ALEJANDRO MAZÓN

Raúl Zamudio | ALEJANDRO MAZÓN: Painting Beside Itself

Now that issues surrounding painting’s demise and reemergence have been laid to rest as some postmodern death wish, what does the genre hold as the twenty-first century unfolds? At the close of the last millennium, many painters incorporated the medium within other formal contexts such as, for instance, David Reed and his painterly insertions into the films of Alfred Hitchcock or Miguel Angel Rios and his landscape renditions related to his hallucinogenic sojourns undertaken for his multi-channel video installations or the sculptural and architectonic paintings of Tori Begg that spill into their environments and supersede what can be traditionally created with easel and brush. These artists, among others, have rethought the medium along more formally experimental lines and in the process, have revitalized painting as a response to its questioning as a viable artistic practice.

Not all contemporary painters have gone tete-á-tete with other media in working through painting’s contestation, however, but they have nonetheless uniquely contributed to the genre by reworking the artistic past into the present. Jenny Saville and her affinity to Lucian Freud, for example, or Glen Brown and his polychromatic and diluted oils that recall the frenetic, impasto paintings of Frank Auerbach, or Lisa Yuskavage and her voluptuously exaggerated female figuration that ironically responds to Mel Ramos’ objectifications of what Simone De Beauvoir called “The Second Sex,” and of course, there is John Currin whose postmodern Mannerist tendencies ostensibly draw from a plethora of Old World sources including the Northern Renaissance. It is within the context of painting’s recent formal and conceptual expansion that one should approach the work of Alejandro Mazón; for Mazón’s paintings, which are also absorbent of the past, address questions as to what constitutes a painting, as well as freely pilfering visual culture from an array of geo-cultural locations which reflect his Cuban ancestry and peripatetic biography.

Alejandro Mazón’s work to date is an amalgam of disparate elements culled from a myriad of sources including art history, craft and folk art, antique advertisements, commercial wallpaper, animation, cardboard and paper flotsam and jetsam, and assorted ephemera that is then re-contextualized into his work. His seemingly endless iconography is thematically broad and topically heterogeneous in citing history, myth, religion, politics and so forth, and its aesthetic permutation is not limited to what lies within a painting’s pictorial space or the genre’s conventional two-dimensional format. What underscores this is Mazón’s eclectic use of the edges of his paintings as well as extending his work far beyond the borders of the frame, consequently giving his pictures a sculptural quality. Think of Robert Ryman or Howard Hodgkin, and you began to understand Mazón’s painterly and trans-pictorial strategies. Or inversely, since Mazón’s aesthetic sometimes leans to sculpture as well as painting, one could cite the sculptors Richard Tuttle or Jessica Stockholder as having a peripheral effect on Mazón via the picturesque nature of their three-dimensional constructions. In The First Battle (2008), for instance, Mazón presents us with an admixture of painting and sculpture, and the result is a work imbued with visual poetics and so conceptually layered that it fosters an array of narrative possibilities.

The work consists of a rectangular, horizontal painting from which hang two smaller paintings encased within a box-like frame. What holds this eclectic polyptic together is twine: the large painting is affixed to the wall with this material, and hanging from it is the enclosure in which, in turn, is set the two smaller paintings. It may be apt to imagine this formally connected and conceptually interconnected work as a kind of chain that cohere both two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects in dynamic triangulation. In theory, it could be said that this technique allows Mazón’s work to literally reach into the real world by being tacked onto its surrounding area and incorporating it as a medium; this tends to broaden his work’s conceptual contours and raises questions about painting’s ontology. One can see this modus operandi as akin to Lucio Fontana and his slashed and punctured canvases that investigate the space behind a painting and its support wall. Fontana declared this space to be metaphysical, and regardless of his rhetoric it was a formal innovation in painting. Mazón similarly uses space beyond the frame as an integral aesthetic and conceptual component, and fundamentally, moreover, one could see this as an extension of figure/ground dynamics. Whereas figure/ground relationships are germane to almost any painting be it representational or pure abstraction, Mazón’s spillage of his work into actual space adds another dimension to it, as well as broadening the figure/ground coupling by encompassing the inside and outside of a painting. His multipartite panels that morph into sculpture must, by default, also include the space between the panels. Pictorial space for Mazón, then, is not only what resides within the picture plane, but also between the various elements that constitute his paintings and their sculptural components. This dialectic between painting and sculpture allows greater formal and narrative freedom as evinced in The First Battle, in which its variegated imagery is set into dialogical motion triggered by the painting’s singular yet concomitantly open-ended title.

For example: in the top panel are two figures set within an apparent miniature landscape and attendant indiscernible flora. The male on the far left appears to be in oriental garb and is facing a woman of means in Old World, European attire. In considering how these two figures are in symbolic tension with each other via class, gender, ethnicity and culture, the first battle that the title refers could be the historical antagonism between these personages and their signifiers of difference. But what complicates this reading even further is the toy soldier as well as the contemporary military figure crouched down in the midst of an explosion. The figure within the exploding environment is difficult to locate as per cultural or ideological affiliation; so he is not so much a defender of this way of thinking or that governmental entity, but symbolizes militarism as an abstraction. Here, the battle is generally a discursive one where ideas and ideologies become salvos. Ideology, however, is a social construct and thus it is taught, hence the toy soldier that is set within the tableau is metaphor of how early childhood is apt for the inculcation of authority. The first battle, albeit alluded to as child’s play, gives way to other forms of engagement leading to later adult contestations of class, politics, ethnicity, gender and so forth. But as is often the case with Mazón’s visual vocabulary that crisscrosses cultures and history, here one can see images of bygone eras juxtaposed with contemporary iconography, which in tandem seamlessly congeal into a complex artistic lexicon. Since the imagery in The First Battle is anti-teleological, that is to say, there is no particular narrative focal point because of the point/counterpoint between the top and bottom panels as well as the smaller works in the lower section, there is more liberty in extrapolating the work’s meaning. Mazón often uses formal and conceptual tropes, such as multi-panel painting, which not only add a sculptural quality to his work, but negate thematic singularity. Another example of this technique is found in In the Garden of Nothing (2008).

Like The First Battle, the iconography and hence the narrative of In the Garden of Nothing is trans-historical as well as trans-cultural. The garden as cultural expression is rife with history and meaning, and this is underscored in the painting’s universe of images: Christopher Columbus and other figures wearing Old World costumes contrast and supplement the various species of flora depicted in the work, as if they are only now coming into contact with the strange life of the New World. But the vegetal specimens are ostensibly anachronistic in alluding to their specious origins: maybe they have been extracted from some antiquated book on botany or some other taxonomic text? Their literal and abrupt placement in the painting seem to imply that nature is, in one sense, anything but “natural”; for the images of flowers and vegetal forms do not only serve as compositional elements but act to convey the notion that New World discovery is a fiction of the conquerors. But the conquest also gave birth to something uncanny. Hence, then, an array of skulls culled from the artist José Gudalupe Posada that refers both to death incurred from New World conquest and to the formation of altogether new hybrid, social, political and ethnic identities; for the Day of the Dead, which Posada’s print cites, is a Mexican custom that is both Old and New World, indigenous and foreign. Mazón has a particular, discerning yet poetic vision when it comes to the political and critical tenor that his work may take. It never succumbs to didacticism, but is polyvalent and philosophical. Such is the case, for example, with Rain Cloud (2008), and Vishnu on Houck Mountain (2008).

The former refers to an ominous metrological phenomenon that is the site of the miraculous, or a catalyst for apparition. In short, the rain cloud seems to drive the narratives ensuing below it and serves as both harbinger of a tumultuous event and a source of nourishment for an arid and lifeless world. The trope of the rain cloud, water and their associations, moreover, foment a narrative deluge awash with numerous readings. The same thing could be said of Vishnu on Houck Mountain. Here, the Hindu god of creation has manifested in the most quotidian of locales in upstate New York, reassuring us that the spiritual exists in the everyday and everywhere as it does in a temple engulfed in divinatory ecstasy. It takes a sophisticated imagination to give birth to such works of aesthetic delectation as evinced in the above examples, which has distinguished Mazón within the field of contemporary painting. Alejandro Mazón has delineated a particular trajectory through formal innovation and conceptual approach underscored in a métier that often utilizes the interiority and exteriority of a painting, yet it nonetheless produces a singular, cohesive and unified work. In this sense, his is  painting that transcends both physically and poetically, formally and conceptually, its own ostensible parameters. And although by all appearances his artworks are ontologically self-contained, their hybrid quality concomitantly morphs them into registers that supersede the conventions of what constitutes a painting to the degree that they are both literally and figuratively, beside themselves.

 


 
Raúl Zamudio
 
Raúl Zamudio is a New York-based curator and art critic who has organized over 50 exhibitions in the Americas, Europe, and Asia; most recently co-curator of 2008 Seoul International Media Art Biennial, and artistic director, 2008 Yeosu International Contemporary Art Festival. He has published over 180 texts in books, museum and gallery exhibition catalogs, and magazines and journals of which many have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. He is contributing editor, Art Nexus, correspondent Flash Art, and other texts appear in Contemporary, TRANS, Zingmagazine, Estilo, Journal of the West, Tema Celeste, Acrylic, LatinArt, Art in Culture, EYEBALL, [Art Notes], Bridge, FRAMEWORK: The Finnish Art Review, and the Los Angeles Times.