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With the exhibition of works by Luis Tomasello, Sicardi Gallery brings yet another little-known Latin American master of avant-garde work to the attention of Houston. Like Venezuelan artists Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jesús-Rafael Soto, the Argentinean Tomasello creates optically kinetic work activated by the movement of the viewer. All three of the artists moved to Paris in the '50s, enjoying and invigorating that city's artistic climate. Soto and Cruz-Diez were highlighted in the epic 2004 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston exhibition "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America," which revealed a wealth of phenomenal work that the American art world had been all but oblivious to. Although Tomasello was included in a 1965 Museum of Modern Art show, "The Responsive Eye," his work has rarely been shown in the United States. This is his first Houston exhibition.
Unlike most of the work by his Venezuelan peers, Tomasello's body of optically kinetic art is rooted in three-dimensional form rather than retinal flickers caused by color, transparency or line. Tomasello attaches three-dimensional, geometric objects to panels that hang on the wall like paintings. The attachments physically alter and activate the picture plane. It's like creating a topographic map of an abstract painting. The artist's fascination lies in the way light strikes these protrusions, changing the appearance of the work.
The Sicardi exhibition is dominated by white-on-white works that use the simple materials of wood and paint to create optical effects. In Objet Plastique No. 796 (1997), an approximately three-foot square panel has a grid of slender dowels projecting out from it perpendicularly, like a bed of nails. The square field of dowels is cut down to varying heights to create the outline of another square within it. The effect is similar to that of those museum gift shop toys, the ones with all the tiny metal pins that duplicate the shape of your face or your hand or whatever you press up against it. By alternating their heights, the artist creates the appearance of a square sinking into the surface. The surface seems to undulate as the overlapping shadows of the taller dowels create a sense of density. The piece changes depending on where you're standing, and it's definitely one of the more active and engaging works in the show.
When color does appear in the whiteness of the show, it is judiciously and subtly doled out. Tomasello is much more interested in reflections of color than in pigment itself. In works like Atmosphere Chromoplastique No. 315 (1973), Tomasello paints color on the back sides of polyhedrons anchored to the surface. The viewer hardly ever sees the color, only its reflection on the white surface.
No. 315 uses a grid of pentahedrons. I had to Google that name -- they're the same shape that would result if you sliced off the very top of the Washington Monument. Tomasello painted the pointed tops of the pentahedrons a bright kelly green and left the flat bottoms white. Then he attached them to the painting's panel from one of their angled sides. From frontal views, you just see an arrangement of white squares covering the square panel, glued at different angles to create the design of a rectangle. When you stand in front the work, you see only a haze of green light reflected onto the white surface of the panel in between the squares. Only by looking at the painting from the side at an acute angle can you see the green paint.
It's controlled work that still manages to engage the viewer. You play with different viewing angles to see how things change, standing up close to No. 315, for example, and realizing that a haze of green is a reflection rather than paint. Tomasello's art is dominated by his interest in form, pattern and subtle, reflected color. The way light hits his work and creates shadows continually alters their appearance and color.
The decidedly low-tech materials Tomasello uses are an intriguing aspect of his work. There's one panel that looks like glossy white Formica, but all of the others are painted wood panels with painted wooden attachments. Where Soto would use wire and Plexiglas and Cruz-Diez would employ strips of aluminum, Tomasello takes it upon himself to create geometry out of natural materials. There's something appealing and down-to-earth about taking a humble, imprecise natural material and trying to create geometric precision out of it. The downside is that sometimes the attachments can feel a little awkward or clunky, and they don't often achieve the kind of sleek visual spectacle that can occur in the work of Soto and especially Cruz-Diez.
But Tomasello's use of form is compelling, and in certain works the panels start to feel extraneous. You begin to want more of the forms without the convention of the panels. Tomasello apparently does, too. The artist, who turns 90 this year, is still hard at work and pursuing new projects that take his optical and spatial experiments large-scale, becoming sculptural and architectural. Breaking away from the picture plane seems like a logical, exciting and overdue step for the artist.