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Anarchic Images

Santiago Cucullu has been to the Biennial and back

In April 2003, Core Fellow Santiago Cucullu received a $20,000 grant from the Artadia Foundation, and 11 months later he found himself in the Whitney Biennial. If I were on a winning streak like that, I'd head to Vegas.

Cucullu's artistic modus operandi often melds images culled from obscure historical events with the artist's personally derived imagery. The Buenos Aires-born Cucullu moved to the United States as a child, but doomed Argentine anarchists are among his favorite references. Cucullu is best known for large-scale "drawings" cut from contact paper and adhered directly to the wall. (He created a 13- by 19-foot panorama for the Whitney show.) His new work is on view in "Santiago Cucullu: Cardboard Center for Libertarians" at Barbara Davis Gallery.

The wall pieces start as small drawings that are projected onto sections of contact paper. The images are hand-cut and stuck on the wall when the work is installed. The multicolored contact paper has this great, plasticky physical presence on the wall and carries connotations of cheap, makeshift domestic decoration.

Cucullu executed Façade of the F.L.A. (Federacion Libertaria Argentina) (2004) over a 16-foot span of a gallery wall, storage closet door included. The façade of the FLA's 19th-century Buenos Aries building is executed in oxymoronic faux bois contact paper. The wood-grain shapes sparingly delineate a high-contrast elevation of the building.

Inside the Argentine anarchist organization's building is a library of anarchist documents that Cucullu was amused to discover were anarchically stored in a mountain of boxes. A pale blue line drawing of the heaped cardboard boxes is painted directly on another gallery wall. The paint is chalkier than the contact paper, but it works because it is monochromatic. I don't think attempting to re-create the effect of his multicolored swatches of contact paper in paint would come off as well.

A cardboard behemoth hunkers down in the main gallery. The 17- by seven-foot section of cardboard is tented like some sort of a makeshift Quonset hut-meets-Joseph's coat-of-many-colors bought at a dollar store. The surface is covered with strips of contact paper in bright colors and a range of fake-wood tones. The engagingly awkward object ridiculously doubles itself in size as it is buttressed against a goofy mirrored and columned wall -- a side effect of the gallery's temporary location in a Warwick Hotel penthouse.

The piece is titled Mr. Slocum's Fascination with Radical Politics (2004). Is Cucullu referencing Joseph Heller's angst-filled protagonist from Something Happened, or was Mr. Slocum Cucullu's third-grade teacher? Who knows; is it important, and should we care? Similar questions arise with many of Cucullu's obscure references.

The majority of the show is taken up with Cucullu's watercolors. He uses the same bright colors as with his wall installations, but the translucence of the medium has a muting effect and all the colors have a similar visual weight. The brilliant hues of Cucullu's contact paper are more appealing.

The way Cucullu breaks up forms into sections of color is interesting. In Holding a Mare and Two Buildings in Two Different Views in Two Different Countries (2004) (one of his more straightforward titles), Cucullu presents an irregular, multicolored patchwork of forms in the center of a white sheet of paper. As you stare, the sections resolve themselves into the figure of a man with a rifle (?), part of a horse and two architectural structures. It is an absurd compilation melded into an intriguing composition.

Smallest Bathroom in the World, Kyoto (2004) is a pleasantly skewed small work where the imagery has a more obvious personal hook. A gooseneck faucet is identifiable in the foreground, and a high shelf seems claustrophobically overloaded. You imagine a traveler's amazement at being confronted with the Japanese knack for small-scale spaces.

Rendering images with patches of different colors is reminiscent of the architectural decoration in the La Boca section of Buenos Aires. The impoverished neighborhood/tourist destination is known as the home of the tango, and its buildings are painted in swatches of vivid hues, not unlike the colored fragmentation that occurs in Cucullu's work.

Cucullu's references are often tough or impossible to pick out and decode. The artist himself has said, "I think it's probably impossible to read everything unless you are me."

The Necessity for Architecture and Autonomy in the Struggle Against Police Vengeance (2004) is an example of Cucullu's free association. The watercolor has the pastel look of a storybook illustration. There is a pickup with its bed turned into a rig-job horse trailer, a pair of floating eyes -- one green, one blue -- a Sunbonnet Sue-style girl confronting a flying pig with a knife and fork embedded in it, all accompanied by multicolored text in Spanish lamenting the death of Argentine anarchist Antonio Moretti. Cucullu has explained the origins of some of the images in interviews -- he saw the horse trailer in Terlingua; the pig refers to a German fairy tale.

There is nothing wrong with private, hermetic references, but the problem is that Cucullu is leading us to decode the work and then accidentally/on purpose tripping us on the way. I don't really think that is his goal. He's a smart artist and a genial guy, but many of the works are frustrating. Frustration can be challenging, or it can just be alienating.

Part of the dilemma can be attributed to visual and cultural references that are lost on people who don't share his specific background. But he's also doing the secret-personal-references-meet-arcane-historical-figures shtick. You can't know a lot of this stuff unless the artist himself happens to tell you. Even then you don't get why it's all together -- or you don't want to work hard enough to make it fit.

You don't notice the conceptual tangles as much when the visuals are really strong. But the work lacks that illogical but intuitive impact of the surreal. What would happen if it were more nonsensical, so jam-packed with obscure references you didn't even attempt to decode it? But I don't think that's what Cucullu is after; he's produced other works that have been more readable. Cucullu is at the beginning of his career and his work has hit pretty hard and fast. I think he's still sorting things out, but on the other hand, maybe he's just being anarchic.

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