Adriana Lara’s work unfolds an eternal, diachronic present in which concepts and positions constantly echo and redefine each other. The artist experiments with continuous surfaces in fluid, surprising ways. If it is easier to see the parts than the whole of Lara’s work; she is particularly difficult to pigeonhole. The years 2002-2003 saw the Mexican artist’s emergence in the international art scene following a residency at the Palais de Tokyo. Around those years she also made music under the name Lasser Moderna with Emilio Acevedo, and she produced a hit that reached the top of the charts in Mexico. She continues to curate exhibitions under the collective Perros Negros (recently at New Jerseyy in Basel) and to edit the journal PAZMAKER. She recently exhibited a large-scale piece in Documenta 13, and soon after had a solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel, which explored mathematical theories.
Art film 1: ever present yet ignored (2006) reveals elements of Lara’s modus operandi. A male Italian voiceover attributes to “the artist” a “fluid, cyclical, mysterious rhythm of production.” Is this artist generic? The film functions as an exhibition of Lara’s work, one that breaks away from the usual temporal structures of a show. It is an exhibition in which the youth present — in mock existentialist modes of reflection — will be young forever. Lara’s installations can be destroyed and then reappear because film, unlike an exhibition, can be rewound.
The sensual Italian voice announces a stream of appropriated philosophical statements, subtitled in English: “The future of art will be advertisement. No, sorry, that is the present.” Cycles of art, fashion and trends never cease to intrigue Lara, whose interest in continuous time spans and structures is a critique of the disposable in consumer culture. Equally subject to critique are separations between what is art and what is life, and what is inside the gallery and outside, notably in the street.
The words “True artists are in the streets” greet the visitor to Lara’s 2011 exhibition, titled “La Pintura (Lasser) Moderna,” at Gaga Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City. The ubiquity of art in everyday life is underlined by my own encounter with the exhibition. I am puzzled by a woman wearing a black-and-white maid’s outfit, hair accoutrement included, who vacuums a spiral black-and-white carpet. She pauses to chat with gallery workers who must also traverse the carpet. I can’t help wondering if this is a type of activation in which gallery workers are placed on stage. It turns out not to be, but the carpet does have that effect: people walking on it are in a sense performing themselves.
The exhibition as a whole takes as one of many premises an article denouncing the crisis of painting in Mexico, citing a discarded banana peel Adriana Lara presented at the New Museum (among other places) as a symptom. By incorporating this mention in the exhibition, Lara humorously points to divisions within the Mexican art world: what is conceptual and what is not, what is acceptable painting and what is not. She feeds into the thumbs up / thumbs down power of the intelligentsia on one hand, and the market on the other. But as in Art film 1, Lara is also portraying the exhibition itself.
The rug was a catwalk turned tableau-vivant for the opening night’s inaugural fashion show of street performers wearing Hawaiian raffia skirts, printed fabrics and jewelry made from USB drives and DVDs. The different elements will later form the “combine paintings” placed on the wall. To Lara, painting embodies a seamless, limitless surface; a canvas is only a sample or a fragment. This is echoed within the lasser canvas in which a laser pointer shines past the edge of a white canvas onto the wall. Motif and frame are no longer unified.
In the film La Pintura Contrataca (2012) Lara captures urban street characters randomly wearing scarves. A scarf is but a portion of a larger ream of potentially endless fabric that can be tied, twisted and displaced, not unlike a computer-generated pattern — a surface where motif, materiality and ornamentation collapse together.
Stretching a printed surface as canvas and layering it is not irrelevant at a time when Warhol’s printed, serial silk screens are included in the painting category at auction houses, selling at record prices. “Art exists outside the gallery,” says Lara. “A thing is turned into art, art is turned back into a thing […] art in everyday life is more ordinary and present, rather than something rare that is in constant need of replacement.”
If “art is about something else” as enounced in Art film 1, it could be transposed to “art is somewhere else” in La Pintura Contrataqua.
A few months later I saw a large-scale, day-glo painting of an alien — a version of which was previously at the Gaga exhibition — at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Reminiscent of the rave scene of the ’90s when this effigy was everywhere, it suggested in the Gaga exhibition how something once acclaimed can become defunct. It seemed all the more awkward in a show reuniting Mexican artists until I realized this was effectively a message in a bottle. As in film 1, Lara mischievously reflects on how art institutions bestow meaning and value, make cuts, groupings and edits of their own, here grouping artists as Mexican.
The question of Mexicanismos is one Lara addresses in various ways throughout her work, and particularly in her Algus Greenspon exhibition titled “NY-USA.” Here she resurrects the 1930s actress and diva Lupe Vélez (stereotyped for her Mexican accent with the advent of talkies). The Gaga exhibition card a few years earlier also engages with the subject of Mexican cultural constructs. It portrays Lara in tender adolescence, standing in front of the Tlatelolco monument. Behind her is engraved: “On the 13th of August, 1521, although heroically defended by Cuahutemoc, Tlatelolco fell to Hernan Cortes. It was neither a triumph or a defeat; it was the painful birth of the Mestizo People that is Mexico today.” On the same site in Tlatelolco, Lara reminds us, in the press release this time, that in 1968, right before the Olympics, protesting students were gunned down by the military. The question of being Mexican is elusive and present; it is a subtle state of looking outside in and inside out.
In Unpurposely with Purpose (2012), Lara’s work for Documenta 13, a large “high-volume passage carpet” hangs on the wall of the Neue Galerie. Among its many motifs, it features a cartoonish character of a Mexican with a face made of punctuation, similar to the one that will reappear on portraits of Vélez less than a year later — part of Lara’s recurring repertoire of images and text.
Ten four-by-three-foot rectangles have been cut out of the carpet, revealing the naked wall behind it. In this deictic gesture of the cutout as a reference to the void, Lara highlights the process of selection within a curatorial system such as Documenta — the acts of editing, cutting and reconstituting that go into making an exhibition of that scale. The video accompanying the piece shows floating representations of the carpet cutouts mounted over filmed footage. These fragments carry the grid of a Photoshop template — waiting for an image, reminders that the artist is situated in a digital age of cut and paste, and that the grid is an endless surface upon which we see but an excerpt, a cut, waiting for our own projection.
To Lara, it is formally important that the piece arrived as a roll, on a plane, and was then rolled out to be both structure and surface. A roll for Lara is a continuous surface, unlike a framed canvas. Describing abstraction as limitless space is not an easy task. Perhaps that is what drew Lara to mathematical formulas in her exhibition “S.S.O.R. (Symbolic Surface of Revolution)” at the Kunsthalle Basel, in 2012, one of her most complex shows to date.
In “S.S.O.R.” a series of canvases of identical size form a circuit. Placed in clusters of different heights, they portray dominoes, seen from the side, imprinted by hand in an analogue gesture. Some dominoes are shown knocked over, others still standing. The press release suggests: “The representation is not that of an evolution, of a linear development, but that of a re-volution.” This particular reflection works metaphorically as well — as in human history, cycles of reoccurrence contain events. The events are visible, like that of a social revolution, but the whole, the cycles themselves, remain invisible (for more information on Lara’s references, one can refer to the “domino effect” as developed by the German mathematician Georg Cantor).
In the next room, monumental dominoes suggest an imminent chain reaction. One of Lara’s free standing rolls of the Photoshop grid, titled 1 (One) from Numbers (Disambiguation) (2012) stands on the same ground as the viewer, next to the large painting. “A cylinder is an endless surface,” Lara explains fondly, pointing to the cylinder. A video nearby shows an awkward digital rendering of the numbers 2012 — then the present, now the past, but existing on the screen as a series of 0s and 1s in a perpetual cycle of repetition. The abstract underlying structures behind social events and objects exist with logics of their own while remaining perpetual surfaces of human projection.