Santiago Cucullu

Franklin Art Works

In Santiago Cucullu’s recent solo exhibition, wall sculptures constructed from paper table skirting (the disposable kind you find at “party paper” outlets) acted as a minimalist counterpoint to giant contact-paper murals and delicate watercolors portraying gallows and other equipment associated with capital punishment. The festoons of crepe paper and the watercolors’ bright hues stood in contrast to the installation’s formal and conceptual rigor. Each paper panel, for example, could be read simultaneously as a swatch of pure color and as a consumer product—rendering it a kind of hybrid readymade. And, considered together, the installations worked to illuminate the physical qualities of their site. One large table-skirting sculpture, The girlfriend picked the colors (all works 2002), had been installed in the gallery’s entryway, a marginal space rarely used for exhibitions. Draped from floor to ceiling with neat rows of multicolored paper, this otherwise inert section of the gallery was somehow made palpable. Indeed, the visual and conceptual dialogue between The girlfriend picked the colors and Lunchtime, the best of times—factory-folded table skirts stacked on a shelf—activated the entire length of the gallery they shared.

As macabre and sensationalistic as the theme of capital punishment may seem, Cucullu’s watercolors and contact-paper murals are critically informed and handled with restraint. Watercolors with titles like An electric chair, gallows and two gurneys. Strange grunts and screeches portray the means used to carry out the death penalty instead of referring directly to the bodies of the condemned. Grim constructions, floating in an unlikely palette of sweet, luminous colors, drift in undifferentiated space, break apart, and reconfigure into strangely beautiful hybrid organisms that suggest not a rational institution (as the death penalty’s supporters would have us imagine it to be) but rather an effect of chance interactions or cancerous growth. Cucullu employs a similar visual language in Four gallows clumsily attempt to increase the vibratory effect, a sixteen-by-twenty-four-foot sketch of the gallows’ outlines in blue and wood-grain-patterned contact paper. Although this piece, which dominates the show, wittily recalls Cubism in its materials and in the fragmentation of its forms, it is Foucault’s work on the penal system and Deleuze and Guattari’s thoughts on the “abstract machine” that inform Cucullu’s conceptualization of his subject matter. In these works, the oppressive objects pictured are not just taken apart; they also collide and coalesce like the network of ideologies and discourses they metaphorically represent. One senses here that capital punishment is being considered as a topic in terms of a complex, conglomerated apparatus or assemblage, an incoherent bundle of things, feelings, and functions, pulsing with agency and rhizomelike potential for growth and change.

Patricia Briggs