São Paulo

Pedro Reyes, Litophone (Teponaztli), 2017, volcanic rock, plywood, 15 3/4 x 27 1/2 x 15 3/4".

Pedro Reyes, Litophone (Teponaztli), 2017, volcanic rock, plywood, 15 3/4 x 27 1/2 x 15 3/4".

Pedro Reyes

Pedro Reyes, Litophone (Teponaztli), 2017, volcanic rock, plywood, 15 3/4 x 27 1/2 x 15 3/4".

Mexican artist Pedro Reyes’s recent exhibition featured two distinct groups of medium-size sculptures, one figurative and the other geometric. While this juxtaposition might at first have appeared incongruous, it follows the practice of an artist who was trained as an architect and never cultivated one signature style or preferred medium. His passion is exploring the transformative power of activism, collaboration, and collective and individual participation in art.

Visitors first encountered five black stone monoliths (four made of marble and one of volcanic rock) set on pale plywood plinths. Similar looking, yet not the same, each of the four marble blocks was cut into parallel sections in various ways. Litophone (Ótico) (Lithophone [Otic]; all works 2017), for example, had eight ladderlike sections cut into it from top to bottom and was distinctly taller than it was wide. Litophone (Fuga), slightly wider than it was tall, contained eight slices running from side to side; its subtitle means both “escape” and “fugue.” The one made from a hollow block of volcanic stone, Litophone (Teponaztli)—named for a type of slit drum used by the Aztecs—stood out from the group: Wider than it was tall, its unpolished sides contrasted with a smooth top, into which two narrow U shapes are carved; its hollowed core was visible from the side.

An opening-night performance revealed practical reasons for the differences among the seemingly abstract sculptures and illuminated a surprising affinity with Brazilian Neo-Concrete participatory art principles: Two musicians played the stones with mallets, revealing them to be percussion instruments. It was a hypnotic, primordial sound—“rock music” of a completely unexpected kind. A closer look at the objects revealed that the plinths were not mere support structures. They served acoustic purposes, and small lateral holes in them were for storing the mallets.  This is not the first time Reyes exhibited instruments made from unexpected materials; some earlier ones were made from decommissioned weapons. However, with these lithophones—a generic term for musical instruments made from pieces of stone, including some of humankind’s earliest—the artist seems to have sidestepped the overt sociopolitical commentary present in previous works. Exhibiting them alongside a group of figurative sculptures, Reyes seemed to evoke a perennial artistic dialectic.

Three of the figurative works, made of volcanic rock, depicted hand gestures, while a concrete bust, Paulo Freire, depicted Brazil’s renowned radical educator known for heralding participatory pedagogy and for stimulating a political consciousness in underprivileged citizens. A pair of forged iron figures, Spiral Nude and Ondulante (Undulating), seemed to nod toward Cubism and Surrealism and reiterated the motif, recurrent in modernism, of the reclining nude—think of Henry Moore—which might in turn have been informed by similar poses in pre-Columbian statuary. While the hand sculpture Figa––showing a thumb slipped between the first two fingers of a clenched fist––may represent a symbol of good fortune to Brazilians, it has very different meanings in other cultures.

This instability of meaning highlighted the underlying message conveyed by the apparent disconnect between the two groups of sculptures: All art is made in a cultural context at a given time; it is informed by art that preceded it, and its most significant impact comes when it is experienced personally. Juxtaposing figuration and abstraction, sculpture and performance, Reyes suggests that contemporary art is a more porous arena—diverse and committed to both expressing and shaping cultures today—than modernist binaries would have permitted. Today, as ideologues across the globe generate waves of intolerance and magnify social tensions, Reyes’s emphasis on interdependence, plurality, and the freedom to create amounted to a manifesto of hope.

Camila Belchior