I’ve got a feeling somebody’s watching me (and you)
The NSA would feel at home in SDMA’s ‘Alexandre Arrechea’ as the artist ponders surveillance, security
By Neil Kendricks
August 9, 2007
Drawing and watercolors rarely get their due in the art world. So, it comes as a pleasant surprise to see the latest addition to the San Diego Museum of Art’s annual “Contemporary Links” series leaving a section of its exhibition space empty to give some breathing room to Alexandre Arrechea’s starkly elegant works on paper.
As with previous installments of SDMA’s ongoing series, now in its fifth year, the current show, “Contemporary Links 5 – Alexandre Arrechea: Scapel and Cotton,” revolves around a working artist creating a body of work that is inspired in varying degrees by the museum’s permanent collection.
The end result is an opportunity for Arrechea to build a conceptual and aesthetic bridge between his images and art from different time periods represented in the collection. As Arrechea’s new pieces and SDMA’s select artworks from past eras overlap, the viewer is allowed to eavesdrop on a silent, extended conversation between the featured artist and other Latin American creators like Diego Rivera, among others.
Fortunately, Arrechea isn’t heavy-handed in his approach as his work rises to the challenge with subtlety and intelligence, opening up a larger discussion about the use of surveillance and security systems in arts institutions.
At first glance, one might not think about this timely theme gazing at Leopoldo Mendez’s 1930 work “The Graineries” mounted on a wall across from Arrechea’s recent piece, “Side A – Side B.” Mendez’s engraving on paper depicts a stoic worker leaning against a basket filled to the brim with ears of corn while Arrechea’s watercolor shows a pair of boxes that are almost mirror images of each other, except for subtle differences on their surfaces.
One of the recurrent motifs in Arrechea’s new pieces is a deliberate repetition of forms. For instance, his recent diptych “Plantation” shows two architectural structures stranded in a labyrinth of identical, boxlike cubicles. The claustrophobic enclosures in Arrechea’s art lends a definite Kafkaesque quality to his imagery that is not unlike a postmodern cross between Ed Ruscha’s stark paintings of isolated structures and the popular dreamscapes of M.C. Escher.
For much of the exhibition, Arrechea allows the links to remain mostly unspoken, allowing the viewer to interpret the linkages by simply taking in the work as you move through the show’s cross-section of artworks.
However, a clearer connection between Arrechea and the artworks from SDMA’s permanent collection can be gleaned from the juxtaposition of the Cuban artist’s works and two of Rivera’s oil paintings, 1939′s “Mandragora” and 1940′s “Hands of Dr. Moore.” The viewer can see Arrechea’s shared affinity for workers and class struggle that is so much a part of Rivera’s repertoire.
The surveillance motif is also more sufficiently articulated in Arrechea’s “Cornfield,” depicting an enlarged view of a cornlike object honeycombed with peepholes. The artist renders the object stretching upward like a miniature Tower of Babel tailor-made for a society addicted to reality TV.
The show’s most intriguing piece is Arrechea’s large-scale, mixed-media sculpture “Arena.” Rather than populate this pseudo arena with tiny figures, the artist has installed a series of video monitors, which show different views of the exhibition space as well as other areas of the museum. Here, Arrechea makes the viewer literally become a voyeur, observing other museum-goers making their way through SDMA’s galleries.
At the center of this model made primarily of painted wood and metal is a projection of a digital, stylized spiderweb that is a direct reference to the cobweb glimpsed behind the woman dressed in white lace and veils in “Mandragora.” In Arrechea’s homage, the projected web is more about being ensnared in a vaguely Orwellian system that implies that “Big Brother Is Watching.”
Of course, the larger cultural resonance evoked by the metaphor of looking and simultaneously being watched isn’t lost on anyone who has ever pondered our society’s current fixation with electronic eavesdropping in the age of terror. As an intriguing and clever concept executed with no-nonsense simplicity, “Arena” proves to be very effective in conveying Arrechea’s message that no one is above the scrutiny of omnipresent surveillance cameras watching over our anxious post-9/11 world.
Neil Kendricks is a San Diego artist and writer and the film curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.