For curator and critic Octavio Zaya, contemporary artists and their work are far too frequently misunderstood. His recently opened exhibition at Mana Contemporary—titled “THEOREM. You Simply Destroy the Image I Always Had of Myself”—stands as a partial corrective to this. Through it, he aims to destroy surface interpretations and preconceived notions about art and its makers with a wide-ranging array of projects, each one of which is much more than meets the eye.
“THEOREM” is presented in Mana’s light-flooded and capacious Glass Gallery, designed by celebrated architect Richard Meier. There, more than 30 artists from around the world are given ample elbow room for their large-scale (and often site-specific) installations, as well as their sculptures, videos, photographs, paintings, drawings, and, in one case, a space for socializing. Zaya has brought together an intentionally mixed group of well-known, midcareer, and emerging artists. Issues and ideas are abundant, and not always easy, in this exhibition. And that’s the point. Art requires time and attention—so give and you will receive.
Since the gap between how things appear and what they really are was a motivating force for Zaya, he places Singaporean artist Heman Chong’s text-based installation near his own introductory wall text. Consisting of a tidy block of green vinyl text affixed to a pink painted wall, Chong’s piece sets the tone for the exhibition. Titled The Forer Effect (2008), it references the psychological theory that holds that people tend to regard generic personal statements as truths applicable to themselves. For example, there’s the work’s opening sentence, which reads: “You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself.” Many sentences like this follow, and a picture builds: a portrait in words of a person (you, me, all of us) whose outward projection of confidence and control masks inner insecurities. While the piece evokes the old adage that things are never what they seem, it also suggests that neither are they accurately encapsulated by descriptions.
For South African artist Jo Ractliffe, the disconnect between appearances and reality may be achingly seen in the subtly scarred landscapes of her own country—provided you know what to look for. In her “As Terras do Fim do Mundo” series (2009–10), she shows us, documenting the sites of the South African Border War (1966–89) in understated black-and-white photographs. The exhibition includes three of these photographs, printed at large scale and displayed unframed, an unvarnished presentation in keeping with the seriousness of their subject matter. In the middle photograph, for example, we see mounds of dark rocks painted with five-pointed stars, in a sparse landscape of grass, bushes, and trees. To the untrained eye, they look like they could be trail markers. But as the accompanying label informs us, they are, in fact, an unmarked mass grave on the outskirts of the Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale, where some of the deadliest fighting occurred.
Brazilian-Spanish artist Marlon de Azambuja lightens the mood with his elegant, clever installation Brutalism (American) (2015). A collection of close to 100 “buildings,” the work is a city (in this case, New York City) stripped down to only its most essential elements. Using clamps in place of mortar, he has assembled variously shaped bricks, stones, concrete slabs and blocks, a metal shelf, a rust-coated coil of fencing, and even a kitchen sink into a compact urban landscape. As site-specificity is important to the artist, he gathered these materials from local hardware stores and from the grounds of Mana Contemporary itself. With its abundance of raw concrete and industrial, utilitarian materials and forms, this city-in-a-gallery stands as an homage to Brutalism.
Azambuja’s city could not have risen at a more appropriate time. As New York celebrates the reopening of the Whitney Museum of American Art in its new building, his piece calls to mind the museum’s prior home, a masterpiece of Brutalist architecture. But the ground is shifting in more than just Manhattan, as the offerings at Mana attest. Go there, and get beneath the surface.