Santiago Cucullu

Santiago Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion, completed in 2001, is the architectural antithesis to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s original Eero Saarinen building. Skeletal and dazzling white, Calatrava’s expansion flaunts its pièce de résistance: the Burke brise soleil, a series of steel rods forming two massive fins engineered to raise and lower like the wings of a bird. Connecting Calatrava’s gracile landmark to Saarinen’s blocky mass are two long and narrow enclosed walkways, also designed by Calatrava, that are used as exhibition spaces. It is in one of these, the seemingly endless west galleria, that Milwaukee-based artist Santiago Cucullu has created one of his signature installations in which he juxtaposes wall graphics and contrivances that he has fashioned from found, borrowed, and swiped objects.

The constraints of the vertebral galleria make the space a prodigious challenge for artists. Cucullu’s solution was not to compete with the elongated gallery and the modern-gothic aesthetic carved out by Calatrava’s cadence of rampant arches but to install a modest collection of objects and images that evoke recreation, the commonplace, and “low” culture. Take for example Storefront (updated), 2008, a freestanding door frame that Cucullu built from a few lengths of wood and painted white like the interior architecture that dwarfs it. Proportioned at human scale, this symbolic entrance is hung with cheap silvery party material that fl utters in the air currents. Another detail sullying the saintly space is found at the opposite end of the hallway, where Cucullu has draped a length of sewn-together airline blankets over the steel arches. Also at this far end, an expandable metal armature painted in various bright colors is suspended from the vaulted ceiling, its web of harsh angles set against Calatrava’s curving lines.

The focus of Cucullu’s project is a series of ten colorful gangplank-like tables lining one wall of the galleria, each supporting two vintage television sets: one facing inward, the other facing the window. At night, drivers on Lincoln Memorial Drive are treated to a humble collection of old television screens glowing within the hi-tech museum wing. Each monitor plays a short video on loop, the poor quality of the sets degrading the miscellaneous, nonnarrative vignettes to the level of vapid cable-television programming. Flags mounted on a building, a crab moving its legs, a gardener on her knees—nothing of much interest is shown in these videos. They are simply flickering images that add up to a sort of vernacular formalism, Cucullu’s preferred parlance. In this way they echo his vinyl wall graphics, which fill the walls of the adjacent bay with familiar yet unnamable silhouettes. Like the wall graphics, the videos are surrogates for the medium of common life: unspectacular, tedious, and tired. It doesn’t matter if they are abstract or representational as long as they register familiarity.

As suggested by its title, MF Ziggurat, Cucullu’s project likens museums to temples; the artist has littered Calatrava’s monument to high culture with the stuff of everyday life. Perhaps the most aggressive counterforce that Cucullu sets against Calatrava’s idealism is found in the specificity of the twenty television sets. Of all sizes, shapes, and vintage, sporting a Heineken beer sticker or bent antennas, these boxes are near extinction. Yet their grungy uniqueness soundly challenges the overwrought virtuosity of Calatrava’s marvel on Lake Michigan.

Michelle Grabner