NO MONSTERS, NO PARADISE
Curated by Byte Footage (Julieta Gómez Blumen and Julia Szejnblum)
By Ian Cofre, December 14, 2023
Heroic landscape painting must be a result at once of a deep and comprehensive reception of the visible spectacle of external nature, and of this inward process of the mind.
— Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, Volume 2 (1849)
The ewaipanoma, a headless creature, welcomes you to the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts, which hosted Chilean artist Cristóbal Cea’s first US solo exhibition, the recently closed No Monsters, No Paradise, curated by Byte Footage. I resist calling the ewaipanoma a monster, because it does not strike fear, so much as embody difference. Drooping eyes sit atop even droopier jowls, a visage vaguely reminiscent of the artist, but this face is situated in its upper chest. In the single-channel video Ewaipanoma timido, 2023, it emerges tentatively from behind the same pillars one finds in the next gallery, noticeably empty of the verdant paintings that depict the purported monsters’ habitats, and which serve as the foregrounded background to the exhibition.
Whispering shyly in the artist’s voice to the viewer—immediately dissolving the fourth wall—, it spills that it finds itself here brought into being by “Walter,” that is, Sir Walter Raleigh. Cea’s varied 3D versions of monsters interpret the depictions in the retellings of 15th and 16th century explorers—then colonizers—of the American continent, who exoticized and mythologized the landscape and people they did not know to dehumanizing effect. Where the mythological and technological meet, Cea not only sees monsters, but also the instrumentalisation of aesthetics. This premise allows Cea to tackle the question of the coercive effects of projection, a priori knowledge, and the imagination, situating the viewer to deal with its lingering consequences and possible recurrence with current technological advances.
Ewaipanoma timido, 2023, 1-Channel Full-HD Animation on C-Stand. Photo: Ian Cofre
Nobody asked me
Top Left: Patagonia, 2023, 1-Channel Full-HD Animation; Top Right: AI Wonder, 2023, 1-channel Full-HD Animation on C-Stand; Bottom Left: Forever Waiting, 2023, 4-channel Full HD Animation. Photo: Melissa Blackall
To give this exhibition form, Cea brings together several experimental throughlines in his practice, which he has been working with since the COVID-19 lockdown: a return to painting; the use of artificial intelligence as a tool; and what he calls the animated unconscious, explored in previous exhibitions and works in The Extended Thing (2020-22) and Bernardo’s Dream (2022). He integrates Stable Diffusion’s hallucinatory metamorphoses to render videos of the Patagon giants in different textures (Patagonia, 2023), a moving portrait of the Sea Wonder (AI Wonder, 2023), and even a kaleidoscopic array of Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat (Forever Waiting, 2023), but in this last work, a vertical 4-screen array, the effect is pushed into the most compelling territory.
Interspersed with inky, childlike line drawings that seem to emanate from the cabling, the aforementioned ewaipanoma has several short utterances and apparently inconsequential monologues that belie their profundity. It is a coy ventriloquist act that reminds one of Jordan Wolfson’s puppetries, but one that elides the violence that has wrought it and the other surrounding monsters. The headless character also interacts across the spatial chasm with its mirrored other, a clumsy Cannibal Boy—a bespectacled, recurring avatar for the artist, outfitted in a moose hat. They are both consequences of a bewildering 500-year game of colonization, whose rules they’ve inherited, both of them objects that conform to a cycle that has yet to be broken. Cea’s 3D golem regains some agency to explain itself on its own terms, and by doing so, puts the viewer in a position of having to reconcile with other minds, their emerging awareness of their conditions, and reluctance to play along.
Holiday in chaco, 2023, acrylic on canvas and magnets, 53 x 102 inches. Photo: Melissa Blackall
Harnessing the generative wellspring of Stable Diffusion fueled the artist’s hybrid approach and turn back to painting, which makes Cea somewhat of a scientist/artist in the vein of the archetype advocated by Alexander von Humboldt, German explorer of the Americas. Emphasizing the physiognomy of plants versus a taxonomic approach, Humboldt longed for the artist who could produce an artwork that inscribes an objective and interconnected view of nature with their intuition. Humboldt’s ghost and that of Frederic Edwin Church, who took up the challenge, haunt the artist’s series of acrylic works on canvas. There’s more than a passing resemblance to The Heart of the Andes (1859) in Holiday in Chaco, but unlike Church’s heroics, Cea is happy to undercut the self-seriousness with a tongue-in-cheek title or the deadpan, floating 3D-printed magnets of organs applied to certain works. Instead, his paintings are not prescriptive, yet are evocative of a place in the process of forming, disappearing, and collapsing. Call it anti-heroic painting, and it has more in common with other contemporary practitioners’ work with implied landscapes, like the series Profiles in Fugitive Light by Tom McGrath, the non-existent structures by Puerto Rican artist Gamaliel Rodriguez, or even fellow Chilean artist Jorge Tacla’s enigmatic, spatial abstractions. The artificiality of landscape is further underscored by a contribution to the exhibition from Constanza Alarcón Tennen, whose 30-minute sound work of squawking birds, chirping insects, and jungle sounds sampled from geographically varied sources helps to invent a seemingly stable backdrop to the paintings and exhibition.
No Monsters, No Paradise marks a transitional moment for Cea, because it articulates a holistic view of his practice, and not a moment too soon. At a recent walkthrough, Cea discussed how, as a digital artist, his work has already been made redundant by AI systems, whose creativity is unbounded by an historical arc or facts. He also alluded to a way to outrun the undesirable ends of this current melding of myth and technology: the Science of Truth. It is likely an inexact science, however, because through a mix of the real and virtual, a hybridity of tools and materials, and a jump in timescales, the artist’s transtemporal allegory flourishes to reveal greater truths.
Image Left: Perder la cabeza, 2023, acrylic on canvas and magnets 57 x 47 inches; La Cueva, 2023, acrylic on canvas and magnets, 57 x 57 inches. Photo: Melissa Blackall
Image Right: Forever Waiting, 2023, 4-channel Full HD Animation. Photo: Melissa Blackall
Header Image: Forever Waiting (excerpt), 2023, 4-channel Full HD Animation. Photos: Ian Cofre