out of focus, alámbrico
Preview OCT 24., 2013 / 6-9pm

Eugenio Espinoza is a visual artist working in the fields of geometric abstraction, exploring (its) consequences and investigating the artwork as an experience, as space in which the concept is the process.

Espinoza has created several small works that he has brought with him to Stavanger to combine with the site specific work made during his stay. The brought pieces are painted aluminum panels, folded and placed loosely on metal brackets on the wall.

Eugenio Espinoza (b. 1950) in Venezuela. He studied at the Escuela de Artes Plasticas Cristobal Rojas and the Instituto de Diseno Newmann-Ince in Caracas, Venezuela. In 1972, he exhibited a series of cut and folded canvas at the Museo de Bellas Artes and his “Impenetrable” at Ateneo de Caracas. His black and white grid canvas was photographed outdoors and used in street performances. From 1977 to 1980, Espinoza lived in New York, where he studied at Pratt Institute, New York University, and the School of Visual Arts. He participated in the XVIII Sao Paulo Bienal in 1985. In July-August of 1985, he had a joint show with Gego at the Museo de Barquisimeto called “Eugenio Espinoza; Dibujos Sin Papel”. He won the first prize in the III Guayana Bienal, in 1992. His work is included in the Galeria de Arte Nacional and Museo de Bellas Artes, in Caracas; Museu de Arte Moderno, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Sao Paulo, Brazil; Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Caracas; Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Bogota; Museo de Arte Latinoamericano, Los Angeles; Miami Art Museum, Florida; Fine Arts Museum of Houston, Texas;Tate Modern, London; Coleccion Cisneros; Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, Gego Foundation and many other private and corporate collections.

Photo: Erik Sæter Jørgensen

Watt´s Pots
(or, The Beginning of Eugenio Espinozaʼs Late Style) 

Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr. Knottʼs pots, of one of Mr. Knottʼs pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answered, with unexceptional adequacy, all the purposes, and performed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot. And it was just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that so excruciated Watt. 

-Beckett, Watt

Finding the right place from where to begin has proven doubly difficult with this text-- enough to make this very difficulty serve as the impetus to get us going. The problem, at least in part, is determining who to write for. Should one address the audience that Eugenio Espinozaʼs work has steadily collected, which doesnʼt need an explanation of the historical background against which this work emerged? Or, using this exhibition as an ideal or idealized moment to put the work before new eyes, should one address a different audience, the sort that may be connected to an Anglo-European mainstream which, despite its supposed interest in alter-modernities and paradigms of inclusion, jealously guards its borders? Does one have to explain in detail to this second audience the broad panorama of politicized cultural production in Latin American in the 1970s, to which Espinoza both belongs and helped maintain, and then, after explaining this context generally, does one have to delve into the variegated textures that emerge on closer inspection? After all, making work under a repressive regime in Buenos Aires was different from producing it in socialist Havana or in oil-rich Caracas. Does one have to produce a genealogical sketch of Latin American geometric abstraction in general, and then a second sketch that traces a modernist project within Venezuela in particular? And is just mentioning this history and these genealogies, suggesting their complexity and their indispensability in structuring a proper frame of reference for Espinozaʼs work, enough to whet curiosities, to prime this new audience that Iʼm imagining to be willing to both look at the work on its own and to go search for the material that will fill in whatever blanks remain after their engagement with it?

In a discarded draft of this text, I attempted to schematically map Eugenio Espinosaʼs body of work into four phases. I thought this would both help locate it historically and draw a diagram of its internal development for those unfamiliar with it. The exercise may be worth salvaging.

First phase: a fiery youthful moment, an important reaction to the work that was being produced and institutionalized around him. It owes as much to what he learned from Gego, his teacher, as to a general politicized ambiance that breached the borders of art production in the 1960s and 1970s. This phase--and Espinosaʼs career--began with a thunderclap. At just 22, he produced what is slowly coming to be understood as a seminal work in Latin American art production--Impenetrable (1972). A gridded painting the same size as the floorspace of the room in which it was to be exhibited, Impenetrable was presented horizontally, at knee height, instead of hung, blocking access to the space. It was Espinozaʼs ambivalent reaction to the immersive works emerging around him (Sotoʼs Penetrable works, Cruz-Diesʼs Chromosaturations, Oiticicaʼs environments, etc.). Where these works assumed a politics in placing the viewer in the middle of a sensual experience, Espinozaʼs asked instead: What kind of politics are involved in this sort of participation? Rather than open the work to becoming immersive, he rendered it an obstacle, a moment of stoppage in this euphoric involvement of the audience. He was less interested in the spectatorʼs “violation” of art viewing protocol than in having the viewer consider the existence of such a protocol in the first place and how it determined her as a particular kind of subject, bound to a larger structure of social relations. Painting as analytical tool.

Second phase: an expressive moment, a retreat to the studio, to Painting, to subjectivism. While the grid remains prominent, Espinosaʼs painting are now simply paintings. They return to traditional materials and dimensions. Gestural brushwork begins to appear. To me, this moment is interesting because it rehearses the fate of Venezuelaʼs post-war avant-garde, where more clearly than anywhere else in the continent, progressive impulses found endorsement in the institutions of the dominant culture. These paintings capture a loss of resolution in the discrepancy and distance that critical cultural production should represent in relation to a toxic status quo. Criticality and capitulation share an unstable border in them. Espinozaʼs paintings are as much a record of a desire to participate in a global dialogue and market, as they are a registry of the temptations with which healthy bourgeois institutions, in this case scaffolded by oil revenues, defang critical projects.

Third phase: a moment of critical self-assessment. Asked throughout the late 1990s and the early 2000s to reconstruct his quasi-site-specific early work for inclusion in historical exhibitions, rather than settling for an unconsidered gesture of revisiting old work Espinosa began to use reconstruction itself as an analytical tool. The best resource Iʼve found to think about these works is the notion of the remake. The remake is a Hollywood term for new versions of older movies, usually update it with a few gimmicks for a new market. In the 1990s, among certain video artists, Stan Douglas is a particularly relevant example, something like a critical remake surfaced.1 These critical remakes rethought the filmic object they were bound to in terms of the socio-historical changes that separated the then of the original and the now of the remake.

In Espinosaʼs case--and in that of other painters, such as François Morellet--rather than index socio-historical changes directly, the pictorial remake took on a militant literalism. The new works simply doubled the old ones, with neither the “updates” of the uncritical remakes nor the updates of the critical remakes. Being identical or nearly identical to their sources, these pictorial remakes highlighted their inadequacy in relation to a new context--our now. They refuse substantial formal change and in doing so cast attention on the situation, different from the one they were intended for, in which they find themselves. Itʼs a jarring odd-piece-out-of-place logic. What in our social relations and cultural institutions, they prod us to ask, has changed to such a degree that these paintings can no longer function properly--as analytical tools, as critical objects, or simply as effective mnemonic devices? In a sense, Espinoza is returning to early form. Rather provide an object on which a critical posture is registered as content, he places an obstacle in the spectatorʼs way and invites her to consider the discursive and material forces in which sheʼs enmeshed.

And the fourth phase: Late style. This phase is so new--this exhibition begins to flesh it out--that whatever I say about it is speculation more than historical analysis. Iʼm calling it “late style” not because this is the final phase of Espinozaʼs production--in fact, the vigor with which he is producing in the studio would put any confusion on this to rest--but because it responds to some of the traits that have been associated with the so-called “late style” of certain artists and writers. It has less to do with a sense of resolution or culmination than with the way in which whatever has been gained along the way is stretched on the rack of a renewed and pressing search.

Before he died, Edward Said dedicated a great deal of thinking to “late style.” Always concerned with the timeliness of things in the world, he sketched the connections between an aging body and the forms it furiously sought to materialize. He found that the reconciliation and serenity that one may assume characterize late works in a career are haunted, and often overhauled, by “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” These works recoil from closure as much as they do from melancholy. Lateness is less a condition of the human body than of a body of work that refuses to go down quietly, that after assessing all that has been achieved seeks not the peaceful epitaph but a new maelstrom that sends disarticulating waves back through history and makes us reconsider everything anew. Said called it an “unproductive productiveness.” This is a neat paradox in relation to Espinozaʼs new work: it advances his body of work without advancing it; it moves forward by engaging the lacunae left along the way; it trades in the anxiety of maintaining historical consonance with the moment for an experimental attitude that extracts the yield of accumulated experience.

Espinoza has been afforded the possibility of a “late style” precisely because he underwent a decade-long process of self-assessment, a kind of personal archeology (his third phase in our scheme). Opening 40 years of production to re-appropriation afforded Espinoza the opportunity to both be done with it and pick at the details, the dark spots, the unclear moments. I think this is what serves as the substrate for Espinozaʼs “late style”: the unclear moments, the material still waiting to be mastered, the things that a lack of experience or security the first time around didnʼt give him the tools to engage with, or perhaps even see. Now, itʼs matter of exploiting accumulated knowledge and insight, allowing it to guide the work. That intuition and spontaneity gain importance is both true and too simple an explanation. Intuition here is a puppet the hand of experience guides. This undoubtedly is the reason why Espinozaʼs gestures feel anything but tentative, even as they become increasingly personal and idiosyncratic, precarious and ephemeral, casual and unprepossessing. If all along it has been easy to locate Espinoza among certain politicized artists, now it becomes increasingly easier to inch him closer to a different and looser constellation, to place him in the vicinity of, say, Richard Tuttle, B. Wurtz, Claudio Perna, Jiri Kovanda--an international, blurry-bordered coterie of artists with a light but self-assured and carefully- calibrated touch, always finessing lexicons of seemingly provisional forms with uncanny staying power.

Perhaps itʼs the habit of thinking of Espinoza as bound to painting, even if also always pressing against its borders, that invites us to consider the beginning of this late style as characterized by paintings that seem to be slipping out of their medium. They may, however, be too far gone, too successful in courting indeterminacy, to still allow us to speak of painting at all. Like Wattʼs pots that are not pots, or not quite pots, these objects are not quite paintings. The defy being easily categorized. Is Tierra Negra a painting? Is The Problem at some level not specifically about problematizing its designation? The significance of these works lies in their effort to come away from both specific media and from the body of work that serves as their precedent. This coming away, this search for an autonomy in terms of form--even if only the autonomy of a perennial medial in-betweeness--and for independence from their source, is surely one of the things that is emphatically at stake.

Through improvisation, always teetering at the edge of coming undone, these objects rise against the guiding logic of the body of work from which they emerge. They locate new dissatisfactions, one of which is the need to exceed the parameters that they should be working within and see what lies in the irreconcilable space of anomaly and waywardness. And these new dissatisfactions have demanded that the objects test a new register: from the political theyʼve crossed over into a more slippery space of formal-ontological problems. This switch is indexed in the objects through the fragility in their arrangements: they are, after all, exercises in testing just how few points of contact and balance are necessary to keep things from falling apart. They assume something of a probationary quality often associated with drawing. And this re-calibrates their affective charge, too: gravity makes way for a kind of Calvino-esque lightness that feeds on contingency, temporality, and the magic of balancing acts.

But if these objects are like Wattʼs pots, never easy to pin down, they also collect within all that they are historically chained to. Remainders linger. An unchanged orthogonal vocabulary helps vectorialize the old into the new. These objects pine for a space of independence, and they both reach it and donʼt. They do new things, but their DNA binds them to old things. This is part of their lateness: their furious desire to be done with something, while needing and torquing that very something in order to rage on. They are heavy with strata, if lightened by desire and play. This is the entwined penance and grace coded in the paradox that is at their core: they are old and new, exiled and at home, free and bound, light and anchored. The tension of this double citizenship is what animates the new vitality that we, loyal to thinking through contradiction that the work demands, are calling lateness. 

1 See Lütticken, Sven, Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2005, pp. 119-138

By Gene Moreno