Between Materiality and Metaphor: Florencio Gelabert’s Sculptural Journeys
The recent exhibition of new works by Florencio Gelabert (b. Havana 1962), Journeys: Dialogues with Time, offers the viewer an opportunity to navigate among seemingly opposing realms which are consistently at work, both discursively and artistically. The placement of the various works on the wall, sculptures and installations reinforces the representation of contrasting terrains: the first galleries appear as a space for eulogy where personal introspection reigns, while the works in the skylight and rear galleries speak of denunciation and decay. Together, the works comprised on this exhibition also provide an opportunity to examine the ways in which Florencio Gelabert engages more broadly with Western art historical discourses and, more specifically, situates his unique and leading place in contemporary Cuban sculpture.
The series of works that one first encounters hark back to Gelabert’s earlier aesthetics from the early 1990s—minimalist in its formal qualities, quietly subversive in the conceptual and metaphorical dimensions they propose, yet imbued with a strong sense of the material. Consider the exhibition’s centerpiece entitled Stella, a visually impacting installation comprised by 60 wooden trunks, scorched, painted black and placed on mirrored Plexiglas squares on the floor (a larger version of this work is currently on view in Havana as part of the collateral biennial project, Detrás del Muro – Behind the Wall). The polymorphous objects appear as tortured fragments of a body carefully strewn on a checkered pattern. Its effect is that of a dramatic mise-enscène. Theatrical and sensorial elements are further enhanced by the cacophony of shadows and shards of light cast on the surrounding walls from the metallic surface of the mirrored Plexiglas. Beyond its visual impact and poignant personal narrative (the work is a tribute to the artist’s recently deceased mother), Stella responds to broader references that are operative as both, points of entry and points of refusal, in Gelabert’s own art when practicing as a sculptor. The work’s horizontal placement, for example, recalls Carl Andre’s Steel Aluminum Plain, 1969—one in a series of floor pieces that were groundbreaking at the time because of displacing the traditional orientation and positioning of sculpture in Western art. Like Andre, Gelabert inverts that sculptural tradition, a fact that may no longer hold a subversive function since, for some time now, it has been a task of postmodernism, yet useful when considering how Gelabert’s floor piece embraces and eschews a history of thinking about sculpture. Like Andre and the generation of artists who defined Minimalism, Gelabert uses everyday materials and divests them of their utilitarian function. However, by adding elements that are quasi-figurative and relying heavily on metaphor (dead trunks of trees standing in for the body), he adds a sensorial dimension to the experience emphasizing the psycho-emotional dimensions with which objects (and materials) are potentially imbued. In that sense, Gelabert sharply diverges from the “rational” and “cold” tenets of American Minimalism.
Forest Chart and The Rest function in similar ways. In the former one, irregular shaped pieces of wood (trunks seeming to have been cut down to their most elemental forms) are affixed to a large light box hanging on the wall like a painting or a photograph. If assembled together, the pieces of wood measure the length of the artist’s body. In The Rest, larger chunks of wooden trunks are placed atop the surface of a pristine metal table that is lit from below. The lighting and juxtaposition of materials and surfaces—metal, glass and charred painted wood— create an eerie, yet serene atmosphere around the work. The black, wooden objects create distinct shapes and outlines that, from afar, appear like fragments of a body: a corpse reduced to the status of a specimen and exhibited for scientific inquiry. The various representations of the body through organic and fabricated materials reduced to abstract forms also enter into dialogue with works by other internationally acknowledged artists, as Brazilians Ernesto Neto, Tunga, and the more visually seductive installations by Cildo Meireles. The evocative nature of their work, as that of Gelabert’s, resides in the tension and relationship they create between the body and materiality, between the space they inhabit and the spectator.
However, while it is useful to compare Gelabert’s display of metaphor in connection with other contemporary practices by artists working outside the hegemony of US and European art markets, namely Latin America, the heavy presence of materiality in his work signals to the fact that concept and metaphor are first and foremost at the service of materials and not the other way around. The juxtaposition of found and manipulated objects with those his own hands manipulate or create, act not only as the entry point to the work but are its protagonists. In other words, his claims as an artist stem from the language of a sculptor, under which all other plastic, aesthetic and conceptual aims are subsumed. Well-considered in this way, our understanding of the function of his works is reoriented to that of sculpture practice, even when that very function disrupts and destabilizes the foundation on which that tradition was built.
A different dialogue with art history continues in a similarly paradoxical manner in the work entitled Displacement. It is a medium format square work hanging on the wall. Inside the frame there is a large piece of white Carrara marble that was intentionally cracked by the artist. The upper right hand section of the marble is detached from the support of the work and precariously balances on the tip of one of the corners of the sections. Here again, Gelabert plays with the language of sculpture in subtle yet intelligent ways. The marble, with all the burden of its place in the history of sculpture as the medium for classical form, is set on a frame as if to be two-dimensionally experienced. Yet its sculptural function is further disrupted by its broken (damaged) condition. Displacement is installed in the same gallery with other works that address more directly the subject of environmental and structural decay. In this context, a work in which the preciousness of marble is intentionally destroyed gains further importance amid representations of material ruin.
One of the exhibition’s most ambitious works in that same gallery is The Site, an imposing structure made of Styrofoam and stucco and surrounded by piles of found stuff, mainly from local trash bins. The work can also be categorized as a “fountain,” a nod again to one of the several functions for traditional sculpture. The structure has two waterspouts, one directed towards the exterior, where the water falls into an old rusty basin, and an inner spout that seems to be “watering” the garbage threatening to engulf it. The Site, Gelabert’s fountain, is displaced from its exterior space to the pristine “white cube” environment of the museum. However, no matter the menacing aspect of the piles of trash or the filthy looking water that runs through the rusted pipes, the work stands more as a monument—in all of its sculptural and aesthetic implications—than as a an actual site of disruption and subversion. This is due to the artistic language and code system within which Gelabert works, that do not allow for The Site to escape from its structural formalism and theatrical enclosure. That is, from its function as a sculpture, albeit a subversive one. There is also a play on representation – juxtaposing real objects with manufactured ones meant to look “real,” a phenomenon Cuban curator and art critic Nelson Herrera Ysla refers to as the “the delirium of the supra-real, turned tangible, physical, real” and the “structural paradox” it creates, which dominates Gelabert’s body of work.
Since the early 1990s contemporary Cuban artists have turned to the language of metaphor as the main mechanism through which to make comments on salient sociopolitical issues. In a post-Soviet Cuba, these manifestations take the form of highly labored installations or well-constructed objects made from industrial materials that compete well in an international art market of which Cuban art is increasingly a part (think of Esterio Segura or the collective The Merger). Gelabert’s sculptures are at the opposite end of that spectrum. Instead, their production is borne from a concern with what Russian constructivists termed faktura or “the structural force of the material itself”. In the various journeys this exhibition has taken, this fact is a constant reference point that makes for a cohesively presented representation of Gelabert’s work as a sculptor.
ELIZABETH CEREJIDO / ART ON CUBA - 2015
Florencio Gelabert. The Wall, 2015.
Styrofoam, concrete, steel bar and tiles. 95 x 76 x 50 in. Photo: Alexander Taquechel.