Artbreak Gallery | January 8 – February 28, 2010
In Emil Alzamora’s sculpture, concept meets craft at a very high level, a union as rare as the teeth of the proverbial hen. With the general de-skilling of art and the rise of conceptual strategies, which have gone hand-in-hand since the early 1960s, it has been too little noted that what amounts to an old-fashioned, Henry-Fordish division of labor has taken over in the art world. The “artist,” who is really the entrepreneur and jefe, commands an army of assistants, often from the developing world and just as often poorly paid, to produce work that ranges from the grandiose and trivial to the impossibly elaborate. No argument from this quarter against Francesco Clemente’s miniatures or Jeff Koons’ chrome bunny, not to mention Roni Horn’s glass cubes, but I can’t help thinking of Saint Clair Cemin’s term: “mental readymades.” In contrast, certain artists continue to demonstrate that knowledge of materials and, more importantly, of techniques, opens doors to imagery that can’t simply be “conceived” out of the cultural ether.
I am thinking of sculptors such as Cemin, Kiki Smith, Pier Consagra, Martin Puryear, and others such as the embroidery artist Angelo Filomeno. So add Emil Alzamora to the list.
Alzamora, who was born in Peru, comes from a family of artists beginning with his grandmother, a ceramicist and sculptor. He began by cartooning and studied art at Florida State University, where he found himself sometimes at odds with faculty and students who warned him away from figural sculpture, especially as it related to the human body. Not conceptual enough. Too naïve to celebrate the given, the real. He later perfected his casting techniques at Polich Art Works, the famous art foundry in Newburgh, New York. Like many of the artists mentioned above, a deep attention to the physical contours, weight, and gestures of the body has enabled Alzamora to idealize it, twist it, exaggerate, and otherwise mold it to his intentions in ways that artists without that intimacy would never “conceive.”
In the current exhibition (his first major solo show in New York), take for example the small, black, female walrus-like figure, Voluptuary, in the main space of the gallery. Its blubbery, headless weight spreads out on the white pedestal in perfect animal unconsciousness. Made of polished soapstone, it looks like an Inuit carving (hence the walrus association) but it isn’t. It is slip cast ceramic and graphite powder, waxed to a sheen. Its commentary on human vice is probably closest to that of Fernando Botero, yet the piece is anything but caricature, as the Colombian’s work almost always is. It has the disturbing force of Surrealist sculpture, a force we might call the unclassifiable familiar, something that fascinates and repels by its closeness.
I point out this piece because it is overshadowed by more virtuosic performances, especially Afterlife-Afterthought, which occupies the center of the main space. This was a male figure made of gypsum (it looked like concrete) sprawled on the floor with a coiled, elongated neck that reached nearly to the ceiling. Alzamora straddles the line between fairy tale and allegory, like Kiki Smith, and that line is a tricky one, always in danger of veering into literalness, an art that speaks too much for itself. On the other hand, you often don’t know whether the imagery works for you until long after the fact, when the images lodge themselves in your repertoire as somehow unavoidable. The exhibition’s title suggests an allegorical reading: “Random Mutations that Work” refers to a debate in evolutionary theory (and in creationism) about the fact that most gene-altering events are deleterious and don’t somehow directly contribute to the adaptability of a species. Alzamora imagines here a different set of “genetic possibilities,” all of which seem to have a psychological or political character. They represent distortions of the human that work only as expressions of a distorted society.
There are, however, other alternatives, also allegorical. The most stunning pieces in the show recall Magritte: pairs of male and female busts in porcelain titled Mother and Child. In these, the faces of the pairs are covered with leaves and flower petals. The Magritte connection makes sense, in that many of his images have achieved iconic status because of their simplicity, their surprising juxtapositions, and, again, the fine line they walk between literalness and ambiguity. In Alzamora’s case, the image is powerful because it is at once delicate and shocking, rendered with an almost romantic love for its surfaces but potentially cruel in its full implications. It is about a genetic relationship, between a mother and son, but also about other connections that both inspire and obscure, promote and suffocate. Rightly or wrongly, I took these works to be autobiographical, images of a creative relationship carried in the genes and in the studio. Mariana Alzamora is a painter and sculptress living in Mallorca, and her influence on her son has been profound, encouraging him to see in figural art possibilities for representing states of moral, political, and spiritual awareness. But as with any powerful force, it also demanded he find his own imagery, his own way of working, or risk losing identity and merging completely into a primordial state. Again, if I read the genetic theme of the show correctly, it is both an homage to those influences and a demonstration of independence.
Not-so-random mutations, after all, but they really work.