San Francisco

Maria Fernanda Cardoso

San Francisco Artspace

On first acquaintance, Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s simple arrangements of materials gathered in her native Colombia present themselves as exoticized appropriations of formal inventions and ideas from earlier decades. Cardoso’s rectilinear piles and stacks of hand-formed soaps, raw sugar, and guava-paste candy, for instance, instantly suggest arte povera–like materials framed in Minimal/Conceptual forms: a tropical party-mix composed of equal parts Carl Andre and Richard Serra, Joseph Beuys and Eva Hesse, so to speak. These pieces, however, are a lot more than just clever gene-splicing. Instead, like much of the brave new art of the ’90s, the historicism of Cardoso’s sculpture is in the service of a social commentary of some kind.

For the most part, a quality of “otherness” has come to be expected, even demanded, from the work of so-called multicultural artists. Cardoso’s third world Minimalism addresses these limited (and limiting) expectations by presenting a group of works that can only be fully understood and experienced by someone like herself: familiar with both cultures, but fully belonging to neither.

Though the forms she has borrowed for many of these pieces may seem familiar, the materials they are composed of are so exotic as to be virtually unrecognizable. Twisted strips of dried animal-hides used for glue and repellent-looking sweets are unfamiliar to consumers like us, accustomed to neatly packaged, highly processed goods. Dried gourds, stacked in a dense pile or configured in mobilelike hanging arrangements, add to a sense of disorientation. Yet, in Colombia, all of these materials have a purpose and a place, readily recognizeable to anyone. They are as “normal” as the industrial products chosen by the Minimalists were to their audience. Ironically, in Bogotá or Medellin, it remains unthinkable to use such things to make art. In Colombia, as in many places in the world where post-Modernism has been received from a long way off (primarily through little pictures in magazines), a different esthetic still rules. Here, in the United States, the full narrative richness of these materials is almost invisible to us. There, such content would be so overwhelming that these pieces would be invisible as sculpture.

One floor piece in particular, called Bandera, 1992, seemed to embody these bittersweet contradictions. Hundreds of little red and white striped blocks were arranged into a flag-sized rectangle, simultaneously (and somewhat hilariously) invoking Andre and Jasper Johns. These guava-paste candies in the shape of the Colombian flag, the product of one little Colombian village, are universally known and savored throughout the country. Viewed out of their normal context, however, they looked vaguely organic but quite inedible—like fat and dried meat, maybe, or tinted wax.

In a way, Cardoso’s cargo-cult versions of monuments of Modernism serve as reminders of the subjective nature of esthetic appreciation. They also suggest, with a disarming combination of humor, intelligence, and affection, that almost anything eventually becomes usable, at different times, in different places; that all forms come around again, and again, and again.

Maria Porges