McEvilley, Thomas: “Carlos Capelán’s A Painting Representing Space”. In: Converge 1 (compiled by Lorie Mertes) pp 39-44, Miami Art Museum, Miami USA, 2000.
Carlos Capelán’s A Painting Representing Space
Carlos Capelán’s A Painting Representing Space is an example of installation art as a totality. The term Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) would be inappropriate because of the modest scale and pretensions of the piece. Yet it could be called encyclopedic in the determination to mirror reality in something like its fullness, combining painting and sculpture, sound and image, image and text, high culture and low culture, presence and representation. It also could be described as a “Glass Bead Game” installation, a practice described in Herman Hesse’s 1943 novel, Magister Ludi . In that fantasy tale of the future, one of several masters, after long rumination and reflection, presents to his colleagues an intricate symbolic proposal, issued as a series of clues in various media. (Hesse chose not to be realistically precise in the rendering of the proposal.) This Glass Bead Game, as it is called, leads the other masters into attunement with the mind of the presenter and culminates with a sense that totality has been clarified. The Glass Bead Game does not offer a universal totality but rather a totality with a particular slant and perspective based on a personal history and equipped with a symbolic mediation through which that history is adjusted into a totalizing lens. Hesse’s fictional concept was a prescient intuition of installation art, a genre that could hardly have been foreseen a generation or so ago but that has quickly become the first conspicuously international medium of the postmodern or multicultural era.
In the Glass Bead Game type of installation, the elements may be anything at all. But that inclusiveness does not make their selection random; each element is a meaningful hint or clue that the viewer may or may not explore for its inner meaning or its contribution to the totality. At the risk of rendering the spoor difficult or challenging to follow, such works often become obscure. To compensate, the artist may leave verbal guidance in some external form. The fact that many of the details of such a piece, very often significant ones, cannot be understood without this guidance corresponds to Hesse’s fantasy that the maker of the Glass Bead Game presents it, with some degree of explanation, to his or her viewers.
Capelán chooses not to provide the viewer with guidance through his architectonically constructed piece. In order to locate the work within the realm of contingency, the artist incorporates autobiography, albeit with a reluctance that causes him to present only unexplained glimpses of his personal history. The largest and most prominent element in the piece is the long facing wall that greets the visitor with nineteenth-century-style wainscoting and a swirling texture applied to the brown surface to give it a formal and familiar appearance. Five traditionally framed pictures are hung on this wall as if in an early-modern picture gallery. These pictures were made by Capelán’s father, Líber Capelán, also an artist, and all refer to Carlos Capelán’s life or heritage: there is a portrait of Capelán’s grandfather, a self-portrait by his father, a composite series of sketches of Carlos Capelán and his father out riding in their native Uruguay, a drawing based on a forced entry by Uruguayan soldiers into the Capelán home in search of Carlos, and a self-portrait of Líber sketched on the back of a letter he wrote to Carlos in exile. Stressing his sense of continuity with his father, Capelán installs the letter so that both sides of it can be seen, including the handwritten discussion of Dr. Gachet’s provision of art materials to Vincent van Gogh, and of Líber Capelán’s own distrust, as an artist, of the gallery system. Capelán’s heritage, his quasi-inherited profession, his exile, and the links between his life abroad and his home are all represented.
An element of site-specificity is added by the swirling textured brown of the wall, created with Florida clay that Capelán smeared on with his bare hands. This unmediated involvement with the pigment substance is yet another element of the work’s conceptual architecture, echoing both ancient and modern models, from the hand marks and fingerpainting in Paleolithic caves to the drippings, hand marks, and fingerpainting of Action Painting.
Although it initially appears to be a traditional cultural element, the clay surround is in fact an element of nature, waiting like a receptacle for proximate cultural moments that transpire to dissolve into it. At first the viewer is overpowered by the traditional feeling of this massive exhibition wall, and seems to be in a slightly archaic cultural setting. But the viewer is actually witnessing the frailty of culture, isolated before the inevitable overtaking of nature. In terms of the theme of identity, this wall not only specifies, through the wall hangings, who and what Capelán is. It also presages, through the clay ground, his eventual return into the indefinite swirling manifold from which difference briefly arises in a moment of seemingly triumphant self-assertion.
Walking farther into the installation and turning around 180 degrees, the viewer now sees, to both left and right, wall-drawings that look at first like wood-grain patterns. Finding (perhaps with some help from an attendant) the right point from which to view them, one sees that they are in fact anamorphic renderings of a drawing of a human head and face, one upside down, both grotesquely elongated laterally by the oblique angle at which the images were projected. Again the iconographic message involves the uncertain edge between culture (facial expression) and nature (wood grain) upon which human life transpires.
In front of each of the five pictures mounted on the facing wall hangs a microphone, positioned to catch viewers’ voices as they react. Following the wires, one traces them into a small side room, where the comments of those in the larger outside world are amplified through speakers. This room represents a kind of inside world, an internal space, in contrast to the more public arena of the larger room. Once the viewer has found the room, it is as if he or she has penetrated the entrails of the life involved. The walls of this small, rather hard to reach room were painted first with milk, then Coca-Cola, then red wine, representing three ages – infant, child, adult – or three aspects of life: nourishment, sociality, sacramentality. The room is like a digestive area inside the body, the sounds from outside entering like visitations from another world. The bottles and containers from which three coats of “paint” were drawn hang in untidy strands of rope and tape from the ceiling; no material has been omitted or discarded from this enclosed metabolic system. Around the walls of this secretive inner space are painted small images with which Capelán has worked as recurring motifs for several years – the male head again, but not anamorphic this time; a crawling man, suggesting helplessness or woundedness; a headless man, other things. Dim suggestions about the possibilities and deficiencies of life in a human body and a human desire system are implied.
Six small business-card holders are mounted here and there around the walls of the two spaces. On each business card a small text is printed with a name appended as author or utterer. These author names are not correct but, in a comical way, mix the high cultural venues of the quotations with false attributions to so-called low-cultural authors. The observation, for example, that “The Other is not a mystery to the self; the Other is a mystery of the Self,” is attributed to the actress Sharon Stone. Viewers chuckle upon seeing the obviously unlikely attribution, but the point is not simply to ridicule low culture from a high-culture viewpoint. Rather, the crossing of cultural lines suggests the underlying unities of issues such as selfhood, identity, and transformation that knit the installation, and the human situation around it, into a shifting composite value.
Capelán’s title, A Painting Representing Space, describes the entire piece, which can be viewed, in part, as a large composite painting made up of the hand-painted wall, the painting hung on it, and the paintings made directly on the walls of both the exterior and interior rooms. The painting has opened out into three dimensions and included the viewer within it. Occupying this fictive space, the viewer also becomes like a figure in a painting, a headless or crawling man, perhaps, uttering (to quote William Butler Yeats) “high nonsensical words.” Meanwhile the digestive process goes on, secretly, within.