TO MOVE AN OBELISK
Solo Exhibition at Providence College
The Anxious Slate
by Chris Mansour
Although the city is the primary habitat of our civilized world, it looks and feels truly alien. The hulking materials that surround and loom over pedestrians—steel beams, reflective glass, poured asphalt and concrete, as well as artificial lamps—emulate little if any attributes of the natural terrain. To inhabit this artificial world is a menacing experience, since it is so removed from the quiet and organic processes of rural life. The system of skyscrapers, transportation grids, and technological infrastructures takes on a life of its own, seemingly becoming an omnipresent foreign agent that surveils our every move. Yet we somehow manage to swallow this sense of danger, as if we are under anesthesia. Numbness is the only way to get by.
Each sculpture in Rob Andrade’s exhibition, To Move an Obelisk, taps into this repressed anxiety by accentuating the elements that harbor the brutality of megalopolis centers. Consisting of four works placed in a loose grid, they all rest directly on the wooden floor like miniature architectural maquettes. But the shape and form of each piece is highly abstracted and refrain from pointing to a specific referent. They rather come off as fragments, cluttered arrangements of materials typically used in the urban landscape. While the works could hint at being modern day torture devices due to their hard jagged edges and sharp features, they look more like props for a staged production. As such, the exhibition uncomfortably oscillates between merely suggesting the overhanging threat of city life and replicating the environment completely. The viewer is in a safe enough space to critically distance themselves from phenomenal effects induced by urban areas. They are not triggered into wholly reliving the experience even though the exhibition provokes such sensations. Hence, To Move an Obelisk is like an inverted Potemkin village: a bold facade that intends to zero in on the louring metropolis, not to divert attention away from it.
The base medium Andrade uses in three of the four works is concrete. For each of the constructions, he hardened the cement differently in an effort to highlight the medium’s ability to metamorphosize. In some cases, the congealed mix is crumbled like a forgotten tombstone; in others, it is smooth as if in an unused sidewalk. Additional elements are coupled with the concrete molds. The piece To Move an Obelisk (North), for example, does not use concrete itself, but a bronze cast of a small chunky heap. Modestly-sized mirrored green Plexiglass sheets are glittered on and around various sculptures, giving their earthy matter spots of luster and decor. To Move an Obelisk (East) is by far the most violent piece in the exhibition. A row of welded steel spikes protrude from the surface of a concrete plinth, as if their purpose is to deter pigeons from landing on it. Near the spikes rests an open combat knife, serving as evidence that might have been used in a crime scene. In To Move an Obelisk (South), tulips are squashed by a reflective black acrylic sheet over a pile of raw asphalt. Although the flowers are freshly alive for the opening night, they will quickly wilt and decompose throughout the duration of the exhibit. A plastic topiary in To Move an Obelisk (West) sits atop a speaker to counterpose the living plants in South. An atmospheric recording of a steady fountain stream emits from the sound system. Nature and artifice merge in Andrade’s work, but the former is always engulfed by the latter.
Overall, Andrade’s process is manufactured, deliberate, and calculated. It parallels the bureaucratic procedures of city planning, wherein a blueprint must be approved by a litany of strictures before its rendition is executed. He encourages his audience to evaluate the exhibition with a cold distance, as if they were conducting autopsies in a morgue. From an art historical perspective, his practice is in dialogue with the minimalists in the 1960s and 70s, when the artists also sought to forge clinical encounters with their work. Following in the minimalists’ footsteps, Andrade aims to lay bare all of the physical attributes of his materials. Hence, his sculptures are displayed as sparingly as possible. He omits all superfluous aspects, and the aesthetic arrangements are reduced to their most elementary geometric forms. Industrial products and construction methods are included in his studio output, and he avoids visualizing a link to his own hand. Homage is paid to particular artists in the show’s setup, such as Walter de Maria’s early work, Bed of Spikes, and Carl Andre’s preference for laying sculptures directly on the ground. This approach is contra to the notion that the artist is a creative genius applying his spontaneous intuition on a blank slate. The blank slate itself is almost all that is needed since it has become so alien to us. By doubly estranging his audience from the materials in his work, Andrade paradoxically wants to bring us closer to overcome our numbness.
Andrade is highlighting the menacing aspects of the urban aesthetic at a time when metropoles are doing their best to implement beautification projects. The officials’ goal is to make the streets and its surroundings more palatable, not necessarily for its inhabitants—little to nothing was done for them in years past—but for creating the semblance that things are better than they really are. The modern squeaky-clean city is supposedly emblematic of a cutting-edge and up-to-date society, which is a bureaucrat’s wet dream. A true Potemkin village, so to speak. But such aspirations are more in service to creating a myth than actually ushering in substantive change. The city space is as alien as ever, and these band-aid solutions do not stick for very long. The hunky-dory projection on the harsh concrete wall only has so much power to camouflage its surface. Andrade’s sculptures exposes the exterior beneath the mask, providing viewers a context to disinterestedly analyze its features. As he understands, to be able to see and feel nowadays is turning the object of our gaze into a remote confrontation. To Move an Obelisk is a compelling attempt at making this encounter a possibility.