sequence when all four hooves are off the ground. It is an instance that implies all that came before and all that is sure to come. Similarly, when we look back at footage of the smoldering towers on September 11, 2001, the temporary stability of those buildings is so wrenching because we know that their ultimate fate is suspended in the balance.
Another example of Pereda’s increasing sophistication is “Out to lunch (closed for the day)” (2008), also at Magnan Projects, which consists of a tangled ball of galvanized steel chain hanging like a chandelier from the ceiling. Like “RPS,” this piece succeeds through the contradiction of being simultaneously innocuous and threatening. Where his past work tended to be predominantly aggressive, this piece seems passive/aggressive, and it suits the work well. Such inconsistencies add layers of psychological and emotional tension to Pereda’s work. The bundle of chain in “Out to Lunch” looks light and insubstantial until the inevitable realization that this seemingly secure object is actually massive, heavy and a broken link away from rattling the earth below it. In addition to being physically imposing, “Untitled” plays on the verbal associations packed into its material. The literal connotations of security and safety in the word “chain” quickly erode in the presence of this particular configuration.
Around the corner (or through the back courtyard), THE FAN AND THE SHIT continues at Magnan Emrich with “Equalized Power Amplifier” (2008), which features a bulky fish tank hulking unsteadily atop a ten-foot-high vertical armature. Inside the tank, a bundle of round Christmas ornaments buoys a sledgehammer in the water, appearing to ascend from the enclosure like a portly street vendor being lifted into the sky by a bouquet of helium balloons. The comparatively spindly armature, too, seems overmatched by the dense matter at its top, capitalizing on a conceit similar to Pereda’s past work, but here the beautifully disparate associations between the balloon-like ornaments, the hammer, and competing forces of gravity and buoyancy infuse it with character and subtlety.
There are several two-dimensional pieces in the show that feel a bit extraneous, but all the remaining sculpture is equally fraught with arresting contradiction, or what poet W.B. Yeats termed “terrible beauty”—the plaintive dopamine high that destruction induces to protect us from its lingering aftereffects. Though Pereda is Mexican and conceived the work for this show in Mexico City, he also lives in New York and has a clear perspective on the anxieties that have befallen New Yorkers and Americans in general over the past few years. While his past work has been something like the aesthetic equivalent of wartime’s “nuclear option,” (guaranteed to work, but also to work far too well,) Pereda proves that he has more subtle and humane options in his arsenal. By going from the potential of brute force to finessing that force into something both dangerous and elegant, THE FAN AND THE SHIT broadens his range. If Alejandro Pereda did in fact spend his early days running around the pool with scissors and knives, he has since grown up to be able to repurpose those instruments of fear and danger into instruments of form and expression.