New York532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel
In his exhibition Destruktion, Cuban artist Alberto Alejandro Rodríguez takes ruins—fragments of real buildings or debris and discarded papers found within them—and constructs sculptures, architectural models of both the sites from which he gathered the materials and imagined landscapes. The exhibition title, a term used by Heidegger, made its way to Alejandro Rodríguez via the writings of Derrida, whose famed attention to the play of binary oppositions plays a role in the artwork: here, we find such an oscillation between absence and presence. Above all, Alejandro Rodríguez’s project is invested in the imagination of ruin, exploring how images of destruction are constructed.
In each of the five pieces in his “Destruktion” series (2019), Alejandro Rodríguez uses found materials from a derelict apartment building to construct tiny scale models of the rooms in that building. Framed behind glass and hanging like pictures, the fourth wall is removed allowing a god-like viewer to observe tactile details of these fragile spaces—plaster pockmarked, cracked, or scored with grid patterns to resemble tiles; wallpaper tearing off sheetrock; splintered wood forming miniature construction frameworks. Open closets and water closets provide space to imagine moving in and out, but the entrance doors of these vacant apartments are all shut. Even as the work commemorates ruin, the visible hot glue holding the seams together reveals processes of construction that archive and recreate this building’s intimate spaces from its own debris.
The idea of the archive is more explicitly at work in Alejandro Rodríguez’s Descriptive Memory (2018). Here, the artist carved curving landscape topographies atop 10 squared stacks of yellowed papers—all recovered architectural plans and building records from an abandoned building—mottled by occasional strata of dull browns and faded reds. (The complete series contains 64 stacks arranged in a square grid, with a model of the building from which the papers were recovered carved into the center stack.) If the topographical forms were scaled up to the size of real landscapes, then the towers upon which they rest would run unfathomably deep, past the Earth’s crust and mantle into the depths of memory and the unconscious. The papers, rendered unreadable in the stacks, form an archive that exists now only as manifest content, Freud’s term for dream images, while the latent content or meaning remains hidden beneath the surface.
Prolog 02 (2019) is a set of two pristinely constructed dictionary-sized books with navy blue hardcovers and silver type—the design of the volumes recalls official binding on 1950s or ’60s government texts. Inside, carved into the blue pages of the first volume is a scale model of a disinfection laboratory, and in the white pages of the second we encounter a heliport pad. The precision and intricacy of grating patterns and stairways suggest they were produced with a machine or laser cutter, but in fact, all were made by the artist’s X-Acto cuts. Openings in the back cover of the lab book and the front cover of the heliport volume allow them to be stacked on top of each other so the two model buildings overlap, mimicking the historical layering of the real site in Havana that they document. During the pre-revolutionary Batista government, construction began on this heliport pad but was never completed. Over the decades, new buildings were erected on the site, including the post-revolution Ministry of Education. As of 2017, it is going to be a disinfection lab, upon which Alejandro Rodríguez has modeled the final piece. Turning the pages of Prolog 02 one descends through archaeological strata, while flipping back conversely reconstructs the buildings one thin paper layer at a time.
Among several paintings and drawings included in the exhibition, the “Phalanges” series (2019), ironically titled after self-contained utopian communities conceived in the 19th century, documents abandoned urban spaces, mostly from Havana, such as roofless warehouses and waterlogged classrooms. Deadpan, black-and-white, consisting of traditionally unaesthetic subject matter, and scaled to the size of a standard photographic print, they recall the work of New Topographics like Robert Adams. However, they also resonate with the long history of paintings that picture ruins. Such images were a typical preoccupation, for example, of Romanticism. Produced with stencils keyed to local values, they have a high degree of verisimilitude from a distance, but up close their abstraction suggests a digitally produced image. With these paintings, Alejandro Rodríguez considers the historical roles of medium and mediation—painting, photo, digital media—but he also begins to imagine the future of ruin.