The Blanton Museum of Art, Austin
Through January 3, 2010
by Dan Boehl
Teresita Fernández, Epic (Wall Meteor), 2009
See image gallery for full caption
When the Blanton Museum opened its new gallery building in 2003, visitors’ biggest complaint about the place (besides the fiasco about the architectural plans) was that there wasn’t any artwork in the museum’s atrium, the large vaulted room under those jagged shark-tooth windows. Vaulted space is an absolute architectural necessity in museums. These spaces serve a purpose. They simultaneously fill the visitor with awe and trepidation. As Dave Hickey points out in Air Guitar, museums are the temples of the academy and every good temple should intimidate its supplicant. Hence the Blanton Museum atrium.
But nature hates a vacuum, and people don’t visit museums to look at white space. So, I was totally gleeful when the Blanton commissioned Teresita Fernández’s Stacked Waters (2009) to fill that huge room. Made by laying countless sheets of tiled acrylic sheeting on the walls, Stacked Waters works so well because it uses the room’s volume to transport the viewer underwater. The effect is to be standing at the bottom of a clear lake staring up into the sky.
Stacked Waters is included in Fernández’s exhibition Blind Landscape, a collection of new and recent work that showcases her ability to mimic natural elements using stark industrial materials. The piece also sets the precedent of scale and proportion that marks the show.
When I entered the first large gallery dedicated to the show, I was drawn towards Epic (Wall Meteor) (2009). A constellation of over 14,000 graphite marks topped by graphite stones, it resembles a black yet gossamer cloud. Epic sprawls across the wall above the viewer’s head. The elevation gives it the same aloof but imposing quality that activates Stacked Waters. There was a moment when I consciously realized that the work was above me. It’s like the sensation you get when looking through a airplane window. There is a feeling of the familiar and intangible. Vertigo (sotto in su) (2007) has a similar effect, as it’s made from layers of aluminum sheets, die cut in lacey patterns, suspended overhead in series to resemble another cloud, but from a different viewpoint.
Eruption (2005) sits on the floor, a red and yellow colored membrane covered in puddles of clear beads. It appears to be a volcano opening obscured by wavering heat, or, as I like to think, the God’s Eye nebula. Here scale is reversed so the viewer towers over something otherwise daunting. It’s a view we would only get from a Nova episode on PBS, and it empowers the viewer like a magician’s reveal.
The other works in the show never quite match the shock and awe salvo created by Epic and Eruption. Drawn Waters (Borrowdale) (2009), an eight-foot cascade of graphite slabs and rocks that appears as a waterfall, is neither large enough nor small enough to addequitly create a disruptive power of scale. As a black spout, Drawn Waters comes off as sentimental. It’s quaint next to our idea of a waterfall. Dune (2002) suffers the same disparity of perspective, looking more like too-small bleachers than a miniaturized mountain of sand.
Things get even more disjointed when the works directly confront the viewer. Portrait (Blind Landscape) (2008) and Portrait (Blind Water) (2008) are sheets of aluminum die cut to look like clumps of hanging vines. They unsettle the illusion of the natural image by reflecting the viewer on their surfaces. In this case it seems over-slick and cheesy, like 80’s boom time condo mirrors. The effect is too transparent. The same is the case with Ink Mirror (Landscape) (2007). A black sheet of high polished fiberglass footed in a drift of marble dust snow, the piece nearly looks kitsch, and if it stood alone, I would judge it as such. The mirrored parts are pretty, but they show us too much of our earthly desires.
Fernández’s work mimics the natural world while using the space it inhabits to its advantage. Removed from the cluttered landscape like specimens under a microscope, she offers us a focused glimpse at things we already think we know. So it isn’t any wonder that the best works in the show are bafflingly huge. The big pieces inhabit their environments like natural features floating seamlessly in the gallery. Whether their forms are plucked from the ground, the water, or the sky, they work by shifting the viewer’s entire perspective upward in scale. Like walking into a cathedral, they literally inspire awe, which is exactly what people want from a museum.
Dan Boehl is a poet. His chapbook Les MISERES ET LES MAL-HEURS DE LA GUERRE will be available from Greying Ghost soon.