Bilbao

View of “Asier Mendizabal,” 2014.

View of “Asier Mendizabal,” 2014.

Asier Mendizabal

Carrerasmugica

View of “Asier Mendizabal,” 2014.

Asier Mendizabal has always been concerned with the political realm, particularly both the problem of collective action as the motor of society’s transformation. In this respect, he initially considers power through symbols, inquiring into ideology and agency in the public sphere, then turns them into form. In the recent past, his interest has been the representation of the masses across history and media. In the series in “Figures and Prefigurations (Divers),” 2009–11, for instance, he draws from crowd scenes culled from the imagery of the post–World War I avant-garde to create black-and-white photomontages featuring silhouetted people and architecture.

Mendizabal’s engagement with this theme was further explored in his recent exhibition “Toma de tierra” (Grounding). This title evokes Jean Baudrillard’s metaphorical association of the terms mass and ground (as in electricity): The French philosopher stated that the masses absorb the electrical charge of social movements, thus neutralizing change. Mendizabal took his cue from this idea in his research for the exhibition. He cites, for example, an allegorical connection between force and earth seen in a drawing by Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni. In this picture, a group of individuals giving a Roman salute gathers around an equestrian statue, their raised arms seeming to merge with the sculpture’s base. The “image” is that of the gesture being linked to the soil, as if there were a force emerging from the earth, but in which there is no emancipation; on the contrary, there is a kind of idolatry of the leader.

Several works illustrate Mendizabal’s investigation. Take, for instance, Placa (La Foule) (Plaque [The Throng]), 2014: six squarish pebble plates brought together over a rectangular iron support—an ornamental tablet in which each stone represents a person. The series “El proceso y el azar” (Process and Chance), 2014–, comprises a modular system of multiple wood engravings presented either as units resting on the floor or lying against the wall—like paintings—or as components of a table. Their visual sources are of two distinct types: on the one hand, nineteenth-century-periodical illustrations of multitudes; on the other, motifs of the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution in China.

The exhibition also included different works, all from 2014, informed by a controversial monument to Miguel de Unamuno erected in downtown Bilbao in 1984. It consists of a bust of the Basque intellectual installed atop a thirteen-foot-tall pillar. The sculpture was vandalized both before and after being placed there: Unamuno is a controversial personage in his native city, given his sometime affiliation with Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who was an antagonist of Basque identity. Gurentza-Unamuno (Capitel) (Elevation-Unamuno [Capital]) is a color photograph of the column’s Corinthian capital and a detail of Unamuno’s bust; Columna infame #2 (Infamous Column #2) and Columna infame #3 are concrete cylindrical, corrugated objects displayed vertically; Cabeza, puño, árbol (Head, Fist, Tree) consists of two papier-mâché objects, each resembling both a head and a fist, that lean against each other on the floor.

In 2011, Mendizabal published a pamphlet in tribute to Basque artist Jorge Oteiza (1908–2003), thereby positioning himself within a local sculptural tradition. A Letter Arrives at Its Destination discusses Oteiza’s remarks about the decision made by the jury of a British-led, international 1952–53 competition for a memorial to the Unknown Political Prisoner. Oteiza’s proposal wasn’t selected and he wrote a letter, never sent, to the organizers of the initiative, calling for an abstract art made with a socially committed attitude. Such a mindset has been crucial to Mendizabal’s practice, as this exhibition demonstrated. Indeed, few artists are as canny in connecting politics with a formalist approach to artmaking.

Miguel Amado