Jesús Martínez Oliva

Pepe Cobo y Cía

Is there an ideology of geometry? This question is a key to Jesús Martínez Oliva’s show, suggestively and disturbingly titled La escuela del miedo (School of Fear). What connection might there be among education, fear, and the supposed rigor of geometry? Can it be that these three go hand in hand? So the exhibition seemed to suggest.

At the entrance to the gallery, Martínez Oliva placed a group of school desks in the shape of towers, or columns. The legs of these desks, which almost blocked off the back of the gallery, acted as sharp defensive objects; they were reminiscent of turnstiles found at security entrances and border blockades. On one of the walls beyond these obstacles was a group of works on paper—drawings, photocopies, and collages—that demanded close attention. Some bore images of geometric figures: grids, squares, rectangles, diamonds, parallelograms, perhaps inspired by the artists of the Constructivism and Neo-Plasticism (Albers, van Doesburg, Mondrian, and so on). Others showed models and furniture associated with the Bauhaus and its ideals of simplicity and rectitude (as espoused by Ferdinand Kramer, for instance). Still others featured much more disturbing images from newspapers: barbed-wire fences, barriers, bars, immigrant detention centers, etc. Rather than being divided into groups, these sheets were intermingled, thus rendering political what might otherwise appear to be a catalogue of flat shapes. Martínez Oliva seems to suggest that behind modernity’s utopia and its longing for universality lie methods of coercion, imprisonment, and exclusion. Similarly, school desks, pieces of furniture designed as instruments to foster learning according to specific rules and norms, are also serialized geometric structures that can be used as writing surfaces. But here the desks became visually and physically aggressive.

Martínez Oliva does not offer any cut-and-dried formulas. Yet he would seem to suggest that idyllic visions of school as a place for the development of the whole child and the cultivation of critical thought are contradicted by reality, and not only because of isolated acts of violence perpetrated in the classroom by both students and teachers. Significantly, during the Paris banlieue riots in 2005, the main protagonists were students, and one of their actions of protest was to burn down schools. Perhaps that is why some of Martínez Oliva’s drawings are suggestive of the French flag. Indeed, the invitation to the show subtly reproduces the image of a French school that, though crowned by the words liberté, égalité, fraternité, is barred shut. The thinking of Michel Foucault seems relevant here: The school is a device for social control and the imposition of uniformity, where subjects are tested for behavior and trained to acquire tools, knowledge, and skills that will allow them to take part in the world. Reality and art, though, are much more conflicted.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.