New York

“The Crystal Stopper”

In the ’80s, both the art market and the institutions that supported it expressed a sudden interest in the marginal, embracing a plethora of critical viewpoints on race, class, and gender. What was political and social in art was also what made it relevant and hence “real.” But with the recent move away from “multiculturalism” toward “globalization,” the affirmation of difference has been shown to mask a propensity to traffic in stereotypes, raising oddly nagging questions. Is there really an “African-American” or “Latino” art? Are “artists of color” required to speak about ethnic experience? If much was wedged into place—who is licensed to speak for whom and about what—hard-edged debate over the desirability of assimilation rages again.

Into this fray Carlos Basualdo introduced “The Crystal Stopper,” an exhibition that one might be tempted to read through the veil of multicultural politics; after all he worked with a number of relatively unknown artists from South America and Cuba, as well as some headline politicos like Alfredo Jaar and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. And the thematic thread of the exhibition was built around “the mirror,” the virtual leitmotif of identity politics. Certainly, in the hands of a lesser curator such elements would have left us choking on a miasma of clichés. What Basualdo delivered in “The Crystal Stopper,” however, was provocative in its refusal to accept absolutes, as the singular, stream-of-consciousness narrative of his catalogue text, coauthored with Reinaldo Laddaga, makes clear.

More than anything, the exhibition seemed bent on contesting stereotypes engendered by standard, art-world discourse on the “Other.” To this end, Basualdo staged an event in which what is Northern and what is Southern, what is center and what is margin merged imperceptibly across a fault line best described by the lines from Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas cited in the catalogue essay: “In the mirror where you look at yourself/there is no one.” Thus, for Basualdo, the mirror possesses the power to conspire against the viewer, by at once summoning and withholding, seducing and defeating, in short toying with our desire for the most comforting of images—our own. What could be more terrifying, more titillating, than to stand before a mirror and witness nothingness? And so the works by the ten artists Basualdo selected created a metaphoric hall of mirrors that rarely returned images. Like Jorge Luis Borges’ “ink mirror,” which pictures only the world of the imagination, Teresita Fernandez’s Plexiglas, scrim-covered reflecting pool was cool and vacant in the most idealized and sublime sort of way. The young Cuban, Miami-based artist team of Quisqueya Henriquez and Consuelo Castañeda papered the gallery’s longitudinal walls with laser prints that mirrored the interior, replicating the scale of the exhibition space but multiplying the number of cast-iron columns to create the appearance of a vast, empty, but infinitely open, classical portico.

While some “mirror” works spurned the viewer, revealing nothing but impenetrable surfaces, others served as lures. Gonzalez-Torres’ low-lying floor pedestal, Untitled (Fear), 1992, sheathed in blue mirror, conjured viewers’ images like so many Narcissuses, transforming the act of gazing at one’s reflection into one of voyeurism. Basualdo also included a much older piece, Dan Graham’s Body Press, 1970–72, two 16-mm color films projected on opposite walls. In this work, two performers film each other filming their reflections in reflective, cylindrical surfaces. This moving picture of fun-house-mirror distortions where bodies are monstrously deformed solicits an automatic, if futile, response: the urge to piece fragmented images into wholes. But nothing coalesces; reconstruction is never complete.

Keen to plumb the metaphorical depths of mirrored space, Basualdo drew heavily in his essay from Borges, among others, for brooding and terrifying images of the looking glass. From Maurice Blanchot and Kierkegaard, he culled meditations on the poetics of rapture. But at the center of the palpably indeterminate something to which Basualdo is so attracted lies the age-old enigma of identity. It is up to the viewer whether to chart a collection of intensely personal ruminations or a road to the political sphere through “The Crystal Stopper's” garden of forking paths.

Jan Avgikos