The Undomesticated Domestic: Artists of the 1990s
The idea that every era has its corresponding style might well be a superstition. Is there an art of the nineties, or is this a matter of an arbitrary denomination, like those that Borges evoked ironically when he broke down the animals into those which "belong to the emperor," the "countless," and "those which, at a distance, look like flies"? What's certain, at any rate, is that the label "art of the nineties" was, paradoxically, imposed before the decade had even ended, and with a roster of artists who varied very little since the term was publicly declared. The immediate, and somehow hasty, canon proposed by Luis Benedit, Jorge Gumier Maier. and Marcelo Pacheco, in their book Artistas argentinos de los ’90 [Argentine Artists of the '90s], published in 1999, comprised 57 artists. Among them are 19 who make up part of this show, which attests to the knowledge of the field of the authors of the book, the aptness of their choices (beyond certain exclusions and forgettings), and also how the art of the nineties forged an image of itself that endures into the present.
Thought the curt title of the book Argentine Artists of the '90s doesn't offer many clues about what unites them, some words have been repeated to characterize the art of the period. “Frívolous,” “banal”, “festive,” “gay,” “domestic,” “kitsch,” “light,” “decorative,” “amateur,” are, clearly, equivocal and inadequate terms and, in any event, they poorly represent one of the most important exhibition spaces of the period, the gallery of the Rojas Cultural Center. The labels that would serve to define also seal off and sidetrack. They allow us to give an idea of "the era" (one more superstition?) but they suppress the particularity of each artist and even of each work. How, then, are we to speak of our 19 artists, with their highly varied poetics, each with a trajectory that cannot be reduced to the '90s? What itinerary can we come up with, what narrative weave, to trace a panorama and, at the same time, foster the singularity of each of the works on exhibit?
Of the various routes one could take through the show, I would propose two, as arbitrary as any path we've decided to take in a labyrinth once we discover we're lost. The first might be titled the undomesticated domestic and it should be embarked on as if we were putting the key into the door of our own house and, on entering it, realized to our surprise that we're not in our house. The second route, which overlaps with the first, might be called lightness of enjoyment and it would entail moving about the gallery like someone swimming in a pool of colored waters.
It has been said that the "art of the '90s" came into being by turning its back on the globalization which, in those moments, was virtually a watchword of the neoliberalism then underway. Nonetheless, although that's certainly true in terms of thematics or style, the profound transformations of those years left a deep trace in the works the gallery is presenting. The relations between public and private, intimacy and the everyday, the familiar and the hostile, the intimate (and public) aspect of sexuality, the domestic and what won't let itself be domesticated, reveal an art engaged with the mutations of the era: a negotiation of the personal with the changes of the '90s and an affirmation of the pleasure or enjoyment that art could provide.
If the clash of the intimate and the global lies at the center of these images, it is no accident that home (or the cozily homey) be represented by domestic objects (a night table, a Chinese vase, a door, the kitchen sink), as a space into which the strange erupts: in the spyhole of the door to an apartment (Leandro Erlich), in the murky water of unwashed utensils (Raúl Flores), or, more tragically, in the rabbit hutch of La Plata (where the dictatorship 'disappeared' political militants) which Daniel Ontiveros evokes through the technique of Gerhard Richter and the name of one of its victims. The domestic objects come into tension with alien elements, be they mysterious elephant heads (Elba Bairon) or the global financial art market (Alicia Herrero in visual distortions and titles that refer to their estimated value in dollars, the currency of the phony convertibility of the 1990s).
The national/global, intimate/global clash finds its laboratory in childhood, where sensibilities are formed and the borders prove to be something remote. Mickey's encounter with Patoruzú in Rosana Fuentes is the harbinger of something larger, as can be demonstrated in other works of hers: a political residue that finds its word in childhood and in the comic strip. In Román Vitali, in an ironic fashion, Superman – the global childhood superhero par excellence – comes to save us in the delicate, transparent colored bead structures that are the hallmark of his works. In Marcelo Pombo the superheroes are like the promise of a children's party held in a world of young people or adults or the elderly who still love bright lights, play, and color. Robotic worlds appear as well in Lux Lindner and Benito Laren, in very different guises: Lux's black and white, into whose futuristic perspectives he brings political, erotic, and infantile connotations; while Laren, with his falsely homey perspectives, brings us captivating geometric bodies.
The promise of a home, and the short-circuits that make that impossible can take on, as in Diego Gravinese, the advertising glitter so endemic to the decade, which is manifested in details like the ambivalences of the word "complex" or the barcode which, though it had existed for quite a while, was only recently entering into broad usage in the '90s – Pop worldliness for the new administration of life and the sensibilities now being thrust on us.
While many of these works refer to a home or hearth or the domestic, Mónica Girón steps into the outdoors to make land, find herself with a territory (her territory) and to plunge her hand into it (creating hands or gloves). It's as if, in a world deterritorializing itself, she had to investigate the materials of nature, of its processes, and create Patagonia for herself.
Global synchronization is treated conceptually in the work of Fabio Kacero, in which the clocks point to places that may be real or else are longed-for destinations in the world of literary imagination: The Spoon River of Edgard Lee Masters, the Adrogué or Borges or Piglia, the Cheshire of Alice's cat. The bodies, too, that found their hegemonizing delirium in female models, desirable and unattainable, genuine emblems of a decade that cultivated a kitschy luxury, are captured by Martín Di Girolamo, who fixates them in hyperrealistic sculptures which breed not a cult, but rather distance, suspicion, and reflection. All these are modes of processing the rapid globalization which came about in the 1990s and which modified long-held beliefs and habits: it is as if each artist detected some distortion s/he investigates through images, figures, and forms. Art as a life-saver in the waters of globalization.
The second course proposed to take through the show is that of the lightness of enjoyment. In the photo of Alejandro Kuropatwa, the festoons (glass or crystal) of what might be a ceiling lamp are overturned and thus, rather than being dragged down by the law of gravity, seem to blossom with a light of their own. The transparency or gleam (the luminous in Sergio Avello and Miguel Harte, enamel, which is a preferred material for many artists of the period) attracts our gaze and touches us. They are works which all but call for silence and which (with certain exceptions) don't want to be dissolved into concept. They can do without critical discourse. Yet for all that, we like speaking about them because we understand that, in all their levity, they offer a very heavy testimony of life, that the levity is a serious matter, takes a lot of effort, and that precariousness is the secret of their power. Marcelo Pombo achieves it with virtually tossed-off – waste – materials; yet isn't enjoyment itself a matter of waste, or an expense? Or else a gain of life which doesn't necessarily get something in exchange? Don't you have to tear apart the wrapping paper to get to your gift?
In what is light the sinister also appears; skinning and high (or low) couture, as in Nicola Costantino's furs. It's what you have to touch and caress, the erogenous zones that make art an ars amatoria. The display window of fashion (and or art) gives us a glimpse of something like a slaughterhouse or a dissecting table.
And finally, we have, in all its feigned innocence, Fernanda Laguna's swan, shielded in miniature amid works of large dimensions, as if art had taken care to guard with a light that comes out of nowhere, that ivory swan the poet Rubén Darío evoked, with its "treacherous wing of the light fan."
Are other routes possible? Undoubtedly so: possible new orders, new adventures in each work that radiantly gleams beyond the era that witnessed its coming into being.
Researcher and instructor at the University of Buenos Aires.
We appreciate the support of the galleries Barro, Ruth Benzacar, Diego Obligado, Nora Fisch y Vasari.