Following the Signs




Ramon Jimenez-Cuen’s exhibition Nativo represents a bold departure from documentary photography into new forms and materials: video and sculpture, using bronze casts, found driftwood, cables and plastic, and a rolling cart to display and distribute framed photographs around the exhibition space.


 Much of documentary photography deals with the depiction of strangers, or communities outside the experience of the photographer who is attempting to understand and represent their “otherness.” In Nativo, Jimenez-Cuen reverses the direction that he has formerly pursued in photography in order to create a meditation on his own personal history and sense of place- not otherness now, but self and lineage. Part of this meditation is a testament to his father, who was killed a few years ago. 


 The idea of roots and rootedness is physicalized in Nativo with cords and juxtapositions  connecting disparate things to each other. In one loosely unfolding sculpture, a piece of driftwood resembling a bull’s head with horns, set on a pedestal, is connected by black cord to a little box on wheels that contains an old postcard portrait of the artist’s grandfather. The juxtaposition between the “bull’s head” and the photo-on-wheels is completed with a second photograph on the wall nearby-- of the artist and his son in a swimming pool.  The conjunction of triangulated elements evokes a sense of continuity and mobility through time and space.  Family history is situated in a reference to landscape; the driftwood reminds us of the arid Oaxacan countryside and represents the sometimes surreal detritus that can be found on the desert floor.


 The exhibition of scattered pieces, on the floor and wall, and hanging from the ceiling, creates a sense of dry landscape, bordered by ocean.  A wall-size projection of the sea, caught in bright sun with sparkling reflections, dominates a wall by the gallery entrance. Identical video stills in frames stacked on a rolling cart can be distributed by the viewer anywhere in the space, as if transporting image like a memory.  Mirroring each other through the space, they suggest glimmers of a mirage-like oasis in the desert. (At the opening reception, this viewer took two images from the cart and leaned them against the wall in other areas, “irrigating” the landscape.)  The multiplicity of the image is a nod to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on the reproducibility of the photograph in the age of mechanical reproduction.  Now the image has come off the page, or the cart, to animate a field of floor sculpture.


 The floor of the gallery is heavily marked with dirty streaks and grime from its former use. This gritty floor makes a suitable ground for the sculptures, which reference plant life found in a scrubby terrain. Around the room are three bronze clusters of pod-like “fruit”—meant to suggest the dark, brown-black fruit of the huanacastle, a tree whose meaning in Zapotec is “the tree that listens.” Their scale is exaggerated; the scale shift is almost hallucinatory.  (At the least, it is emphatic, underlining its symbolic significance.) A white one is suspended in a net, like the kind of container one uses to store garlic; another, a dark one, sits on the floor, and yet another stands on its side in front of a light, looking somewhat like a clam shell, lustrous with the light shining through.


  On a smaller scale is a low table with a red plastic cover, upon which sit 32 bronze casts of the same huanacastle fruit, this time life-size. Traditionally, the tree was an important source of nutrients in Oaxaca, and its fruit was a common sight drying on plastic coverings in the sun and moonlight.  The number 32 is meaningful, being the artist’s age when his father died. The fruit becomes an offering and the table an altar.  (In actuality, the artist’s family, as a memorial, planted many huanacastle trees on a piece of the father’s land near the coast of Oaxaca.)


 A thick black wire wraps around a central column in the space and juts out from it like a streak of lightning, holding at its tip a baton, wrapped in cord, referencing the batons found in Oaxacan villages, whose communities adorn them uniquely and pass them on from generation to generation, a token of power and authority.  Thus, the idea of tribal governance hovers over the show, like an incantation.


 Photography and painting have an intertwined relationship that goes back to the 19th century, but Jimenez-Cuen’s attempt to create an interface between photography and sculpture is a new direction. Their combination is incongruous and formally challenging.  The artist asks them to work together in Nativo, to represent seascape and landscape, with human presence denoted by the family photographs. Besides the ambition of this sculpture/photography pairing, perhaps the most striking aspect of Nativo is the casual shift in scale among the sculptural objects, from the exaggerated scale of the oversized pods to the miniature scale of a stone with roots growing out of it.  Macro and micro perspectives share the same elemental stage, as the artist looks backwards and forwards through time to understand his place and identity.




-- Allen Frame


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