Los Angeles

Jorge Pardo

Bulgogi,” as Jorge Pardo’s latest outing at Gagosian was cryptically titled, denotes a classic Korean dish of marinated barbecued meat. The name related most obviously to the show’s centerpiece, Untitled (Drawing Room) (all works 2010), an enclosed pagoda-like structure made of wood—a form by now as familiar to Pardo’s viewers as his signature lamps—that had been erected in the center of the gallery. As expected, the work’s interior was furnished with new lamps, here tightly clustered to form a chandelier with undulating contours echoed by the shape of the pagoda itself, giving visitors the uncanny impression that they had come to look at lamps inside a lantern that itself was lit by gallery lighting. The conceit recalls Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, in which characters observe various models of the maze they inhabit—the aptly named Overlook Hotel—suggesting that the film is itself a miniature maze overseen by the audience.

Inside Pardo’s vaguely geodesic pagoda, the connection between midcentury modernism and old-world Asian tradition was corroborated by walls hung salon style with Korean family portraits. Spanning various eras of photo processing, from black-and-white to color, these framed pictures seemed random at first; closer inspection revealed that in fact some faces appeared repeatedly, a few key figures at different stages in their lives. Further, the occasions commemorated were always overwhelmingly formal, the poses rarely candid, and the moments captured consistently underwritten by a narrative of exodus and assimilation. Pardo, whose own family immigrated to the United States from Cuba when he was six, has touched on this theme in prior works, but never so overtly.

The overall personal nature of the exhibition was striking, but to describe it as autobiographically expressive would be going too far. Pardo’s artistic success is attributable to the same rule that Walter Benjamin passed on to his son in “Berlin Chronicle”: “Never use the word ‘I’ except in letters.” And here the artist staged the archetypal American drama of displacement, naturalization, and class jumping that he himself has enacted in his own career, but with a crucial ethnic deflection. Replacing his family’s own Cuban past with the tragic concurrent history of other immigrants during the Great American Century, Pardo pointed toward the inheritance of suffering that so often lurks behind the honorific self-presentation evinced by Korean family matriarchs. Sexual slavery, illegitimate children, family rejection: Such unspoken implications cast a pall across the pagoda despite its friendly glow. Outside the hut, and echoing its extroverted, free-form complexity, a collection of paired tabletop and wall-hung wood panels, Untitled (Jewelry Vitrines 1–3), were displayed, their surfaces inlaid with glittering jewelry, some pieces stunning, some downright vulgar. As often demonstrated by Pardo, that which seems generous and giving often takes on a more sinister subtext; here the vitrines’ precious charms were linked to the ceremonies documented by the photographs—namely the idea of a marriage of (in)convenience. Relating the work of art to a gift passed between strangers, Pardo clinches the point: Between artist and collector, as well, the wedding has often been prearranged.

A third group of works was installed in a separate gallery: Six paintings made from sheets of laser-cut MDF featured long furrows through which pigment had been dragged by hand. Within the body of these striped surfaces, several round cutouts housed small electrically powered turbofans. Though the works appeared at first glance to be unrelated to each other, Pardo has always used the language of painting—its physics and chemistry, as well as the psychophysiological dynamics of projection and absorption—to discuss his lamps, and it could here be used as a key to the other works on view. For example, the fans blew small strips of fabric out from the paintings’ base, like escaping stripes or a cheap diversion in a garment district window, which tied into the narrative strands offered elsewhere in the exhibition. Staged during the hottest days of the summer, within Richard Meier’s cool architecture, Pardo’s show was at once formally intense and critically refreshing.

Jan Tumlir