Los Angeles

Octavio Abúndez, Soliloquy, 2019, grooved board, plastic, 47 × 47".

Octavio Abúndez, Soliloquy, 2019, grooved board, plastic, 47 × 47".

Octavio Abúndez

The human race is better equipped to talk a lot of nonsense than to save itself from extinction. Octavio Abúndez’s exhibition at Kohn Gallery made the point with a resounding crash of cant. The main room was hung with some of the Conceptualist’s hard-edge “stripe” paintings, outfitted with the umbrella title “We Could Be So Much Better,” 2015–, and composed of stacked bands of color. Within each belt, Abúndez embeds text from adventure and catastrophe films whose hammy dialogue mirrors the way we live now—which is to say, the way we collectively react to sure signs of environmental collapse not by storming Dow Chemical Company or the world’s CO2-chugging cement factories, but by earnestly swapping clichés at cocktail parties.

In the puce, black, pink, blue, and red lines of one 2019 canvas, for example, Abúndez assembled lines from Dunkirk (2017), Into the Wild (2007), Pulp Fiction (1994), Rocky V (1990), Star Wars: Episode V (1980), and Swingers (1996). Though most of these phrases were uttered by cinema heroes, together they mimic the blathering conversation of urbanites whose exquisite skill sets have left them utterly bereft of the sorts of quick thinking and creativity that will be needed to survive the Anthropocene: IS THERE ANYBODY HERE?! / HELLO? / STRANGE WEATHER, ISN’T IT? / CAN I ASK YOU SOMETHING? / WHO ARE YOU REALLY?

The tone was more fatalistic in the purple, blue, orange, and black sections of a neighboring composition in which Abúndez had strung together quotes from Johnny Mnemonic (1995), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and Terminator 3 (2003). All spoken by characters who struggle against a seemingly fixed fate of earthly or personal annihilation, the phrases rescue the viewer from any fantasies of valorous resistance in this age of hijacked elections and super fires: I AM NOT A HERO / WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO? IT’S A LOUSY WORLD / YOU SHOULD WRITE FORTUNE COOKIES. The flat ribbons of color looked like painting swatches or chips, adding a creepy industrial feel to the work. The overlay of horror, heroism, apathy, and violence spirals into a ghastly kineticism akin to the shattering mosaic of Christian Marclay’s 48 War Movies, 2019.

Beckoning from the back wall of the room was a painting that hewed closer to Abúndez’s argument. Based on Gerhard Richter’s 1966–2007 “Colour Charts,” this collage was built from 256 little monochrome paintings, which might also be vivid tombstones: All are emblazoned with recitations of utopian efforts—many foundered—by historical or mythic figures. On one panel of Schiaparelli pink, for example, is the epitaph 1851–1864 / MODERN TIMES, NEW YORK, AN ANARCHIC OUTPOST, HAD NO CRIME OR VIOLENCE DURING ITS EXISTENCE. YET, FAILED. And on another, of lilac: 2019 / AROUND 2.71 BILLION SMARTPHONES HAVEN’T MADE HUMANITY SMARTER.

Stranded in the gallery, a visitor might have checked her own smartphone, seen the CNN headline “Deadly School Shooting in Santa Clarita,” and sensed a cosmic triangulation between Abúndez’s art, contemporary atrocities, and her own sudden desire to stop feeling during this nonstop orgy of sadness. What is the purpose of art again? Abúndez seems inclined, like Hamlet, to hold a mirror up to nature, but in an era of such total risk, a danger lay here: While wandering through Abúndez’s graveyard of hopes, we were more likely to enter a fugue state than to react with a rising and constructive panic akin to, say, Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous “You must change your life.”

That’s what the back room was for. In this smaller space, Abúndez littered large aluminum foil sculptures that looked like crumpled pages torn from supersize editions of novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). The true font of energy erupted from Soliloquy, 2019, a black grooved board fixed with detachable letters that spelled out a manifesto, which washed a cleansing fire through the earlier ennui: I AM CONSCIOUS THAT TALKING ABOUT UTOPIAS FROM THE ART WORLD MAY SEEM PREPOSTEROUS BUT I STRONGLY BELIEVE HUMANITY MUST STRIVE FOR IMPOSSIBLES. . . . ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL ACTIONS IS TO FIGHT AGAINST AN INVINCIBLE FOE WITHOUT FEAR OF LOSING.