New York

Ricardo Estanislao Zulueta

Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art

The black and white photographs of Ricardo Estanislao Zulueta are bizarre staged rituals of human survival. His series called “Basement Therapy,” 1988, consists of identical-sized images, each one featuring two figures in a claustrophobic, nightmarish space. The figures are anonymous (though sometimes labeled with numbers or signs) and are often dressed as twins, so that they seem to share their identities. Drawing on a variety of sources including Surrealism, science fiction, and Dada, Zulueta produces stark, striking images that oscillate between morbidity and absurdity, and that forcefully tap into subconscious fears and memories. The bleakness of his vision is evident in the predominant themes of suffocation, denial of individual identity, and personal entrapment. His black mats close in tightly on the pictures, bringing the work into even more concentrated focus.

Although Zulueta takes the theatricality of his setups to the limit, he never employs the artificiality of photographers such as Joel Peter Witkin and Cindy Sherman. His basement scenarios are both foreign and unnervingly familiar. The subterranean space in Therapy VII features rows of electric meters set near a rock wall. Positioned bluntly up front in the picture plane are two pale-skinned women in one-piece bathing suits. The women kneel with their hands on their thighs, their faces covered by gas masks. They seem to be stoically awaiting an obscure disaster. More baroque in sensibility is the pairing of two outlandishly dressed women in Therapy IV. In their dingy space, objects have been stacked—televisions,a flag—as if in a hoarding of items after a war or nuclear disaster. The two women resemble Dada dancers, lightly bearing their excessive costumes. They seem bored with their roles as sentinels, holding toy machine guns by their sides. The whole scene is a curious mixture of fashion, violence, and ennui.

In Zulueta’s psychologically layered dreamworld, the simplest of objects assumes a dangerous character. In Therapy I, two blindfolded women dressed in identical smocks hold tools—a large saw and a shovel—that are given a distinctly sinister edge. A harsh white light, floating numbers, mop wigs, and paper bag shoes all contribute to the eerie atmosphere. Therapy VIII shows two shirtless women in plain skirts facing a brick wall, their arms locked behind their backs. Each holds a single daisy in her hands. On the wall between them is a photograph of an atomic bomb explosion. The image is both comical and chilling. Throughout this series, disparate elements are thrown together to create images of startling power. For Zulueta, photography becomes the perfect device for making the material world a playground for the psyche.

Jude Schwendenwien