The many layers of Guillermo Kuitca

By Bruce Adams

Guillermo Kuitca, 32 Seating Plans, 2007, Mixed media on Paper; from the Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery George B. and Jenny R. Mathews Fund, by exchange, 2008. Image courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art GalleryGuillermo Kuitca, 32 Seating Plans, 2007, Mixed media on Paper; from the Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery George B. and Jenny R. Mathews Fund, by exchange, 2008. Image courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Abed is the most private of spaces—a small rectangular foam-rubber plot of real estate we designate our own. We are likely to be conceived, born, and die in a bed. In between, we spend a good portion of our lives there. Beds represent comfort, solace, and the security of home. Maps, on the other hand, are symbolic of public space. Abstract, intangible, sometimes alarmingly complex, they represent vast tracts of unfamiliar terrain. Street maps in particular speak of travel, of leaving the safety of one’s home, and of striking out into the unknown.

The opposing notions of public and private space play a major role in the work of Argentina-born artist Guillermo Kuitca. This is never more evident than when Kuitca paints maps onto actual bed mattresses, creating a public/private duality that sets the tone for Everything, the retrospective exhibition of his paintings, drawings, collages, and mixed media works now on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Curator Douglas Dreishpoon has assembled fifty-four paintings and fifteen works on paper (including one thirty-two part series).

One Untitled sculptural piece from 1992 dominates a large second-floor gallery. It’s comprised of twenty small beds arranged to form an irregular island—the shape of which suggests the random territorial borders of cities, states, and nations. The beds are stained to an unsettling gray dinginess, over which is printed a jumbled array of roadmaps like tattoos on grimy skin. Major cities are accentuated with fabric buttons that act like punctuation marks signifying places one imagines the itinerant artist visited. The mattresses original printed designs—cheerful floral patterns and playful children’s illustrations—overlaid with the stain and intensely jumbled cartography, produce a disturbing, almost repelling, incomprehensibility. Critics have linked Kuitca’s longstanding fascination with beds to Argentina’s political upheaval that coincided with the artist’s childhood. Dictatorships and military oppression tend to operate in opposition to personal privacy. Living in an environment where people are literally yanked from their beds, never to reappear, fosters an existential outlook. Like the emblematic strata on Kuitca’s beds, this notion adds another layer to his art.

The extensive show, coorganized by the Albright-Knox with the Hirshorn Museum and Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., along with the Miami Art Museum, explores themes of dislocation, travel, and the polarity between representation and abstraction. Though space and place are Kuitca’s go-to subject matter, the artist doesn’t portray them in the pictorial sense. Instead he processes them through the blender of modernism, utilizing maps, floor diagrams, seating charts, and other symbolic representations as fodder for semiabstract works. This iconic imagery reoccurs throughout the twenty-eight-year span of Kuitca’s work covered in this exhibition.

More layers of meaning in Kuitca’s art—and the Everything title itself—can be derived from the artist’s practice of associating much of his work with other arts, including music, cinema, architecture, literature, and dance. Often he does this through titles such as Siete últimas canciones (Seven last songs). It’s a dark and unsettling neoexpressionist painting featuring two tiny figures seated at tables in the center of a large undefined box-like space faintly suggesting a stage set and theater curtains. Kuitca was briefly involved in theater, resulting in another major influence, and many of these works hint at theatricality. Two large twin paintings titled Terminal and Trauerspiel (German for “tragedy”) are cases in point. Both depict empty airport luggage carousels starkly painted in a black-and-white reductive style. The frozen conveyor belts seem like minimalist sculptures viewed in isometric perspective, reminiscent of the work of Sol LeWitt. The themes of travel, displacement, place, and space are all here, along with references to theater, as the carousel conveyor juts forward like a thrust stage or fashion runway. One imagines luggage making its appearance stage left, advancing then retreating again, and exiting stage right. In Trauerspiel (the title is a theater reference itself) Kuitca presses the point by painting curtains over the entrance and exit portals.

Other works utilize diagrammatic architectural layouts, often turning their graphic vocabulary on themselves. In 32 Seating Plans (2007), Kuitca takes digital floor layouts from opera houses around the world, and brightly colors them in Photoshop. He makes printed images on standard size letter paper, which he then folds, flexes, steams, and floats in water. Ink and watercolor are added over that. What results are wildly distorted and fragmented, almost hallucinogenic images which sometimes resemble vividly colored aerial views of Haiti’s recent earthquake.

There’s much more to Everything, of course. The show continues through May 30.

Bruce Adams is an artist, writer, and educator living in Buffalo.