Staring at the Sea

beautiul-peopledYoan Capote: Mental States
Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC

Through November 14, 2010

In 1886 the French sculptor Fredrick Auguste Bartholdi sent aboard the ship Isere a large statue based on a portrait of his mother. For nearly a decade he had been working on this large-scale piece, which was to represent American Liberty, a gift from the French to the American people. By now this icon has become a familiar image, the "face" of liberty in the United States, but one must wonder sometimes how the artist came to represent this abstract concept, for a country he hadn't visited, in such a remarkably clear way.

Cuban artist Yoan Capote has given us some equally arresting icons for our America in his exhibition Mental States, though unlike Bartholdi he has traveled back and forth many times between New York and his native Havana. This sense of travel has imbued his work with a look that is a little less distanced, with a more familiar art vocabulary, but also creates a sense of displacement, both on the part of the artist as well as for where the art will fit in -- to what culture, for what audience. Much of the works impact lies in just this no-man's-land.

A piece called "In and Out," for example, is a brick and mortar sculptural recreation of the American flag -- its rough sincerity offers references to both Jasper Johns and Betsy Ross. Two bronze tree-like forms, with long trunks that morph roots into human feet shod in penny loafers, remind one of Robert Gober -- though the obvious metaphor of "pulling up one's roots" wears its heart on its sleeve in a way that Gober's work never does.

An enormous set of scales, set unbalanced, is entitled "Beauty and Intellect"; a minimalist set of bronze boxes, which open to reveal human sexual organs and fingers, is entitled "Beautiful People." These rehearse familiar surrealist tropes, except that one feels that to the artist, these are not so much surrealist as they are simple depictions from his experience. This gives these works an edge, an odd sense that we are looking in a mirror expecting to see ourselves yet surprised that the face in the reflection isn't ours. These works succeed to a large degree based on our familiarity with the references and Capote's interpretations of them.

The truly remarkable pieces in the show are not the high-production numbers, but, like "In and Out," paintings reflecting his art povera (poor art) approach. "Ilsa" and "Stress," two oil on jute landscapes, exemplify the povera methodology, gleaning a maximum effect through an economy of means -- in this case, fish hooks, nails, and boating hooks. "Stress" depicts the mid-town New York skyline in dirty grays and whites, much like a well-read newspaper photo. Heavy impasto paint is demarcated by clusters of rusted fishing hooks that bristle out from the surface, drawing the eye close and repelling it at the same time. This attraction/repulsion meshes with the city skyline: from a distance one is drawn in; once there, one is pushed out. This trope of course is a perfect metaphor for the immigrant view, and if "Stress" were the only work here, this might seem thin gruel for thought.

"Ilsa," the show's standout work, plays this same game, but the rules have somehow changed. It is essentially a vast seascape, with rolling waves and a small expanse of clear sky; we are drawn into and over the water, defined by the tangled hooks, and struggle to peer past the horizon. We puzzle over the hooks again, and the emptiness of the canvas allows us this. The sea is a harsh mistress, after all. Think of The Old Man, or that other fisherman who became a fisher of men. It takes a great deal of faith to cast one's empty hook upon the sea, and even more belief that it might return filled. This is the eternal dream of the immigrant, imagining what might be "there," and the ultimate success of this painting is that it conveys that dream so well. Capote carefully leaves the horizon blank, but as we stand in front of the endless sea, we might conjure some better future place. Our city lights might be breaking over the horizon, or our whale, or our last great fish. - Bradley Rubenstein

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Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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