Pilar Albarracín

Kewenig Galerie

It may not be a hard-and-fast guarantee of quality when a work of art brings a broad smile to your face the minute you set eyes on it, but an appeal to the pleasure principle is no bad sign. Such was the effect on me of Pilar Albarracín’s Techo de ofrendas (Ceiling of Offerings), 2004, an installation consisting of hundreds of colorful, ruffled flamenco dresses bunched together to fill the overhead space of the Kewenig Galerie. Of course it’s a great joke for a Spanish artist having her first one-person show abroad to play on stereotyped images of her homeland, yet there is something so tender and loving about the allusion: That floating mass of color, and the tactile richness with which it is embodied, are nothing short of gorgeous.

The idea of offering, alluded to in the work’s title, refers to a Spanish custom according to which women may bring dresses to church as donations, like ex-votos, in gratitude for some favor granted by the Virgin. Referring to an earlier realization of the piece, Rosa Martínez wrote of a sort of divine barter “from woman to woman.” While the humility presumed by a votive offering may seem lacking in a benefaction that seems intended rather to overwhelm and dazzle the receiver, one may trust that even a celestial being might easily be won over by the bravura of Albarracín’s gesture and the resplendence of the result. Then, too, the work evokes something akin to the experience of a small child hiding beneath its mother’s skirts—a sense that one has found relief or asylum beneath a heavenly canopy of the maternal.

Techo de ofrendas is lavish, mystical, humorous, and perverse; how do you follow an act like that? The rest of show may not have been as spectacular, yet a comparable finesse prevailed. A similarly surprising and comical emblem of the irrepressibly generous quality of the domestic—both in the sense of the household realm ruled by the mother and of what is particular to one’s home country—was to be found in Geranios (Geraniums), 2005, a wall-mounted installation of countless artificial flowers “planted” in empty food cans. Tu mejor companía (Your Best Company), 2005, is a series of fifteen sampler-like framed works in watercolor and embroidery on fabric. Each depicts a caged bird—an earlier work, Muro de jilgueros (Goldfinch Wall), 2004, used the real thing—with a rueful legend beneath it. One pledges to be accommodating, another to avoid talking politics, and so on. In short, these birds, though their cages may not be gilded, promise to fulfill the conservative fantasy of the traditional housewife of yore. Here, Albarracín’s humor may be taking aim at an obvious, already weakening target, yet the work’s dry tone and understated style—in contrast to the baroque excess of the other two works—endow it with a resonant melancholy. Though more muted, this work is like the others here in joining its satirical energy to a more tender strain of feeling.

Barry Schwabsky