Monday July 24, 2017

This Girl Is on Fire: Teresita Fernández

Havana-based curator Elvia Rosa Castro reflects on the artist’s work and her current show in Manhattan

Teresita Fernández, Fire (America) 5, 2016

Courtesy Lehmann Maupin

Last month, Teresita Fernández: Fire (America) opened at the Lehmann Maupin gallery space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Havana-based curator and critic Elvia Rosa Castro considers the exhibition, its impact, and its place in Fernández’s creative trajectory.

In Spring 2014, MASS MoCA opened its doors to a solo show of Teresita Fernández’ As Above, So Below, a  major exhibition that included three enormous installations and “drawings.” There, in an abandoned New England factory converted into an outstanding and inviting art museum, Teresita Fernández’s show was on view through Spring of 2015, surrounded by the heavyweights of contemporary art.

Readers may recall, in particular, the installation Black Sun, because its scale and beauty prompted extensive coverage in art journals and social media forums. But this exhibition was decidedly much more: each work brought its own unique notion to a very contemporary concept of landscape that, paradoxically, came from a profund respect for the traditional and ancestral—a sophicated landscape arising from organic elements.

Teresita Fernández, Black Sun, 2014, installed at MASS MoCA

Photo: Cuban Art News

Following my tour of MASS MoCA, I began to read The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima. I was trying to find something that would offer cerain keys to this sacred material, given that gold occupies a central place in Teresita’s work. Her meticulousness and precision is such that—given the prospect of encountering a natural, organic substance removed from any false connotation, and through years of study with Japanese families that practice alchemy—she succeeded in producing a golden material to use in her works.

In the MASS MoCA show: Teresita Fernández, Rorschach, 2014, and in the background, a work from the Golden series

Courtesy abigaelelizabeth.com

In Mishima’s novel, Mizoguchi, a tormented youth, torches the temple while coming to realize that its beauty, which had obsessed him, was illusory. I confess that I read the enire novel through the lens of Teresita’s work—scrutinizing, taking notes, underlining. And even thougn I enountered certain connections and subtleties, they were not sufficient. I became frustrated in my determination.

After MASS MoCA, Madison Square Park in New York City was the locale for another artistic intervention. The site-specific installation Fata Morgana, which opened in June 2015, demonstrated once again how Teresita Fernández dominates a space. In this public space, she wrapped passersby in a play of mirrored illusion, “as above so below,” in which nature and industrial forms seemed to levitate and melt into a piece that altered the spectator’s usual perceptions.

Installation view of Teresita Fernández, Fata Morgana, 2015, at Madison Square Park

Photo: Cuban Art News

Once again the artist, now based in New York, demonstrated why the MacArthur Fellowship she received in 2005 was so well deserved. I dream of one day seeing Fata Morgana installed in the Parque de Chapultepec in Mexico City or in Havana’s Prado.

Teresita Fernández, Burned Landscape, 2017

Courtesy Lehmann Maupin

At present, in the delirum of 2017, Fernández has returned to exhibit in the New York gallery Lehmann Maupin, in its Lower East Side space. Fire (America) is a solo show that springs from a previous exhibition, Small American Fires (Anthony Meier Fine Arts, 2016). Fire (America) is comprised of two installation pieces. Burned Landscape (America) features a series of small expressionist and abstract “drawings,” made from stains or traces on burnt paper. These works evoke the quality of wood, and at the same time result in refined visual deconstructions of Japanese landscape works.

Detail of Teresita Fernández, Burned Landscape, 2017

Courtesy Lehmann Maupin

The other work is an immense installation whose compositional center is Fire (America) 5, a large panel made up of tiny pieces of glazed ceramic, assembled with millimetric precision, representing a great blaze emerging from the darkness. From this, Charred Landscape (America), a thin horizontal line of graphite, goes forth (or returns) to encircle the central space of the gallery. In it, we perceive a devastated, charred terrain.

Teresita Fernández, Fire (America) 5, 2016, installed with Charred Landscape (America), 2017

Courtesy Lehmann Maupin

Thus charcoal is present in its crude mineral state—different from prior installations and paintings, in which this mineral is broken down into small uniform pieces more like the graphite we are familiar with, or melted into her paintings to form areas of volume, with a greater emphasis on the brightness and beauty it contains.

Close-up detail of Teresita Fernández, Charred Landscape (America), 2017

Courtesy Lehmann Maupin

In Fire (America), the landscape—which with Teresita seems to unfold into infinity—allows her to deliver an elliptical commentary on tension-filled themes taken from contemporary American reality (and beyond): the violence of catastrophic and apocalyptic elements in all their expressions and, fundamentally, the violence that surrounds us—like Mishima’s character Mizoguchi, an unhinged madman setting fires and fanning the flames in the Golden Pavilion. (Perhaps my research should focus on fire, which is also golden, and not on gold.)

Teresita also warns of our increasingly distant relationship with Nature, rooted in a robust and indifferent ego that permits its indiscriminate and brutal exploitation, so unlike the first inhabitants of these lands. Those peoples, enveloped in a pantheistic cosmic vision of existence not unlike the artist’s own, would have a more rational and sustainable methodology of slash and burn. 

The self-sufficient shadow, used for ornamental purposes (as in Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows), is a key element in the work of Teresita. In this exhibition, it becomes even more severe and concise. Like Black Sun, Fire (America) is a more agressive announcement of the end of an era, as much in its philosophic connotaion as in its social. Fire, the cult element to which she had turned several years earlier, is the source of heat and life but also the image of extinction. It’s the perfect metaphor to demonstrate how we consume ourselves in our own ritual.

Close-up detail of Teresita Fernández, Fire (America) 5, 2016

Courtesy Lehmann Maupin

The titles of Teresita’s works are very important, since they not only illustrate or advance a level of meaning, but they also—as in good conceptualism—retain a coherent and tautological semantic relationship to the structure of the piece and the materials with which she works. She thus avoids the obvious circuitous terms and can be minimally clear, as one who applies the concept of Occam’s razor (simpler explanations are generally better than more complex ones).

Fire, in this case, is represented by elements that are born from it: ceramics and burnt paper. Fire (America) is a show that functions on various levels and permits collateral readings related to local history, past as well as present.

The research and the degree of meticulousness with which she creates her works leaves us with the certainty of being in the presence of a sophisticated artist who succeeds in merging dissimilar layers of reference, not only at the intellecutal level but also at the level of manufacturing and assembly. She is nourished by rituals and ancestral cosmic visions, as well as literature and contemporary art, by the artisanal as well as the industrial, providing an essential experience.

Installation view of Teresita Fernández, Charred Landscape (America), 2017

Courtesy Lehmann Maupin

On the other hand, especially in Charred Landscape (America), Fernández once again demonstrates the ability to efficiently dominate architectectural scale and space, in miniature. Miniaturization, present in all her works, is not only a question of size or physical scale, but an attitude that allows her to construct the epic and monumental from the small or barely perceivable thing.

All of her work is a mise en scène that reveals a glamourous delight in the ritual of material. It cannot be enjoyed without comprehending the tension that Fernández establishes between the monumentality of the landscape and the almost invisible details that form it—a tension in which the void acts as a mediator.

Her work, in extenso, is a duality of faith (intuition) and education, of an near-Zen pantheism and an occidental neo-Romanticism. Here, the honesty, to which she has referred in various interviews, constitutes the ethical key that has enabled the entire organic cycle of her work.

Teresita Fernández: Fire (America) runs through May 20 at the Lehmann Maupin space at 201 Chrystie Street, New York.

Elvia Rosa Castro (Sancti Spíritus, 1968) has a degree in Philosophy and a Master’s in Art History. She is an art critic, editor, and independent curator. She was awarded the National Prize for Curation and the Guy Pérez Cisneros prize for Criticism. Her most recent book is Los colores del ánimo. She is also the CEO of the blog Señor Corchea.