San Francisco

Pablo Guardiola, “I wish to communicate with you,” K/Kilo, 2011, color photo-graph, 28 x 42".

Pablo Guardiola, “I wish to communicate with you,” K/Kilo, 2011, color photo-graph, 28 x 42".

Pablo Guardiola

Pablo Guardiola, “I wish to communicate with you,” K/Kilo, 2011, color photo-graph, 28 x 42".

Images of tree-lined beaches, oceanside resorts, and cityscapes limned by blue-water coastlines—these were some of the subjects of “Jet Travel,” Pablo Guardiola’s first solo exhibition at Romer Young Gallery. Rephotographing vintage postcards and pages from geography books, the Puerto Rican–born, San Francisco–based artist juxtaposed these idyllic vistas against a selection of objects and other images loosely related to the idea of travel (a plane, a compass, a souvenir piece of bric-a-brac, an aerial view of the great pyramids) that offered a roomful of miniportals to other places and other times. Seemingly disparate at first glance, most of the tropical views were of the artist’s native Puerto Rico in the 1950s and ’60s, a period during which the island nation began an optimistic project of modernization, while reestablishing itself as a fledgling vacation destination. Guardiola’s graphic manipulation of his source material through Surrealist rotations, transpositions, and color-block overlays interrogated the sense of possibility that defined this historical juncture, ultimately exposing it as an elusive visual promise embedded in so many knickknacks. In this, Guardiola underscored the political contradictions that underlie slick touristic facades, raising important questions of historiography, and the tension between overarching narratives of progress and the legacy of a messy colonial past. In the diptych Sea is History. Giant Wave (all works 2011), this is eloquently demonstrated by two opposing seascapes: a San Juan tourist resort erected near some picturesque Spanish ruins and the English port of Hastings (an important historical trading post) being pummeled by an epic-scale wave. Side by side, these two small, unassuming C-prints managed to evoke some five hundred years of colonial struggle.

While maintaining Puerto Rico as its primary referent, the show encouraged a broader meditation on tourism as our primary mode for accessing the historical. For example, in another C-print, titled Sand. Castles, an aerial view of the pyramids swiped from a page of a history book reduces these imposing geometric structures to a series of abstract forms left like footprints on a beach. Installing this work beside a red-monochrome image of a commercial airplane, Guardiola underscored the process of narrativization necessary to render the tides of history legible. This insight served as an apt commentary on globalization that emerged most clearly in the series “Signal Cities,” in which C-prints of postcards depicting such destinations as San Juan, São Paulo, and Mexico City have been represented by their picturesque skylines and superimposed with the colorful patterns of nautical flags. The visually seductive but ultimately dissonant coupling of these cityscapes with incongruous geometric symbols pokes fun at the political folly of imagining a global village connected by a common tongue of universal forms. And although globalization has long been an important undercurrent in Guardiola’s practice, here it takes a compelling art-historical turn, unexpectedly coming to bear on the language of modernism. Playfully, these pieces also evoke the geometric idealism of Mondrian and Malevich (in their syntax of reductive colors and shapes), as well as the slick streamlining of modernist architecture (one image included the Caribe Hilton, one of the first International Style buildings erected in the Caribbean). Ultimately, these images point to fictions that constitute the idea of the “developing nation,” evidenced here by the story of a utopian modernist project deployed in a nonnative land, which helps to catalyze an ever-receding horizon of some fabricated notion of a “first world.”

However, Guardiola’s commentary also suggested that these historical narratives can be reconfigured, if only retroactively. This seemed to be the logic behind San Francisco, don't be afraid of the vastness of the world, of the immensity of the sea. Your thing is the air, the sculptural assemblage at the center of the gallery, which consists of a blue plastic bucket beside a wooden platform holding a sealed cardboard box, on top of which rested a transparent gray Plexiglas cube containing a postcard of San Juan. Viewed from above, the grouping resembles a haphazard map, a topography that takes time to clearly register. Such contingency and obfuscation slow the process of reception, but only while underscoring the fact that even if all of our views and panoramas are in some way framed by historically determined constructs, we may still shift our perspective.

Franklin Melendez