What a great title for a group exhibition, ‘Contagio’, ushering in with it the sense that ideas and influences are catching. And, that the good ones are only ever an extension of a pre-existing train of other people’s efforts – their failures and their triumphs. On the press release the word has been translated into English, simply ‘Contagion’. Given the closeness of the words, separated by the one small ‘n’, it may not seem necessary but says much about the generosity of the show and the inclusiveness of its intentions. The gesture might be read as a footnote, perhaps, to the fact of being in any way other on this small island, at this time.
Contagio brings together a group of very different UK-based makers, all linked by their Latin-American roots. Collectively, they connect the regions of the Southern Cone: from Venezuela to Uruguay via Peru. It is a vast territory, as the map in Cecilia Brunson’s courtyard reveals, along with some of the physiographic details and the zonal complexity of its culturally diverse landscapes. Curated by painter Jaime Gili, the exhibition includes works in a variety of media that speak elegantly and often subtly of the sites and circumstances that have shaped their production – the histories of art and geopolitics and other theoretical strands that run through both.
I recently worked with two of the artists in this exhibition, Lizi Sanchez and Martin Cordiano, prior to the UK election and with all things Brexit still dominating. The artworks and conversation they brought into the gallery articulated the current odd, pervasive sense of instability in the capital and beyond. But while it’s hard not to read (perhaps too much) in re such concerns from a show of this kind, the mood here is one of celebration, of what such a rich mix of experiences enables artists to convey. And, importantly, the role of art to call out presumptions about makers from places the Western art world is still in the process of learning about.
Gili has one work in this show and it’s a colour-drenched, joyful fusion of European and Southern-American abstract sensibilities that perfectly sets the tone for engagement. While the angles and shard motifs of ‘a528 (Republic Announcement)’ (2019) might appear familiar from the annals of art-school art history, the heat of his palette and the sense of painterly patina or surfaces once in use is indebted to the surroundings and art he has grown up with. Lighting up the room, it’s a paean to the power of compositionally minimal means and being immersed in very different worlds.
Architecturally significant lines and curves, not to mention clashing chromatics, also feature in the work of Alexandre Canonico. ‘But’ (2020), the title of his sculptural wall work, is a connecting word and suggests a moment of pausing to question. Possibly, what it is about particular material qualities and methods of display that might referentially locate us in one place or another. The combination of modernist tropes and construction materials position the viewer between the pure sensory delight of formal, physical languages and invention as a functional everyday process.
Cordiano has developed a tool for the creation of ‘Host’ (2020), which enabled him to cut a curve into a G-plan dresser in order for it to accommodate a large-scale plaster ball. It sits perfectly in its predetermined space, without being of any actual use to the structural whole. Both satisfying to look at, yet entirely incongruous, it brings to mind traditional forms of sculptural enquiry into weight and form, while never attempting to deliver on their tenets, leaving us to consider the wider ramifications of words like fit, purpose and belonging.
Sanchez is another artist who pings our senses through the re-presentation of existing, culturally embedded materials. Reclaiming the slogan and the textual instruction – processes of communicative visualisation that often harness the power of art for commercial purposes – she gives us cause to think about the journey of her chosen subject in each case. Her delicate set of carbon-paper drawings are titled ‘Nana’ (2019). Collectively they declare a familiar word increasingly known for its brand potential as its literal description of a once-exotic, highly prized edible object (and of course a major motif in the history of migration): the pineapple.
Exotica is also a key factor in Lucia Pizziani’s ‘Todopoderosa’ (2019), a deliciously moody C-print created from a photogram. Translating as ‘almighty’, this materially sensuous yet fundamentally herpetological image operates much like connective tissue in visual form. Notions of power, social customs and status are brought into associative alignment through the ancient and modern cultural references stirred up by this ‘skin’ and the symbolic significance of the creature and its patterning.
Chino Soria’s assemblage work incorporates many loaded ingredients that allude to modes of cultural appropriation/misinterpretation and the ecological impact of mass production. As fragile as it is oddly beautiful, ‘Rama con cita (hábitat precario-poético-espacial)’ (2019) describes a materially mixed-up future world in precarious balance, at once fashionable with its fringing and neon accents, yet ultimately in peril.
It’s hard to know from simply looking at Manuela Ribadeneira’s exquisite bronze nugget, whether it belongs to the past or the future, such is the timelessness of its organic form. It might have been mined from the earth or blasted onto terra firma from space. But actually, ‘Partícula de dios (o una miga de pan) [God particle, or a crumb]’ (2012), is exactly that, a scaled-up crumb cast in bronze. It directly references scientists' evidential pursuit of the Higgs Boson quantum particle, specifically the time this most significant experiment was improbably brought to a temporary halt by a breadcrumb dropped via a pigeon into the Large Hadron Collider. As an object that embodies a sense of the simplest of things and the most extraordinary of endeavours, it offers a wry metaphysical take on the oddities of our human theatre.
Cecilia Bonilla manipulates found paper, film or digitally recorded imagery to create new narratives around female representation. The simple, handmade aesthetic of ‘Fantasies of Liberation’ (2015) suggest this pair of monochrome works have been collaged the old-school way. Improbably-sculptural sun-kissed bodies of archival women become even more object-like once partially obscured by images the artist has superimposed. Each otherworldly character appears to both literally and figuratively bear the weight of the astrophysical data they contain.
Patricia Dominguez creates ambitious multi-media installations and it’s easy to imagine the three prints shown here as part of a larger visual strategy. The artist is interested in ethnobotany and the ways in which cultural practices and ingredients are co-opted into commercial strategies, such as the wellness trend. Her detailed mode of figuration brings to mind both empirical and esoteric forms of study: the recording of subjects and ephemera under scrutiny, but in this case belonging to a fantasy realm of unknown origin. Who is the mother of drones with the artefacts and the toucan spirit? The exhbition is on until March 6.
On February 5, all nine artists will be in conversation with the gallery director about how their Latin-American heritage shapes what they make as UK practitioners. The talk is part of the exhibition catalogue launch and the publication includes a text by Kiki Mazzucchelli.