ALEJANDRA PRIETO Invisible Dustby Greg Lindquist
Y GALLERY | APRIL 11 – APRIL 29, 2012
For her debut North American solo exhibition, in a sub-basement space at Y Gallery, Chilean artist Alejandra Prieto recasts coal as an aesthetic object. Prieto obsessively transforms this material’s coarse appearance into a polished mirror, silk tapestries, and a projection screen. No longer dust and dirt, this combustible sedimentary rock is repurposed as a signifier of socioeconomic labor, environmental peril, and luxury commodity.
Displayed on unspoiled gallery walls, Prieto has concealed the sullied and fanatical production of these objects. The ritualistic act of sanding, smoothing, and polishing that has taken place in her studio is not overly explicit in any of these objects. “Concave Coal Mirror” (2012), a person-sized vanity mirror made of tiled coal bricks, is the exhibition’s centerpiece. Although the surface is lustrous and burnished by sanding, there is also a cobbled-together, worn, and wobbly quality to the object. Also, the void created by its absence of color recalls how Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings express a desire to be spiritual in their absence.
Prieto’s tautological installation explores a singular material and its performative and physical possibilities. In doing so, she calls to mind Yves Klein’s use of ultramarine as a magical perceptual experience and prop for performance. Klein was just as interested in blue as a powdery pigment as he was in its existence as the residue of actions and movements made by the body, not to mention the material’s ability to coalesce as form in sponge sculptures and paintings. Here, Prieto similarly uses coal as both material and immaterial, solid form and atmospheric powder, such as pigment in the dust paintings “Ornamental Dust (Cheetah)” and “Ornamental Dust (Labyrinth)” (both 2012), and as a projection screen for a video that imagines a coal dust cloud.
The gallery’s press release cites Karl Marx’s theories on the absence of the hand in the output of labor production. There is some suggestion of commodity fetishization here: how coal is connected to crude labor and the production of energy, or how over half of Chile’s energy is created by the substance, making it the third largest producer of carbon dioxide in South America. Yet, one must balance this theoretical consideration with the real commodity-driven structure of the gallery system in which this work is displayed.
Many artists try to subvert this structure with work whose ultimate form (performance, actions, and undocumented experiences) is ephemeral and difficult to collect. A precedent is Yves Klein’s “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility” (1959-62), in which Klein cleverly frittered gold (purchased by a collector) into the Seine and then instructed the collector to destroy the certificate authenticating the work in order to paradoxically complete the piece. While Prieto’s coal is not a material whose common (and final) state is precious or luxurious, its unprocessed form as energy is priceless. Transformed into a shiny, luxury object on the surface, coal is still, in its alchemical state, a crude source of fuel. And while Prieto employs a transformative beauty that attempts to astutely destabilize these commercial mechanisms, these works are nonetheless, in the same moment, gleaming objects in their own right.