Rodrigo Hernández: A Complete Unknown

Review by Daniel Shinbaum & Erin Lynch

Midway Contemporary Art 
Feb 16–April 27, 2019

When we first visited the gallery at Midway Contemporary Art to see Rodrigo Hernández’s recent exhibition, we were struck by a sense of disorientation. Instead of warm halogen ceiling lights, LED lights had been implemented as per request of the artist, casting a clinical hue over the monochrome sculptures. In the dead of winter, surrounded by a disorienting white expanse on all sides, we couldn’t help but notice continuity between the gallery’s cold lighting and the urban tundra outside. Four papier-mâché casts subtly punctuated each wall, and the room felt obscenely empty in its center, like there was something, or someone, missing. We felt the chill of isolation– during gallery hours everybody is occupied with their day job, so Midway stays empty aside from a few art workers (including ourselves and the gallery employees).

The show’s title, A Complete Unknown, is more than just a nod to the famed Minnesotan lyricist Bob Dylan, who sings the titular line in his postwar folk-rock opus “Like a Rolling Stone.” Both Hernandez’s show and Bob Dylan’s hit thematically complicate the distinction between independence and isolation. In Dylan’s pained lyrics he seems to slip between sadistically reprimanding a fallen socialite (“Miss Lonely”) and masochistically criticizing himself, but his syntax blurs these characters together. Dylan asks: “How does it feel? / To be on your own / With no direction home / A complete unknown?” It’s cathartic to hear Dylan struggle to reconcile his fame with the cost of sacrificing his humble origins. His wailing leaves a taste of melancholic nostalgia, making us reflect on what we’ve left behind.

Rather than longing for “home,” the sculptures at Midway make us nostalgic for the historic avant-gardes. Hernández references formal qualities of Russian Constructivism as if to say “look, avant-garde Constructivists ushered in the Bolshevik Revolution. Communism, togetherness!” Hernández’s sculptures are redolent of Constructivists like Aleksandr Rodchenko and El Lissitzky. They all engage with geometric abstraction; Hernández’s sculptures recall the boxy-planes and supple-lines of Rodchenko and Lissitzky’s paintings, like a model rendered from a Constructivist blueprint. However, Lissitzky painted with an idealist political motive: his “Proun” paintings were tools for deliberately crafting a new visual economy for a future society based on non-objective perception. Viewers have the independence to decide what perspective to take. In Lissitzky’s own words, “‘Proun’s power is to create aims.” A “Proun” should move the viewer to react; there’s no need to transmit a prescribed message as long as it intensely affects the viewer. Hernández internalized this lesson and makes his art totally indecipherable. At the formal level, “Proun’s” combination of multiple irreconcilable perspectival modes (axonometry and isometry) make it impossible to resolve Lissitzky’s architectural sketches into a single objective rendering. Yet Hernández does exactly that– he fabricates the pictorial illusion in physical space, totally ossifying its fluid forms in the process, and thus replacing the “Proun’s” “aims” with an already-determined destination.

In the spirit of a “Proun,” there’s no straightforward way to extract a message from the content of Hernández’s pieces– the meaning of the sculptures are ‘a complete unknown.’ Staring at the pale irregular shaped ornaments floating on the wall is like looking for meaning in the clouds: “I see a cello! I see a poodle!” When we spoke to the artist, he said that he spots shells and fruit peels in the abstract shapes, but there are innumerable ways to analogize his work. Ultimately, decoding abstract elements into legible objects becomes an act of self-expression. The value of this activity, like a Rorschach test, is that it reveals much about the viewer’s individual psychic state, but little about the image in empirical reality. Our diagnosis is that the unbridled non-objectivity in Hernandez’s show is emblematic of the current “post-truth” political landscape.

We pose this question to Hernández’s work: in a time of political upheaval, what’s the point of navel-gazing through abstract exercises in sculptural form? In recently-revolutionized Soviet Russia, abstraction certainly wasn’t pointless. Or rather, its pointlessness was precisely its utility, because having no clear direction encouraged the construction of different rivaling perspectives. Constructivism was considered so radical that Stalin outlawed it, instead endorsing Socialist Realism as the official style of the party. The Constructivist celebration of autonomy became too much of a threat to the Communist party’s dogmatic rule. While the four sculptures in the show deviate little from Constructivist stylistic convention, the strategy has been stripped of its former revolutionary potential. Now, all the seemingly “new perspectives” that geometric abstraction posits have been preemptively accounted for, so that any expression of individuality can be prescribed a value in the labor market. Far from being pointless, working with abstract art today is useful to the extent that it can be exchanged for another form of abstract value: capital. Rather than threatening the social order, today Constructivist-inspired abstraction reifies capitalism.

Hernández’s new works pale in comparison to the pervasive Op Art patterns and vibrant colors in his oeuvre– they’re literally bleached of color, a hollow shell of his earlier works, and by extension, an empty echo of Constructivism. Hernández’s Midway show lacks the utopian dimension promised by the historical avant-gardes. And how could it be any other way today? Utopia seems far less imaginable than a dystopian social collapse. The bleak greys that cloud A Complete Unknown are a fitting symptom of neoliberal austerity and inequality.