Angel Orensanzs Burning Universe, on view at his eponymously named center this Thursday night, September 14, from 7:30 PM until 10 PM.
Ideas of the Skies
A happening at the Angel Orensanz Foundation
By Cynthia Carr
This Thursday nights art extravaganza at the Angel Orensanz Foundation features multimedia by the multi-dimensional. The Spanish artist for whom the place is named will combine two of his pieces In Nasas Lab (2004) at floor level and Burning Universe (2003) suspended in mid-air. Running both inside the installation and along one wall will be the rarely screened abstract films of an artistic soulmate, Harry Smith. This portends alchemy, or at least psychedelia.
Each Angel Orensanz work is a chronicle of struggle and entropy. Theyre hard to describe directly. Look at In NASAs Lab. Banners and branches and a big bunch of chairs? No, that tells you nothing. Its a giant abstract painting that burst open, disgorged its color and line, then began to molt. That gets closer, though its just a starting point.
Abstraction is an artists attempt to express the inchoate. Abstraction has content, but does not emanate from the word part of the brain. It bubbles up from some deeper murkier mess. The only way to get there, with words, is to write poetry. Poets see the emanations around a thing. They also find bumps and fissures in its surface. Theirs is a magic equivalent to the painters.
Im just a journalist. Hath not the advantage. Still, Id already written part of this meditation when I got a copy of Bob Holmans poem about NASAs Lab: Inside the Synagogue is Mars. Inside Mars Is Your Apartment, and I found that Id duplicated one of his lines: Whats the meaning of meaning?
So I started over. Yet that is the question. Art can have meaning that the critics even the artist cant articulate.
Im reminded of what I heard while walking in Central Park among Christos Gates, a work that drew a huge non-art audience. One middle-aged man scampered up a little incline as I was passing by, looking every which way at the saffron parade, exclaiming with joy: I dont know what it means, but I love it! We were all there in the park to be our own choreographers, to see the piece changing as we moved, to dance with it and create our meanings. Thats the way of it with installations.
Of course, Orensanzs work is much more complex than Christos. But again, just for comparison ambience counts. For The Gates, we had the parks bare trees, the February weather, and the curve of each path determining the look of the piece. Orensanz exhibits in the once-abandoned Norfolk Street synagogue that bears his name, when hes in New York. Built in 1850 for a congregation of German Jews, this gothic structure had become a shooting gallery by the late 1980s when Angel and his brother Al rescued and rehabbed it. The space is special, as if the very bricks radiated the spiritual highs and lows theyve been witness to, from exaltation to depravity. The feeling, thus the meaning, of Orensanzs work would change among the white cubes of Chelsea.
Back to In NASAs Lab. What eccentric scientist works here, so far from the antiseptic white-coated realms of real lab work? Perhaps this is chaos as a cosmic joke. Perhaps a constellation fell to the ground and has been collected here for further study. Or, perhaps we are simply to understand that the galaxy is in deep trouble.
Banners avalanche from the balcony or run along the floor, painted as if with a calligraphers broad brush. Candles burn amid smoke and red light. Oval shapes smile from strips of Styrofoam, while in the air hang so it seems small space ships (golden, with tiny lights). Then theres (apparently) the lunar module, this thicket of folding chairs. Supple wood slats bend through the chairs, with here and there a branch. Canted this way and that, some folded, the chairs are spiky now and stripped of their chairness. Once merely functional, they have entered the abstract world.
In Burning Universe, baby birch trees hang from the rafters, as do mannequins. These figures are naked but for their shoes, with faces covered by a sort of scarf that flows behind them cape-like. Two very large plastic spheres nestle high amid the trees. Like a nomad moving to new land, the art adapts and changes each time its installed. In one video document, the mannequins end up on the ground, as body parts, with the artist scattering flowers and leaves on them. The figures have found a graveyard.
The affinities with filmmaker Harry Smith are obvious. As Smith (1923-1991) once described a bit of his Heaven and Earth Magic, one of the features to be screened at Orensanz: the film would end with a cat fight lit by candles, then Noahs Ark, then a Raising of the Dead. Then (as quoted in P. Adam Sitneys Visionary Film), everyone gets thrown in a teacup, which is made out of a head, and stirred up. Smith wanted to project the film through masking slides so the images might look egg-shaped, or watermelon-shaped. Ideally spectators would sit in chairs shaped like eggs or watermelons and change the colors on the screen through their movements.
That seating arrangement will be built as soon as artists take over the world. But the fantasy is a good example of synaesthesia, a fusion of sensations normally experienced separately. People would see sounds, hear colors, or in this case, dance a color.
While Orensanz pieces like Earth Face and Fire Valley have an austere beauty, many of his installations hint at synaesthesia (which is not the same as sensory overload). Many of the installations are like paintings you walk into, where you experience the simultaneous perception of harmonic opposites synaesthesia as defined by Gene Youngblood in Expanded Cinema, a book dating admittedly from the age of intermedia and cybernetics. Yet these subjects are not dated. They are concepts never completely realized.
In Orensanzs work, theres always some tension between nature and artifice. Nature comes inside. (Trees, for example, and representations of trees.) And the artist moves outside to create interventions in the natural world. Recently, he had a farmer plow the image of Don Quixote into a kilometer of land south of Madrid where the character roamed in the novel. He also directed mountaineers in painting (with pigment made from local plants) a rockface in the Pyrenees. What hes created outdoors with his own hand are pieces he cant control: abstract paintings on snow, colorful plastic discs released into bodies of water or placed in trees.
What these pieces share with the installations, of course, is their impermanence.
In the best-known of these interventions, Orensanz pushes a large sphere (taller than he is) around some city setting. Hes done this all over the world. The sphere functions as a kind of leitmotif in the installations. Outdoors, he sometimes paints it. He sometimes gets inside it. Sometimes it slouches. Sometimes it bounces. Its a large transparent container of meaning.
It only looks empty.
A Night of Art, Film, and Ultraperception begins at 5:30 PM at the 161 Essex Street gallery of Clayton Patterson, curator of the Orensanz-Smith show, who will be exhibiting his work over the past 30 years. At 7:30 PM, the night continues at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, 172 Norfolk St. (admission is $10). Claytons show and much of Orensanzs sculptures will be on view throughout the month. For more information call 212-477-1363 or 212-529-7194.