Alejandra Prieto: Invisible Dust
Y Gallery, New York, April 11 - 31
Coal is the hot-button, and topical, material of choice for Alejandra Prieto’s solo exhibition Invisible Dust. As such, coal’s familiar, loaded connotations of class and economic exploitation implicitly pervade the works here, no matter how polished and pictorial they may be. With Ornamental Dust (Chita) and Ornamental Dust (Laberinto) (all works 2012), coal dust is applied directly to dark brown, nearly black stretched silk canvases, so that the coal’s almost glossy surface contrasts with the deep, matt background of the silk, forming ghostly patterns best viewed from an angle. Chita features a repeating geometric textile design that begs to extend beyond its frame, while Laberinto portrays a pre- Columbian motif of collared leopards, an allegory for colonial plunder.
Prieto keeps such provocative issues in the background, literally and figuratively, and the most interesting aspect of Invisible Dust is the way the artist sidesteps didacticism, preferring instead to subsume her politics into understated, formal play – though sometimes, as with Prieto’s two canvases, this has the unintended consequence of deadening the work entirely: their patterns don’t seem particularly suited to painting, and thus they are the least interesting pieces here.
More successful, precisely because it’s such an ambiguous object, is Concave Coal Mirror. At 183cm in diameter, this piece practically fills an entire wall at Y Gallery, which is a modestly sized space. It’s made entirely of thick, unprocessed chunks of Chilean coal, which Prieto glued to a concave wood form before polishing it to a glossy, nearly reflective shine. The dust this process created was eventually used for the canvases and an adjacent videowork, Cloud on Coal Screen, which depicts billows of the fine grains projected onto a wall-mounted shelf of coal. As the origin of the other works, Concave Coal Mirror has an appropriately outsize presence and seems to suck the energy out of the others, like some oversize black talisman. Its productive tension between individuated raw material and polished gestalt recalls Martin Puryear’s sculptures, if a little simpler in form.
Though not on display, a photograph of Concave Coal Mirror’s production brings it all to a head, showing the object still on its armature in the studio and surrounded by clouds of thick, stifling dust that covered every surface – very, very messy work that is starkly absent from the very, very clean gallery installation. Prieto is interested in this difference: how an exchanged product disguises its own production process and, consequently, how the worker is alienated from his or her own toil. Viewing the exhibition within this old-school Marxist framework – cited as such in the press release – I would have liked, at least for certain works, to see more blood, sweat and tears, which would have lent a bit more frisson to what was otherwise an overly cool display. But the strange, magnetic mirror is another story entirely; it seems to contain the work of a thousand men.
-Yours truly, from ArtReview’s summer issue