Contemporary Art in the Americas Arte Contemporáneo en las Américas

Historias invertidas

Esvin Alarcón Lam

META Miami Miami, Florida, USA January 30, 2020 – April 16, 2020

Esvin Alarcón Lam, Historias invertidas (2020). Installation view. Image courtesy of META Miami

Esvin Alarcón Lam, Historias invertidas (2020). Installation view. Image courtesy of META Miami

Esvin Alarcón Lam, Historias invertidas (2020). Installation view. Image courtesy of META Miami

For Esvin Alarcón Lam, a young artist coming of age in present-day Guatemala, both his country’s and his own social, geographical and historical vantage points serve as the same points of departure for his creative practice. In the digital, ever-connected present, these perspectives serve Alarcón Lam as an impetus to mine both the physical and intangible traces of the past, its vestiges increasingly being covered over. This is not only to prevent a loss of history, but also a way to write his story, and the story of those who didn’t have a voice, within it. The history of Western modern art and design, while having to contend with periodic creative revolutions and iconoclastic declarations, still relied on the stability of the legacy of those who came before and a fixed understanding of the prevailing social order and worldview. Through concerted efforts beginning in the 1990s with the emergence of a Post-Colonial discourse, and more recently with #metoo and a revived institutional critique, the cracks in the seemingly crystallized History of Art are revealing the facets of what was once excluded and are being melded within a framework that has opened itself up to more inclusivity, retrospection and revision.

The legacies of Geometric Abstraction and Modernism run deep in the consciousness of contemporary Latin American artists who have grown up in the afterglow of the movements’ fame and proliferation, and also their ultimate failure to economically transform the region. For Alarcón Lam’s Instalación con catres (Installation with Bedframes, 2014), he disassembles the metal frames of cots, on which migrant workers and refugees slept as they made their journey through Central America on their way to the southern US border, and then mounts the decontextualized fragments in a site-inspired installation across the walls and ceiling of META’s Turrell gallery. In using these bedframes, Alarcón Lam sets, in a more permanent form, the traces of these transitory and ostracized people. The juxtaposition of the tragic biographic reality of the materials with the historical reference to a purportedly egalitarian and transformational aesthetic raises an important challenge to the indivisibility of form and function in design.

This principle, famously heralded by members of the Bauhaus faculty in Germany, was to guide the creation of a ‘complete work’ in which its concept, design and craftsmanship were all held in equal esteem. As Walter Gropius wrote in The Theory and Organization of the Bauhaus, within the fields of visual arts, industrial design and architecture should be present “the idea of a universal unity in which all opposing forces exist in a state of absolute balance. This dawning recognition of the essential oneness of all things and their appearances endows creative effort with a fundamental inner meaning. No longer can anything exist in isolation.”[1] While this standard was meant to influence the conceptualization and production of a given design or artwork, it could not control or account for how these objects would be interpreted and used in the real world, and how the changing needs of society over time would inform the works’ efficacy and reputation. The Instalación con catres, by revealing the abject hidden within the sublime, and highlighting the confrontation between past and present, affirms Gropius’ words, that nothing exists in isolation, while greatly expanding its social context by showing how design affects, and is adapted by, those on the margins of society.

Alarcón Lam has continued in this vein, of using his practice as a means to challenge historical legacies in the visual arts, and refashioning them so as to address the inherent exclusivity that has persisted in Western art history to the detriment of Indigenous cultures and the LGBTQ community. The painting, Untitled/América invertida, After Anni Albers and Joaquín Torres García (2019), which features a repeating black triangular pattern on a pink ground, references the geometric designs found in Albers’ weavings, as inspired by her trips to Mexico in the 1950s and 60s and her studies of Andean weaving techniques, as well as Torres García’s seminal 1943 work, América invertida (Inverted America), which depicts the continent of South America ‘upside down’ with its southernmost point marking the top of the cartographic drawing. By invoking Anni Albers and her textiles, Alarcón Lam intends to remind us of the lesser known sexist policies of the early years of the Bauhaus, in which women, including Albers and Gunta Stölzl, were relegated to the weaving or ceramic workshops and barred from the other disciplines, demonstrating the persistence of old prejudices even though the school was said to be open to “any talented person irrespective of age or sex”.[2] And although weaving has been traditionally seen as a feminine craft, it has been reappropriated by both men and women in an act of artistic rebellion, as seen in the work of contemporary artists Cecilia Vicuña, Ella Krebs, ektor garcia and Álvaro Gomez Campuzano. The artist has also adopted the use of the color pink, seen elsewhere in the exhibition as well as throughout his oeuvre, in an effort to queer the visual references in his work and challenge the erroneous perception of a heteronormative history. As writer and theater critic Jesse Green writes in The Revisionists: How Today’s Queer Artists are Revising History for the New York Times, “But on the whole, queer art, which fully emerged from the closet in the 1960s and 1970s—around the same time people in great numbers did—has mostly concerned itself with its own moment, as if to say, “Here I am”. That approach continues because, after all, each new microgeneration of gay people born to straight parents in a straight world must create itself and its aesthetics from scratch.” As Green continues, he notes how queer artists today are choosing to insert themselves within moments in history as if to say, “There we were”, or, to re-envision these moments completely to illustrate, “The world as it might have been”, had homosexuality and queerness been accepted within mainstream society.[3]

The creative action to revise or reimagine history has led Alarcón Lam to explore the iconography of flags and national symbols. In Huaca cuir (2018) and the Arco de cielo (Rainbow, 2019) series, Alarcón Lam again turns to a Bauhaus icon, this time Josef Albers, and uses two of his formative works, the series Homage to the Square (1950-1976) and Steps (1931/1972) respectively, as templates in which he swaps Albers’ exercises in color theory for the rainbow colors of the Pan-Andean Indigenous Peoples flag and LGBTQ Pride flags. “Huaca”, which translates roughly to “sacred space” in Quechua, and ‘cuir’ being a phonetic spelling of queer, transform the painting from honoring Modernism’s most beloved shape to declaring the holiness of difference from the norm. For the Arco de cielo series, Alarcón Lam reinterprets the geometric forms from Albers’ Steps as flowing, cubist flags paired with an icon that decodes the flags’ colorful meanings. Aside from Arco de cielo, which features the Gay Pride rainbow flag and a small rainbow, there are flags for other sexualities, including polysexual or asexual; gender preferences, like trans or gender-fluid; and fetishes and kinks, such as latex or bears. These paintings not only recognize marginalized LGBTQ groups, but also provide public representation and a sense of commonality for these groups’ members. The symbol of the pink and purple-hued volcanoes in Alarcón Lam’s series Erupción lavanda (Lavender Eruption, 2019) serves the double purpose of referencing the pink triangle of the early gay liberation movements and the prominent geographic feature of his native Guatemala. As art historian Andy Campbell writes of this series, “these almost comically abstract compositions propose the enduring symbol of gay oppression and empowerment as a container of chthonic energy—a site of violent potentiality and beatific imaginings. […These works] are visual invocations that bring sexuality and nation together.”[4] In Guatemala, as homosexuality continues to be criminalized and recent unforeseen volcanic eruptions have devastated villages with primarily poor and indigenous inhabitants, these volcanoes signify a source of pride related to personal and national identity that is closely intertwined with a latent danger and instability.

As Gropius asserts, “The objective of all creative effort in the visual arts is to give form to space”.[5] In this exhibition, Alarcón Lam does not only engage with the physical space of the gallery through his installation and paintings, but also illustrates how history, culture and personal identity are both manifestations as well as absences of space. Through the inversion and co-opting of cultural and art historical paragons, Alarcón Lam gives prominence to the ad hoc and the provisional, the underground and taboo, the margins and the excluded, attempting to correct the exclusionary patterns of history and to declare: Here we are.

—Text by Alexandra Schoolman

Esvin Alarcón Lam (b.1988, Guatemala) attended the Universidad Rafael Landívar and studied art at the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Guatemala City. His work has been exhibited at the Osage Art Foundation, Hong Kong (2017); the Bienal de Arte Paiz, Guatemala (2016); SPACE Collection, Irvine, CA (2016); Materia Cruda, Galería de Arte de la Universidad Rafael Landívar, Guatemala (2016); Lineas de la mano, Sicardi Gallery, Houston, TX (2015); 5 Revoluciones por minuto, 9.99 Gallery, Guatemala (2015); Spatial Acts, The Americas Society, New York, NY (2015) and 5 dias: puertas abiertas, Centro Cultural de España, Guatemala (2013). His work is part of the public collections: SPACE collection, Irvine, CA, and Fundacíon YAXS, Guatemala City. The artist lives and works in Guatemala.

http://miamibiennale.org/

[1] Walter Gropius, “The Theory and Organization of the Bauhaus” in Bauhaus, 1919-1928. Eds. Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius and Ise Gropius. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1938, pg. 22

[2] Naomi Wood, “From Bauhaus to Frauhaus” in 1843 Magazine. Published January/February 2019. Accessed via www.1843magazine.com on Dec. 20, 2019.

[3] Jesse Green, “The Revisionists: How Today’s Queer Artists are Revising History” in The New York Times Style Magazine. Published Dec. 4, 2019. Accessed via www.nytimes.com on Dec. 4, 2019.

[4] Andy Campbell, “Pink Smoke and Rainbow Stairs”. Text written for the exhibition Erupción lavanda at Herlitzka + Faria, Buenos Aires, July 2019.

[5] Walter Gropius, op. cit. pg. 24

Esvin Alarcón Lam, Historias invertidas (2020). Installation view. Image courtesy of META Miami

Esvin Alarcón Lam, Historias invertidas (2020). Installation view. Image courtesy of META Miami

Esvin Alarcón Lam, Historias invertidas (2020). Installation view. Image courtesy of META Miami

For Esvin Alarcón Lam, a young artist coming of age in present-day Guatemala, both his country’s and his own social, geographical and historical vantage points serve as the same points of departure for his creative practice. In the digital, ever-connected present, these perspectives serve Alarcón Lam as an impetus to mine both the physical and intangible traces of the past, its vestiges increasingly being covered over. This is not only to prevent a loss of history, but also a way to write his story, and the story of those who didn’t have a voice, within it. The history of Western modern art and design, while having to contend with periodic creative revolutions and iconoclastic declarations, still relied on the stability of the legacy of those who came before and a fixed understanding of the prevailing social order and worldview. Through concerted efforts beginning in the 1990s with the emergence of a Post-Colonial discourse, and more recently with #metoo and a revived institutional critique, the cracks in the seemingly crystallized History of Art are revealing the facets of what was once excluded and are being melded within a framework that has opened itself up to more inclusivity, retrospection and revision.

The legacies of Geometric Abstraction and Modernism run deep in the consciousness of contemporary Latin American artists who have grown up in the afterglow of the movements’ fame and proliferation, and also their ultimate failure to economically transform the region. For Alarcón Lam’s Instalación con catres (Installation with Bedframes, 2014), he disassembles the metal frames of cots, on which migrant workers and refugees slept as they made their journey through Central America on their way to the southern US border, and then mounts the decontextualized fragments in a site-inspired installation across the walls and ceiling of META’s Turrell gallery. In using these bedframes, Alarcón Lam sets, in a more permanent form, the traces of these transitory and ostracized people. The juxtaposition of the tragic biographic reality of the materials with the historical reference to a purportedly egalitarian and transformational aesthetic raises an important challenge to the indivisibility of form and function in design.

This principle, famously heralded by members of the Bauhaus faculty in Germany, was to guide the creation of a ‘complete work’ in which its concept, design and craftsmanship were all held in equal esteem. As Walter Gropius wrote in The Theory and Organization of the Bauhaus, within the fields of visual arts, industrial design and architecture should be present “the idea of a universal unity in which all opposing forces exist in a state of absolute balance. This dawning recognition of the essential oneness of all things and their appearances endows creative effort with a fundamental inner meaning. No longer can anything exist in isolation.”[1] While this standard was meant to influence the conceptualization and production of a given design or artwork, it could not control or account for how these objects would be interpreted and used in the real world, and how the changing needs of society over time would inform the works’ efficacy and reputation. The Instalación con catres, by revealing the abject hidden within the sublime, and highlighting the confrontation between past and present, affirms Gropius’ words, that nothing exists in isolation, while greatly expanding its social context by showing how design affects, and is adapted by, those on the margins of society.

Alarcón Lam has continued in this vein, of using his practice as a means to challenge historical legacies in the visual arts, and refashioning them so as to address the inherent exclusivity that has persisted in Western art history to the detriment of Indigenous cultures and the LGBTQ community. The painting, Untitled/América invertida, After Anni Albers and Joaquín Torres García (2019), which features a repeating black triangular pattern on a pink ground, references the geometric designs found in Albers’ weavings, as inspired by her trips to Mexico in the 1950s and 60s and her studies of Andean weaving techniques, as well as Torres García’s seminal 1943 work, América invertida (Inverted America), which depicts the continent of South America ‘upside down’ with its southernmost point marking the top of the cartographic drawing. By invoking Anni Albers and her textiles, Alarcón Lam intends to remind us of the lesser known sexist policies of the early years of the Bauhaus, in which women, including Albers and Gunta Stölzl, were relegated to the weaving or ceramic workshops and barred from the other disciplines, demonstrating the persistence of old prejudices even though the school was said to be open to “any talented person irrespective of age or sex”.[2] And although weaving has been traditionally seen as a feminine craft, it has been reappropriated by both men and women in an act of artistic rebellion, as seen in the work of contemporary artists Cecilia Vicuña, Ella Krebs, ektor garcia and Álvaro Gomez Campuzano. The artist has also adopted the use of the color pink, seen elsewhere in the exhibition as well as throughout his oeuvre, in an effort to queer the visual references in his work and challenge the erroneous perception of a heteronormative history. As writer and theater critic Jesse Green writes in The Revisionists: How Today’s Queer Artists are Revising History for the New York Times, “But on the whole, queer art, which fully emerged from the closet in the 1960s and 1970s—around the same time people in great numbers did—has mostly concerned itself with its own moment, as if to say, “Here I am”. That approach continues because, after all, each new microgeneration of gay people born to straight parents in a straight world must create itself and its aesthetics from scratch.” As Green continues, he notes how queer artists today are choosing to insert themselves within moments in history as if to say, “There we were”, or, to re-envision these moments completely to illustrate, “The world as it might have been”, had homosexuality and queerness been accepted within mainstream society.[3]

The creative action to revise or reimagine history has led Alarcón Lam to explore the iconography of flags and national symbols. In Huaca cuir (2018) and the Arco de cielo (Rainbow, 2019) series, Alarcón Lam again turns to a Bauhaus icon, this time Josef Albers, and uses two of his formative works, the series Homage to the Square (1950-1976) and Steps (1931/1972) respectively, as templates in which he swaps Albers’ exercises in color theory for the rainbow colors of the Pan-Andean Indigenous Peoples flag and LGBTQ Pride flags. “Huaca”, which translates roughly to “sacred space” in Quechua, and ‘cuir’ being a phonetic spelling of queer, transform the painting from honoring Modernism’s most beloved shape to declaring the holiness of difference from the norm. For the Arco de cielo series, Alarcón Lam reinterprets the geometric forms from Albers’ Steps as flowing, cubist flags paired with an icon that decodes the flags’ colorful meanings. Aside from Arco de cielo, which features the Gay Pride rainbow flag and a small rainbow, there are flags for other sexualities, including polysexual or asexual; gender preferences, like trans or gender-fluid; and fetishes and kinks, such as latex or bears. These paintings not only recognize marginalized LGBTQ groups, but also provide public representation and a sense of commonality for these groups’ members. The symbol of the pink and purple-hued volcanoes in Alarcón Lam’s series Erupción lavanda (Lavender Eruption, 2019) serves the double purpose of referencing the pink triangle of the early gay liberation movements and the prominent geographic feature of his native Guatemala. As art historian Andy Campbell writes of this series, “these almost comically abstract compositions propose the enduring symbol of gay oppression and empowerment as a container of chthonic energy—a site of violent potentiality and beatific imaginings. […These works] are visual invocations that bring sexuality and nation together.”[4] In Guatemala, as homosexuality continues to be criminalized and recent unforeseen volcanic eruptions have devastated villages with primarily poor and indigenous inhabitants, these volcanoes signify a source of pride related to personal and national identity that is closely intertwined with a latent danger and instability.

As Gropius asserts, “The objective of all creative effort in the visual arts is to give form to space”.[5] In this exhibition, Alarcón Lam does not only engage with the physical space of the gallery through his installation and paintings, but also illustrates how history, culture and personal identity are both manifestations as well as absences of space. Through the inversion and co-opting of cultural and art historical paragons, Alarcón Lam gives prominence to the ad hoc and the provisional, the underground and taboo, the margins and the excluded, attempting to correct the exclusionary patterns of history and to declare: Here we are.

—Text by Alexandra Schoolman

Esvin Alarcón Lam (b.1988, Guatemala) attended the Universidad Rafael Landívar and studied art at the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Guatemala City. His work has been exhibited at the Osage Art Foundation, Hong Kong (2017); the Bienal de Arte Paiz, Guatemala (2016); SPACE Collection, Irvine, CA (2016); Materia Cruda, Galería de Arte de la Universidad Rafael Landívar, Guatemala (2016); Lineas de la mano, Sicardi Gallery, Houston, TX (2015); 5 Revoluciones por minuto, 9.99 Gallery, Guatemala (2015); Spatial Acts, The Americas Society, New York, NY (2015) and 5 dias: puertas abiertas, Centro Cultural de España, Guatemala (2013). His work is part of the public collections: SPACE collection, Irvine, CA, and Fundacíon YAXS, Guatemala City. The artist lives and works in Guatemala.

http://miamibiennale.org/

[1] Walter Gropius, “The Theory and Organization of the Bauhaus” in Bauhaus, 1919-1928. Eds. Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius and Ise Gropius. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1938, pg. 22

[2] Naomi Wood, “From Bauhaus to Frauhaus” in 1843 Magazine. Published January/February 2019. Accessed via www.1843magazine.com on Dec. 20, 2019.

[3] Jesse Green, “The Revisionists: How Today’s Queer Artists are Revising History” in The New York Times Style Magazine. Published Dec. 4, 2019. Accessed via www.nytimes.com on Dec. 4, 2019.

[4] Andy Campbell, “Pink Smoke and Rainbow Stairs”. Text written for the exhibition Erupción lavanda at Herlitzka + Faria, Buenos Aires, July 2019.

[5] Walter Gropius, op. cit. pg. 24

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