Words of Mouth and Hands
June 23–July 28, 2023
Carlos Amorales has a baroque sensibility. And like his forebears in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, his essential trait is ingegno (feebly Englished as wit). The baroque theoretician Emanuele Tesauro, in his 1654 Aristotelian Telescope, defines ingegno as the divine ability to generate metaphors by “binding together the remote and separate notions of the proposed objects.” Amorales’s ingegno brings together sound, sight, and material and combines them to form a composite that is simultaneously personal and universal: like a divinity, he creates something out of nothing. Born in Mexico City in 1970, Amorales is heir to a brilliant Mexican baroque heritage that includes the poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in the seventeenth century, colonial mestizo baroque churches, and neo baroque authors like Jorge Cuesta and José Gorostiza in the twentieth. It has fallen to Amorales to create a multimedia baroque in twenty-first century New York.
To accomplish this, he fills the capacious Kurimanzutto gallery with recent works, creating a world of his own. Upon entering the space, visitors first hear chanting—voices saying nothing, but establishing a continuous rhythm—perhaps the dominant concept of the show. To the right, on the west wall, hang ten roughly 130 by 45-inch strips, each titled Silent Choir (2023), eight predominantly black, two predominantly blue. They are acrylic on paper, painted in trompe-l’oeil. In their illusionistic way, they pick up the rhythm being chanted and transform it into a visual ripple. We might remember that one of the words the Romans used to express metaphor was translatio, which for us combines translation with the idea of metaphor. This is exactly what Amorales is accomplishing: a continuous translation and substitution of one medium for another, all united by a hypnotic rhythm.
We are next confronted by two videos in a six-channel work titled Fragmented States (2023): in one, a man variously claps his hands or slaps his face. In the other, a woman mouths several expressions, while her mirror eyes become videos within the video. Here Amorales confirms the seismic cadence established in the chanting and the painted strips. At the same time, he introduces the concept of complexity, essential to all baroque art: only the challenging, the difficult can be interesting.
The “Silent Choir” hangings continue along the interrupted south wall, now with red added. They too become a continuous cadence, leading us into the heart of the gallery. Facing them, on the north wall, are horizontal strips in black acrylic, all given the title Iztaccíhuatl (2023). Iztaccíhuatl in Aztec mythology was a princess who died of grief when told her lover had fallen in battle and was transformed into a four-peaked mountain. (Her lover, Popocatépetl, was transformed into the nearby volcano, his rage metamorphosed into fire.) The fact that Amorales feels obliged to include this geographic reference (the mountain is vaguely visible even in smoggy Mexico City) means he himself feels grounded in his Mexican culture and feeds off its historic energy.
The eastern end of the gallery, in addition to more “Silent Choir” strips, contains four more videos from the Fragmented States work. In the first (on the left), a woman silently speaks into her cellphone, a mute echo of the “silent choir” on the walls. In the second, a hand turns over the pages of a book. The book, at times resembling a pre-Conquest codex, is a summary of Amorales’s themes: first the hand itself, the creator’s hand, contains incorporated videos. Then we have lyrics from random songs, offhand remarks (“I speak no Dutch.”), and, most importantly, sketches, most especially of hands. Where the first baroque viewed nature as a book, Amorales views his creative process as a book—memories, experiences, the effusions of his subconscious—that constitutes the source of his art.
The next two videos that complete the work feature an older man, clapping his hands over his face. So again, the rhythm of life and art combine. His hands too replicate the video-within-a-video. The final video also shows the older man seeming to paint or paint over a vaguely Abstract Expressionist canvas. Metamorphosis, yet another baroque trope, and a reinforcement of the idea that while rhythm is repetition, a modification in cadence brings in change, metaphor replacing metaphor.
Words of Mouth and Hands is a daring, challenging installation, but it is a fitting New York debut for Carlos Amorales, who bears within him centuries of Mexican art.