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Humans Are Just Another Animal in a Dreamlike Wattis Show

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Simplified, hollow metal sculpture of chimpanzee's head resting on its side on folded cloth
Rodrigo Hernández, 'I would not think to touch the sky with two arms,' 2023 in 'with what eyes?' at the CCA Wattis Institute. (Nicholas Bruno)

Upon entering Rodrigo Hernández’s with what eyes?, one is required immediately to navigate the show’s installation, a series of maze-like walls and enclosures, erected like stage props around Hernández’s sculptures and hand-hammered steel reliefs.

Here, the fabricated white walls seem cast as white walls, dwarfed amusingly by the Wattis’s warehouse exhibition space. The Mexico City-based artist has restructured the building to play at an art gallery, both investigating and exposing this peculiar brand of architecture.

Each of Hernández’s works are, from certain angles, obscured by the installed mise en scène. At the center of the exhibition, he has painted an elevated surface with nested rectangles rendered in semi-opaque, industrial colors. A passageway splits the painting in two.

White walls and half walls divide space with passageway at center, painted horizontal surfaces visible
Rodrigo Hernández, installation view of ‘with what eyes?,’ 2023. (Nicholas Bruno)

I think immediately of Josef Albers, who I accidentally call Joseph Beuys, which Diego Villalobos, the show’s curator, notices and tactfully corrects. Villalobos suggests that in a Latin American context the sculpture might remind a visitor of the angular shadows and dense color fields of architect Luis Barrágan. The composition is modern, holding all of modernism’s vague scientific implications.

While working on the exhibition, Hernández looked to the philosopher David Peña-Guzmán’s book When Animals Dream as inspiration. Do animals dream? This question is Peña-Guzman’s sincere undertaking, and yet it is impossible to definitively answer. The metrics are wrong, the language doesn’t translate; we lack the capacity to speak to animals. This is not a question made in their terms.

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To formalize such a query entails reducing information to its most basic components: What is an animal? What is a dream?

This ethos feels true of the exhibition as well, which leaves one wondering what exactly a sculpture is, what constitutes a painting, and how those categories ever got defined. The necessity of twisting and craning your body to see the works in with what eyes? adds a time-based component to these questions, suturing frames and complicating narrative.

White wall with three embedded and lit metal reliefs
Rodrigo Hernández, installation view of ‘with what eyes?,’ 2023. (Nicholas Bruno)

Beyond Hernández’s architectural — and for me, quite philosophical — labyrinth are stainless-steel reliefs, embedded and lit within more of the installation’s white walls. In each relief, Hernández has cut long, bowing lines that sketch chimpanzees in various states of rest and anguish, the surfaces textured using an array of different-sized hammers. The effect touches on art history, briefly conjuring Jean Cocteau’s line drawings, but then eclipses that and stretches further back, to the mark making of early systems of language.

Hernandez’s rhythmic hammering dapples the steel. During my visit, my striped blouse is disassembled by the stainless steel’s reflective quality, unraveling in microscopic patterns as I shift my weight from side to side. This hallucinatory animation plays out before a docile chimpanzee, gazing past me languidly, with bedroom eyes. And perhaps for the first time in my life, an artwork makes me feel shy.

I was surprised, then quickly convinced, when Villalobos told me that writer and playwright Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s fragments, If Not, Winter was another point of inspiration for Hernández.

Carson inserts brackets into her translation of Sappho’s poetry, of which only fragments remain, to hold space for lost or illegible portions. In her introduction, Carson suggests the brackets as “a sort of antipoem that condenses everything you ever wanted her to write.” Suddenly the white walls dividing Hernández’s exhibition, defining interiors and exteriors, are recast. They, like brackets, hold absence as a material.

Painting of bat's head resting on its wing on white wall
Rodrigo Hernández, ‘you burn me,’ 2023. (Nicholas Bruno )

On one of the Wattis’ far walls (which feels farther than usual due to Hernández’s added architectural elements), hangs a soft, simple painting of a bat with its head resting on bended wing. It’s rendered in a just-off manner, too self-possessed and unstylized to be a cartoon. At the same time, it’s too ethereal and perfect to be real.

The strange bat with its wide, omnipotent eyes undercuts the complexity of the exhibition. Suddenly, there’s an answer to that impossible question.

By taking literary material as a starting point for the physical and philosophical elements of his work, Hernández is able to focus, almost perfectly, on formal expression and inquiry. Embracing an indirect mode of expression, his work is personal, a sort of real-time staging of his own interpretations of Carson and Peña-Guzmán’s writing. At the same time, it endlessly invites other perspectives. Maybe with what eyes? is the artist’s attempt at an “anti-show,” a show with space for everything you ever wanted him to make.

Rodrigo Hernández’s ‘with what eyes?’ is on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts through Feb. 24, 2024.

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