The Reality of Abstraction by Shlomit Dror

Added on by Shona Masarin.

Written in conjunction with the exhibition, galería perdida: Let's smell it together. On view at CUE Art Foundation December 6, 2013 - January 25, 2014

“Nothing is more abstract than reality,” according to Giorgio Morandi. The work and practice of the artists named galería perdida investigates the kind of volatility that surfaces precisely in situations that seem transparent. Labor, for example, is a prominent subject for the collective; it represents a way for the artists to acknowledge (even to champion) the effort and creativity involved in the production and design of common objects, cajoling the viewer to look beyond the obvious, beyond the “real.”

Their work shifts between figurative and nonrepresentational as visible elements become obscure and opaque components attempt to point to a logical source. This approach parallels the mystery embedded in Edouard Manet’s versions of The Execution of Maximilian.1 Depicting the chilling execution of Ferdinand Maximilian by firing squad in Mexico in 1867, in Manet’s first version there are some curious anomalies: the firing squad's uniforms, for example, are hard to identify (as if erased and repainted), sombreros changed to French-style military caps. Through this ambiguous presentation, Manet addresses the immoral and oppressive conduct of the European occupation of Mexico. This opacity raises the question as to why Manet kept this modification evident in the pictorial frame? The work and practice of galería perdida presents similar uncertainties that invite presumptions and forces us to rethink a given fact.

Disclosing certain shards of information as a way to entice us to look beyond the veil, in what could be called incidental narrative perception, is a strategy favored by galería perdida—a collective whose identity (and location) can only be hypothesized and whose obscure approach and working process, often concerns issues relating to design and labor.

Two chins to swallow, their recent project in Hudson, New York,2 consisted of colorful shelves made out of woven vinyl lanyards with multiple grids, diagonal shapes and other patterns. Atop each shelf was a piece of fruit or a vegetable, selected to emphasize the utilitarian qualities of the materials used. The colorful plastics and patterns recall the typical shopping bags and patio furniture of working-class Mexicans. And this tough material—manipulated, bent and woven—corresponds to the rigorous labor that went into its making. Embodying the culture of labor in its practice, galería perdida examines the complex relationship between a product and the process involved in making it, which in reality remains difficult to discern. This condition is not incongruous within our social system. We are oblivious to the distinction between a crafted object and the labor involved in its making. As such, the gap between the makers and the receivers (the relationship between blue collar and white collar) is profound. By identifying the notion of labor in their work, galería perdida aims to “personify the material conditions it might have taken to make that given thing.”3

Typography and letter design is another area of craft activity whose formal precision remains invisible (or at least overlooked) to most of us. When we encounter type, not only do we generally fail to question the arduous process behind its creation, but we also do not draw the connection between the design and the context in which it appears. The skill in building a letter is highly specialized and requires precise measurements, calligraphic accuracy and sensitivity to the spacing between the letters (even when handwritten, these constituents are taken under account). One of the ways galería perdida examines this form of labor is in a recent booklet they produced, which includes photographs they took in Chilchota, Michoacán, Mexico, documenting a variety of typefaces in public spaces, such as storefronts and street signs.4 In each photograph, they identify and classify the font by its name, designer, the year of creation, and its formal features connecting to other fonts.

In the group exhibition “The New World” at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art in 2013, galería perdida selected all the typefaces used in wall labels, catalogue and other didactic materials used in the show, weaving together connections between the rest of the artists in the show, curators, designers and the institution.5 This subtle, yet to a degree intrusive, act, denotes the very nature of this collective’s working process. By conceptualizing the term “gallery,” galería perdida’s physical space is “lost” or “unknown” and the veiling of the artists’ personal identities is very much like a product of the anonymous labor, which to the naked eye remains unrecognizable and yet is crucial for its infrastructure.

Reconstitution and recontextualization—applied to typefaces and interlaced plastic—also extends to galería perdida’s approach to the appropriation of photographs from archival sources, particularly those with anthropological content. In the sculpture, forlorn until the end, the collective uses an anonymous photograph documenting an indigenous woman from Tancanhuitz de Santos. This image came from a book that detailed Indian costumes. Since galería perdida contests to the way anthropological documentations classify an entire group made of individuals, they cropped the photograph in such a way to abstract the visual sequence and augment its inherent opaque condition. As galería perdida recently stated, “given that cultures are agreed upon traits that personify a given group, seeing this as anything other than abstract is a fallacy. These are linguistic devices that move further away from the subject/group/peoples, and like a memory, as you describe them, you begin to deconstruct them with less and less accuracy.”6

In forlorn until the end, the image hangs askew off a coat hook, which is then blown on by an industrial fan so that it becomes unstable and wobbles. The constant movement of the image further frustrates a clear reading, rendering the object close to abstraction. This critique of anthropology questions the value of scientific photographs documenting “other” (different) cultures, undermining the image’s original intentions of documenting a certain habit, and attributing it to an entire region/culture. By taking an image of an image and showcasing photographs of anonymous practitioners, the collective restages and questions the photograph’s authorship and attribution.

This piece also exemplifies the collective’s interest in the performative qualities that various objects and situations assume. Its performances are often characterized as hidden, since the act itself is only implied and carried out subtly. Describing this approach as latent performativity, galería perdida explores this notion, for example, in the movement of the photograph in reaction to the industrial fan mentioned above. The sound of the fan and the oscillation of the picture against the wall bring out a performative element that is not contingent upon a person, but rather an object. In another work, if you want to humble an empire, inspired by a marimba design, the latent performativity lies within the ability of the object to trigger a physical response, even though it is static. This object, made entirely out of walnut wood, is a diamond shape based on the marimba designed by American avant-garde composer Harry Partch and suggests a functional use. Yet, it also conveys another reading as a musical instrument in the guise of a sculpture, where the act of playing is not as central as the suggestion of it. Thus, the potential sounds remain silent and “this latency presents an anxious moment of when it [the playing] will occur.”7 On one of the wooden bars at the bottom of the sculpture hangs a hand-woven textile, referring once again to the notion of labor. Placed in such a manner, it is a visual eruption; it is gestural. This interruption is a diversion removing us from the obvious, from the “logic,” according to galería perdida, that we are simply looking at a musical instrument.

In the sculpture No Eres Grande, galería perdida constructed a wall with diagonal patterns (a reference to the diagonal grids found in the textile as well as the shape of the marimba) made out of tiles, which they spray-painted in orange, green, light blue and purple, to achieve a gradient effect of colors. The wall is not positioned directly on the floor but rather “floats” atop a cream-colored, horizontal panel, made from woven vinyl lanyards (similar to the shelves), which serves as a base. This panel echoes the diagonal patterns on the wall and also put the viewer in mind again of manual labor. The positioning of the wall on top of the panel, rather than directly on the floor, conveys a hovering impression, evoking once again a performative expression of the objects themselves. As a result, both elements are supportive systems that share formal relationship in patterns, and are hybrids between painting and sculpture.

The multiplicity and fragmented narratives in these works examine the volatility behind their abstraction. These works manifest their source (in the design, material and form) but, at the same time, prevent obvious, logical legibility.

We find ourselves in an attempt to reach the source, which is impossible, and perplexed by how reality renders such obscurity. These simultaneously veiled, yet logical conditions that galería perdida presents us with resonate in the way we perceive an image, an object, a design, a presumably known history or a fully researched subject. They are abstract and remain hermetically sealed, despite being recognizable.



Israeli-born Shlomit Dror is a curator living and working in the New York Metropolitan area. For the past decade she has worked and interned in various art institutions and venues such as El Museo del Barrio, The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, The 2011 Incheon Women Artists’ Biennale, and most recently was the curatorial associate of American Art at the Newark Museum. Dror also curates and writes independently. She recently participated in the Curatorial Intensive at Independent Curators International, was the award recipient of the 2013 NARS Foundation Emerging Curator Program, and was selected for the 2013 No Longer Empty Curatorial LAB. Dror received an MA in Museum Studies from New York University and a BA in Art History and Latin American Studies from Bard College.

Mentor David Cohen is Publisher and Editor of, the online magazine of art and ideas, and founder-moderator of The Review Panel, a critics' forum that takes place on a regular basis at the National Academy Museum, New York and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and is archived for podcast at artcritical.  Formerly Art Critic of the New York Sun, Cohen was Gallery Director for many years at the New York Studio School where he continues to teach, as he does at the Pratt Institute, FIT, and PAFA. He is the author of monographs on Alex Katz, Henry Moore, Serban Savu and Jock McFadyen.    

NOTES: 1 Edouard Manet. Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, 1867. Oil on canvas. First painting of the execution of Maximilian, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 2 Incident Report Viewing Station, Hudson, NY, facilitated by Max Goldfard. 3 galería perdida, interview by author, August 12, 2013. 4 Booklet was published in conjunction with La Carne De Burro No Es Transparente, Luckman Gallery, California State University, Los Angeles, January 28- March 24, 2012. 5 Roman Stollenwerk, The New World, January 22 – March 16, 2013, Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art, Chaffey College, Cucamonga, CA, 16-19. 6, 7 galería perdida, interview by author.