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A happening at the Angel Orensanz Foundation


in: The Villager, Volume 76, Number 17, September 13 - 19, 2006

This Thursday night’s art extravaganza at the Angel Orensanz Foundation features multimedia by the multi-dimensional. The Spanish artist for whom the place is named will combine two of his pieces— In Nasa’s Lab (2004) at floor level and Burning Universe (2003) suspended in mid-air. Running both inside the installation and along one wall will be the rarely screened abstract films of an artistic soulmate, Harry Smith. This portends alchemy, or at least psychedelia.

Each Angel Orensanz work is a chronicle of struggle and entropy. They’re hard to describe directly. Look at In NASA’s Lab. Banners and branches and a big bunch of chairs? No, that tells you nothing. It’s a giant abstract painting that burst open, disgorged its color and line, then began to molt. That gets closer, though it’s just a starting point.

Abstraction is an artist’s attempt to express the inchoate. Abstraction has content, but does not emanate from the “word” part of the brain. It bubbles up from some deeper murkier mess. The only way to get there, with words, is to write poetry. Poets see the emanations around a thing. They also find bumps and fissures in its surface. Theirs is a magic equivalent to the painter’s.

I’m just a journalist. Hath not the advantage. Still, I’d already written part of this meditation when I got a copy of Bob Holman’s poem about NASA’s Lab: “Inside the Synagogue is Mars. Inside Mars Is Your Apartment,” and I found that I’d duplicated one of his lines: “What’s the meaning of ‘meaning’?”

So I started over. Yet that is the question. Art can have meaning that the critics — even the artist — can’t articulate.

I’m reminded of what I heard while walking in Central Park among Christo’s “Gates,” a work that drew a huge non-art audience. One middle-aged man scampered up a little incline as I was passing by, looking every which way at the saffron parade, exclaiming with joy: “I don’t know what it means, but I love it!” We were all there in the park to be our own choreographers, to see the piece changing as we moved, to dance with it and create our meanings. That’s the way of it with installations.

Of course, Orensanz’s work is much more complex than Christo’s. But again, just for comparison — ambience counts. For “The Gates,” we had the park’s bare trees, the February weather, and the curve of each path determining the look of the piece. Orensanz exhibits in the once-abandoned Norfolk Street synagogue that bears his name, when he’s in New York. Built in 1850 for a congregation of German Jews, this gothic structure had become a shooting gallery by the late 1980s when Angel and his brother Al rescued and rehabbed it. The space is special, as if the very bricks radiated the spiritual highs and lows they’ve been witness to, from exaltation to depravity. The feeling, thus the meaning, of Orensanz’s work would change among the white cubes of Chelsea.

Back to In NASA’s Lab. What eccentric scientist works here, so far from the antiseptic white-coated realms of real lab work? Perhaps this is chaos as a cosmic joke. Perhaps a constellation fell to the ground and has been collected here for further study. Or, perhaps we are simply to understand that the galaxy is in deep trouble.

Banners avalanche from the balcony or run along the floor, painted as if with a calligrapher’s broad brush. Candles burn amid smoke and red light. Oval shapes smile from strips of Styrofoam, while in the air hang — so it seems — small space ships (golden, with tiny lights). Then there’s (apparently) the lunar module, this thicket of folding chairs. Supple wood slats bend through the chairs, with here and there a branch. Canted this way and that, some folded, the chairs are spiky now and stripped of their “chairness.” Once merely functional, they have entered the abstract world.

In Burning Universe, baby birch trees hang from the rafters, as do mannequins. These figures are naked but for their shoes, with faces covered by a sort of scarf that flows behind them cape-like. Two very large plastic spheres nestle high amid the trees. Like a nomad moving to new land, the art adapts and changes each time it’s installed. In one video document, the mannequins end up on the ground, as body parts, with the artist scattering flowers and leaves on them. The figures have found a graveyard.

The affinities with filmmaker Harry Smith are obvious. As Smith (1923-1991) once described a bit of his Heaven and Earth Magic, one of the features to be screened at Orensanz: the film would end with a cat fight lit by candles, then Noah’s Ark, then a Raising of the Dead. Then (as quoted in P. Adam Sitney’s Visionary Film), “everyone gets thrown in a teacup, which is made out of a head, and stirred up.” Smith wanted to project the film through masking slides so the images might look egg-shaped, or watermelon-shaped. Ideally spectators would sit in chairs shaped like eggs or watermelons and change the colors on the screen through their movements.

That seating arrangement will be built as soon as artists take over the world. But the fantasy is a good example of synaesthesia, a fusion of sensations normally experienced separately. People would see sounds, hear colors, or in this case, dance a color.

While Orensanz’ pieces like Earth Face and Fire Valley have an austere beauty, many of his installations hint at synaesthesia (which is not the same as sensory overload). Many of the installations are like paintings you walk into, where you experience “the simultaneous perception of harmonic opposites” — synaesthesia as defined by Gene Youngblood in Expanded Cinema, a book dating admittedly from the age of intermedia and cybernetics. Yet these subjects are not “dated.” They are concepts never completely realized.

In Orensanz’s work, there’s always some tension between nature and artifice. Nature comes inside. (Trees, for example, and representations of trees.) And the artist moves outside to create interventions in the natural world. Recently, he had a farmer plow the image of Don Quixote into a kilometer of land south of Madrid where the character roamed in the novel. He also directed mountaineers in painting (with pigment made from local plants) a rockface in the Pyrenees. What he’s created outdoors with his own hand are pieces he can’t control: abstract paintings on snow, colorful plastic discs released into bodies of water or placed in trees.

What these pieces share with the installations, of course, is their impermanence.

In the best-known of these interventions, Orensanz pushes a large sphere (taller than he is) around some city setting. He’s done this all over the world. The sphere functions as a kind of leitmotif in the installations. Outdoors, he sometimes paints it. He sometimes gets inside it. Sometimes it slouches. Sometimes it bounces. It’s a large transparent container of meaning.

It only looks empty.

“A Night of Art, Film, and Ultraperception” begins at 5:30 PM at the 161 Essex Street gallery of Clayton Patterson, curator of the Orensanz-Smith show, who will be exhibiting his work over the past 30 years. At 7:30 PM, the night continues at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, 172 Norfolk St. (admission is $10). Clayton’s show and much of Orensanz’s sculptures will be on view throughout the month. For more information call 212-477-1363 or 212-529-7194.

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