You’re in an art gallery. From the ceiling hangs a jumble of lights arranged in lines and aimed at the middle of the walls, small yellow petals all gazing at a single point like a gravity-defying bed of sunflowers. You don’t see them. You walk round the paintings trying to form an opinion, trying to decide which ones you like. You don’t see what lies behind them either: neither the mechanical systems used to keep the canvas taut, nor the manner in which they have been hung, nor the many hours which have gone into the detail on the walls. At most, you assess the relationship between the paintings, the line they form, the constellation they produce. One might say that your mind operates in rectangles: you can see individual rectangles, as well as generate and recognize sequences of rectangles. There are no technical descriptions or information of any kind, since this is a gallery and not a museum. Ask whatever you need to know at the desk at the back, at which a desinterested young man is working at a computer. Perhaps he can give you a printed sheet filled with measurements and dates, or maybe a text or some kind of brochure. You continue looking at the paintings.
It’s not that you don’t sense that you are, of course, in a real space. In fact, you are within a display device, typically called “white cube”, a device so sophisticated that virtually anything can be exhibited without any loss of the certainty that something is being exhibited, and usually without the customer having to suffer the tiresome experience of not knowing what to do faced with such a banal, tautological and problematic situation, of witnessing something being exhibited. In the case of paintings, this system of rules operates in an outstandingly mechanized fashion – you are there, and you look at paintings. Questioning this experience and describing some of the uses of painting in the current artistic system appear to be what Valentina Liernur expects of the spectators at her latest exhibition, Fiebre [Fever]. Also inherent in this task is a truly dynamic experience of sensory immersion in what appears to be no more than a collection of large pieces mounted eclectically in the basement of the Ruth Benzacar Gallery. Right from the word go, these pieces reflect a mild disagreement on Liernur’s part with the usual subjects and processes of contemporary painting: the predominance of intimate scenes, slices of life and ambiguous landscapes, incomplete characters and color fields, and everything stripped bare –just as represented by thousands of painters the length and breadth of the various places and cultures in which the contemporary art market has spread like measles in the twenty-first century. With a degree of ennui and irreverence, Liernur has closed ranks using some
very different processes which surprisingly are not found in the current scene. In her work, the previous checklist is turned on its head point by point: lack of traces of narrative elements, the omission of jokes, technical complexity (oils, acrylics, aerosols, stencils), superposition, the use of a faded, but striated plane, and a work ethic which appears far removed from pictorial “apathy” and closer to Stakhanovism in the early years of the Russian Revolution. These elements create a type of image which is very dense and difficult to grasp. But what’s more, the process is extended to the space: more than just a series of individual pieces, Fiebre is also an installation comprising all of them, the objective of which is to subvert the conventional form of displaying paintings.
Using a system of very strong, cold, reflected lighting, Liernur generates an atmosphere of neutral light which is deliberately insufficent and at the same time provides spatial relief to the large banks of lights positioned up close. The paintings themselves are displayed in two sets: medium-sized pieces hung on the walls, and large canvases mounted on intersecting commercial display boards, some of them with bare frames, in the middle of the room. The spectator, therefore, doesn’t just see paintings but also, first and foremost, recognizes the conditions inherent in a normal visit to an exhibition. This investigation into display mechanisms (eviscerated and exposed to the light in the very space where they normally reign in silence) is echoed in the maneuvers effected within the images. The large paintings emphasize a pattern of lines which creates an interference between two visual fields. The others, less programmatic and more temperamental, disregard the system of lines but also appear to emerge from the accumulation of different paintings. Lines, blots, light effects, echoes of a stencilled object, entire color systems superimposed on a canvas: there is so much information in the images that with just one of the paintings any of the artists who created a slogan for the collection would be able to paint a hundred pictures over a period of ten or fifteen years simply by making small changes from one to the next. The mechanics of striation, aerosoling, scraping, erasing, etc result in a visual vocabulary full of action, but which takes no account of anything that happens outwith what is materially visible. These methods refer us to the visual culture of the avant-gardes of history, characterized by the submission of the image to every possible type of violence, in a wide range of “isms” from the second decade of the 20th century onwards. (The idea of an “iconoclastic art”, repeatedly associated with the concept of “modern art”, refers not only to the worship of all things new, but also, literally, to the destruction of the image.)
Fever takes up these ideas and extends them beyond the paintings to its presentational framework, in line with the tradition which started with the display devices of surrealism and Russian constructivism (the coat stands used by El Lissitsky are not far removed from the black-tubed scaffolding) and could include Hélio Oiticica. But if we are talking about display systems, what we see here is, above all, a commercial display environment, because everything appears to be arranged like a clothes store, with areas of interest ranging from stand-out products to little corners with heaped-up pieces for those who have more time to walk around. There is definitely something
commercial at play, even at the entrance to the gallery where we can see Liernur’s initials in a form inspired by the iconic logo of Yves Saint Laurent. The titles of the paintings (Fever 2010 #1, #2, etc) also allude to a fashion collection. In all these cases, Liernur plays with devices belonging to the fashion industry. And in this way another layer of problems is torn from within the paintings.
If at first glance the pieces function as a tool for undertaking an analysis of display systems, the paintings also contain a huge amount of sensorial information. The changing colors and textures involves a search for “sensitive concepts” of the type used in marketing, through the association of formal elements with consumer behavior, trends or even states of mind. Liernur, therefore, apes the thoughts of a fashion designer developing an idea for next season’s new collection, whilst at the same time her paintings simulate complex creations of sensitivity ready to be bought and give us a new bouquet of sensations and experiences. Is that not what happens when we see a shirt or a pair of shoes that we like? Do we not surrender – willingly or not – to the promise of happiness implicit in a bunch of shapes and colors? Does the same not happen with any household item? Liernur’s paintings place the spectator in a position of feeling the same as one does when one looks sucessfully for the right size in an item of clothing that one likes, that moment in which every consumer surrenders to what Marx once called the “science of commodities” (Warenkunde), a science which was never developed and whose function would be to study the use value of goods, as opposed to properly-called political economy, solely interested in their exchange value and in the idea of abstract work. This idea preceded contemporary studies of markets and product design, including so many examples of synergy between culture and the economy that today they might be included in what Tomás Maldonado has called “the science of preferential behaviors”; in other words, the study of social, cultural and cognitive motivations underlying esthetic judgments.
One defence – impudent, but nevertheless steadfast – of certain modern artistic ideas thus takes the form of a role play, in which the artist, her creations and the public become agents of the system of production and consumption of esthetic values associated with fashion. The reenactment of the symptom is superimposed on its very diagnosis: Fever reveals the standard norms that we find again and again in art exhibitions, and in this way the spectator is aware of the sense of his own behavior, as if for a moment, before going into another shop and continuing to look around, we didn’t wonder whether the products weren’t in fact talking to us.