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Low-Tech Industry

Jess-Rafael Soto's works come alive -- on your retinas

Jesús-Rafael Soto's work isn't technically kinetic, but it certainly can make the viewer kinetic. It gets you circling, crouching, standing, doing a box step and bobbing your head up and down like one of the those dashboard dogs. On your retinas is where the real work happens -- that's where Soto's art flickers and moves.

The octogenarian Venezuelan artist Jesús-Rafael Soto has been making art for 60-odd years, but most Houstonians were introduced to his work last summer through the MFAH's groundbreaking and award-winning exhibition "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America" and in a concurrent group show at Sicardi Gallery, "Parallel Stories: Brazilian & Venezuelan Abstract-Constructive Art 1950-1970." Soto has been ridiculously under-represented in U.S. exhibitions and art history texts, but things are slowly changing. It's high time, and his phenomenal solo exhibition now at Sicardi Gallery, "Jesús-Rafael Soto," helps to illustrate why.

With works ranging from 1955 to 2000, the show was curated from the artist's personal collection. Soto's art spans materials as well as decades -- wire, wood, Plexiglas, metal, paint and filament are all drafted into service -- and the works on display are a record of his fascination with optical phenomena. Soto began his explorations in the '50s, and while most op art touted in the '60s was about pattern on a two-dimensional surface, he has always employed a third dimension.

Cube de Madrid (1981) is a clear block of solid Plexiglas with opaque black squares in the center of each of its six sides. The bottom one is underlaid with slender black-and-white stripes. The work sounds straightforward enough, but as with most of Soto's art, it's difficult to convey what happens when you view it. As you move around the piece, the squares seem to cover the corners and then appear to float in layers on various planes. When you peer in from the top, the parallel lines of the bottom seem the fill the cube. Crouching down and looking at it directly from the side, you notice the squares overlap exactly, and a Malevich-esque black square seems to levitate in transparent liquid. What initially seems like a simple idea has fascinating and myriad results.

Soto explores another basic geometric form for Sphere de Bale (1997), for which he used metal dowels and paint to create an elusive spherical volume. Soto shuns the static. The whole work seems alive, and even though nothing in his constructions is technically moving, he continually generates movement on the retinas of the viewer.

Aside from the experience of the work itself, one of the things that's most striking about Soto's art is its inventiveness. Using unexotic materials, the works achieve spectacular results through low-tech, straightforward means -- no motors, no holograms, no digital alterations.

Ambivalencia 37 (1984) is built like a large shadow box in which vividly colored squares seemingly levitate against a background. White lines painted on a black background create an optical flicker. The squares are set out from it with dowels. Some squares are painted with the background pattern, causing them to alternately blend into and then shimmer against the ground.

Other works use overlapping panels and shapes of Plexiglas. Parallel lines on transparent panels are set in layers against an opaque, striated background. The early pieces from the '50s use slightly rusty carriage bolts to separate the Plexi panels from the backgrounds, while artist multiples from the late '70s use sleek stainless steel. Here again, the works become active as the viewer moves past them.

Soto has still more variations on the striped background theme. In Ecriture verticale orange (1989), orange wires hang on filament stretched in front of the background, looping, angling and spiraling against the ground. It's as if the lines of a drawing were freed from the page and allowed to float and meander in space.

Volume metallique suspendu (1968) is one of the least successful, but in this group that's no bad thing. The flat copper and brass bars suspended in front of the picture plane don't achieve the optical click that the other works do.

Soto's 3 cercles (2000) achieves greater kinetic results. When you move your head from side to side, it's like watching a video. Which brings up an interesting point. We live in a digital age rife with fantastic optical effects, but there is something so refreshing and so riveting about the low-tech creativity of Soto. His work makes us work. We are not passive recipients of manufactured images, but active participants. We explore the work, and it is our eyes that generate the special effects.

 
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