Cristóbal Lehyt

From Gustave Courbet’s stone breakers to task-based dance, artists have variously attempted to depict the laboring body. Chilean-born, New York–based Cristóbal Lehyt’s latest solo endeavor also references industry, effort, and production: The show consists of a series of 260 paintings (the number of weekdays in a year) and a large plywood box containing dozens of tangled and woven string sculptures that obliquely refer to textile manufacturing and its obsolescence. Though the exhibition is the culmination of the artist’s 2008–2009 residency at Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and the law school’s Labor and Worklife Program, his abstract pieces make no attempt to directly represent his extensive readings and interviews on labor history in the Massachusetts region completed during that period. Instead, the lyric paintings, rendered in varnish and oil paint on paper, and the quasi-anthropological container of objects relate only in an associative way to his research.

The exhibition’s title, “If Organizing Is the Answer, What’s the Question?” is taken from Harvard labor historian Elaine Bernard, but Lehyt has long troubled the line between query and retort. Throughout his searching practice, which has included video, installation, and photography, he plays with the politics of illegibility—his work often appears to be something we think we know, only to veer into unexpected territories. (In previous projects, the coast of California substituted seamlessly for Chile’s shoreline, or a dancer was depicted posing like a protester.) Here, Lehyt returns to the most traditional artistic media, painting and sculpture, to speculate about the ways in which nonrepresentational gestures might organize information—and to thwart such tidy systemization. For instance, the paintings, hung in a loose, calendar-like grid, resemble moody landscapes that have been turned on their axes so that they are oriented vertically instead of horizontally. While they are hardly diaristic, their crepuscular grays and blues capture shifting conditions of light and are markers or inscriptions of the passage of time in space.

The strongest element of the show is the box, which is chest-high. The viewer must bend down low to peer into the small window cut into one wall and view the collection of sculptures inside. Made of white cotton string dipped in glue and wall compound and hardened into stiff shapes, they have a compelling and nervous energy, as if they were the obsessive products of a frustrated weaver who fashioned them out of scraps secreted away from the factory floor. These objects are dense with cross-temporal references that span the globe: Brassaï’s “Sculptures Involontaires,” Eva Hesse’s process pieces, Native American basketry, the knotted-cord communication system of Incan quipu. Set within the immense interior of the box and illuminated with a black light, Lehyt’s sculptures also become specimens, the lot of them suggesting a cemetery of defunct or cast-off artifacts. As he began thinking about how to make sense of his Harvard residency in an exhibition, Lehyt considered additional literal figurations, such as making one sculpture per worker killed during the early-twentieth-century textile strikes in Massachusetts mill towns, but he turned increasingly to what could be called abstract conceptualism. How can a colored panel or twisted cotton function as usable, decodable information? Except for the precise number of paintings, which indicate the potential working days each year, Lehyt’s evocative forms do not yield up facts or histories; instead, together they create an affective archive that speaks to labor—both artistic and otherwise—in all its gratifications, alienations, frustrations, and excesses.

Julia Bryan-Wilson