Teresita Fernández:Elemental is the first mid-career retrospective of internationally acclaimed American artist Teresita Fernández (b. 1968, Miami; lives in New York). Fernández is a conceptual artist best known for her immersive installations and sculptures and her monumental public art commissions. Her conceptually-based work is rooted in challenging conventional definitions of landscape by deconstructing traditional genres of landscape painting and Land art to reveal more urgent narratives. Fernández places particular importance on her critical choice of materials, such as gold, graphite, charcoal, and other minerals that have complex histories often tied to colonialism, land, and power.
“Landscape is often more about what you don’t see than what you do see.
I start by asking myself this very simple question: Where am I? Historically, economically, socially, racially, geographically, visually, emotionally, and physically?”
Teresita Fernández:Elemental is organized as a series of experiential installations featuring diverse works made over the past 20 years. These environments invite viewers to interact with a series of “landscapes” in an effort to prompt contemplation of identity and personal narrative through a quiet unraveling of visibility, materiality, and intertwined sociopolitical histories. Along with the new sculpture Chorus (2020), the exhibition displays together for the first time, some of Fernández’s most important sculptural works and the presentation of her rarely seen drawings, which offer an intimate view into her artistic practice. More recent series, such as Fire (United States of the Americas) (2017–19) and Viñales (2015–19), address the political and social complexities of landscape.
As a whole, Elemental asks viewers to confront established notions about who they are through a deeper understanding of where they are, while also offering exuberant, visually dazzling artworks that reference the cosmos, the subterranean, natural phenomena, and the palpable beauty of the natural world.
Fire (2005) depicts a suspended ring of thousands of silk strings that create an optically shimmering, animated flame. “There are always two scales functioning in my work simultaneously,” the artist states. “The big, immersive, physical piece is often made up of small, accumulated elements that can only be absorbed up close and intimately. A piece like Fire reveals itself progressively as you get closer to it and realize that the entire ring of suspended color is constructed from many fine dyed silk threads.”
The artist’s recent use of fire imagery, however, proposes a more urgent, threatening narrative. Fire (America) (2016–19) is composed of several works that question how American violence is framed according to who is telling the story. It is also a reference to Fernández’s interest in how indigenous people have shaped and cultivated the land through slash-and-burn techniques to promote its sustainability, exposing the myth of a pristine American wilderness prior to European contact.
Fire, 2005. Silk, yarn, steel armature, and epoxy. Collection SFMOMA; Accessions Committee Fund purchase. Created in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.
In works such as Fire (America) 5 (2017) and Fire (America) 6 (2019), Fernández creates night scenes made of rich, color-saturated, glazed ceramic tesserae depicting landscapes engulfed in flames. These works provide visual representations of the erased, warped, and invisible histories that are deliberately omitted from our perception of what we define as the American landscape.
Surrounding the viewer is Charred Landscape (America) (2019), a horizon line of raw, sculptural, charcoal “land masses” made from burned wood that transforms into diffused gestural charcoal drawings created directly on the walls. The dramatic images have an almost cinematic effect, suggesting a panoramic landscape scene dissolving into smoke.
The largest wall work on view in this series is Fire (United States of the Americas) 3 (2017–19). Made from solid charcoal elements arranged in the shape of the continental United States, the piece emerges from a wall of gestural, smoky, hand-drawn marks depicting a country burning, falling, and slipping away. About the work, Fernández states:
The piece reinserts the shape of Mexico into the map, newly configured and reimagined as so immense that its redemptive, ghostlike presence starts to dissolve into the cosmos, looming large over the United States. The charred image prompts viewers to contemplate and question the social history of the United States of America—only here are we in the habit of using the term “America” in its singular form. Throughout the rest of the Western Hemisphere, the term is customarily used in its plural form, “the Americas.”
Fire (United States of the Americas) 3, 2017–19. Charcoal. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul. Photo: Beth Devillier.
Graphite has become a significant elemental material in Fernández’s practice. Her sculpture Drawn Waters (Borrowdale) (2009), made of raw and machined graphite, is a reference to Borrowdale, England, a rural landscape where graphite was first discovered in the 1500s and where the pencil industry was born. Fernández says:
The idea that the pencil that you are drawing with could come from a physical landscape, where you could stand on that landscape and everything underneath your feet would be solid graphite, became another way for me to think about the act of drawing and Land art. Drawn Waters (Borrowdale) is like making a sculpture that’s really a drawing, a kind of dimensional, physical smudge. So that the act of drawing, the object of drawing, and the physical landscape become one and the same. To assemble the parts of a sculpture like Drawn Waters (Borrowdale) becomes precisely to engage in making a drawing.
Similarly, Sfumato (2019) is an immersive, site-specific installation that sweeps across the walls of the gallery like an organic, dissolving swarm. It is made of thousands of small rocks of raw, mined graphite—each with a feathery drawn mark that emanates from it like a cosmic trail. Sfumato’s scale shifts from intimate to vast, from miniature to panoramic so the work appears like a spreading constellation from a distance. Up close, the individual graphite elements each become their own tiny, solid landscape.
Fernández’s use of graphite, a mined, subterranean material, can also be seen in her Nocturnal series (2009–17), where dark-relief, graphite panels allude to mysterious night scenes and explore the material’s sculptural qualities beyond its common association to traditional modes of drawing. The panels suggest monochromatic, minimalist paintings, but the dimensional, carved, polished, and layered graphite slowly transforms to reveal a reflected surface of lustrous relief landscape paintings.
Drawn Waters (Borrowdale), 2009. Natural and machined graphite on steel armature. Sfumato, 2009. Graphite and magnets, dimensions variable. Installation view: Lehmann Maupin, New York, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul.
Inspired by the iconic and surreal rural landscape of the Viñales Valley in Cuba, the Viñales series (2015–19) embodies Fernández’s mastery in combining earthen materials, such as malachite mineral rocks, with her conceptual approach toward place and image-making. Installed in a darkened room, the principal sculpture, Viñales (Reclining Nude), consists of malachite and bronze rock formations cascading down a series of cast-concrete pedestals. The work’s title suggests the feminine forms of the valley’s mogotes, or rolling hills, as a reclining feminine body, and the entrance to the room becomes like a cervix, opening to the interior.
Fernández draws from her personal experience in the elaborate cave system of the Viñales Valley. Used since prehistoric times, the caves were once occupied by Taino indigenous people before colonization and were later used as a place of refuge for Maroons, or runaway slaves, who fled from surrounding plantations to freedom and formed small communes by hiding in the caves by day. As viewers engage with the immersive sculpture, the suggested landscape expands and contracts, prompting them to visually construct the image and become the size of what they are looking at.
Here, Fernández uses malachite rocks brought from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for their visual similarities to the lush, vibrant, and green Viñales Valley. This choice of material asserts what Fernández refers to as “stacked landscapes.” The malachite comes from a real landscape in the Congo and is used to create another imagined landscape, in the process highlighting the historical, cultural, and conflicted colonial relationship between Africa and Cuba. The idea is that when viewers unravel the landscape, they are always in more than one place simultaneously. Surrounding glazed ceramic panels reveal mineral-like, subterranean views that further reinforce the idea of the caves as protective, womb-like interiors.
Viñales (Reclining Nude), 2015. Wakkusu concrete. bronze, and malachite. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul.
Fernández’s Night Writing series (2011) draws from the universal human experience of looking up at the night sky for information. “Like a vast billboard, the night sky has always been read and scanned for revelation, direction, and guidance,” Fernández says. “It is our first calendar, our first clock, the place where we humans have always looked up for orientation and our coordinates.”
The title of the series is a reference to “Écriture Nocturne,” a code devised in the early 19th century to enable Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers to communicate at night, silently and without light. The code was also an early precursor to braille.
Each sumptuous, paper-pulp image of the night sky in the series is covered with words that have been translated into braille patterns, which become an abstracted field of perforated constellation points superimposed onto a mirror backing. Each dot appears to flicker, catching reflections of viewers moving in front of the works.
Artworks such as Night Writing (Tristan and Isolde) (2011) and Night Writing (Hero and Leander) (2011) contain cryptic words lost in an undecipherable code of dots. The works become a statement on the ephemeral quality of abstracted language as viewers attempt to grasp the content hidden within the invisible text. Fernández’s works often explore this subtle space between blindness, vision, and the tactile.
Night Writing (Hero and Leander), 2011. Colored and shaped pulp paper with inkjet assembled with mirror. Made in collaboration with Singapore Tyler Print Institute. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul.
Fernández’s Golden series (2013–15) luminously illustrates the artist’s conceptual specificity when using mined materials to connect the cosmos with the subterranean, what is above with what is below. The works are made with India ink on chromed, golden surfaces. Regarding her 2014–15 show As Above So Below at Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, Fernández says:
I’m very interested in the idea of gold as a cultural phenomena in ancient traditions of mining that originated in Africa, China, and Mesoamerica well before the more familiar European traditions ever evolved. Gold is present all over the world and has, across every time period and culture, been synonymous with the sun, with light, with radiance—subterranean metals connected to their heavenly counterparts. But my use of gold is also a very deliberate reference to colonization. The history of gold as a material is also, always, the history of landscape in the Americas, of land, conquest, power and, by default, of the erasure and decimation of indigenous peoples for European greed.
Nishijin Sky, 2014. Silk, polyester, paper, nylon, brass, and aluminum. Made in collaboration with HOSOO, Kyoto, Japan. Courtesy the artist. and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul. Photo: Noboru Morikawa.
Descending into the lower gallery, the perforated, laser-cut work titled Untitled (Green) (2019) is suspended above viewers’ heads to mirror the floor below. The recurring use of mirrored surfaces in works such as Untitled (1997), Ghost (Vines) (2013), and Untitled (Round Light) (2019) illustrates Fernández’s desire to dynamically return the reflections of viewers to implicate them as “viewers in the landscape” and activate the works’ surfaces.
The installation Borrowed Landscape (Citron, Cerulean, Violet, Blue) (1998) is made of sculptural volumes of colored light, sheer fabric, and wood that hover in a dark room and exist somewhere between architecture, sculpture, and painting. Each “room” has a floor covered with thousands of miniature, hand-drawn shapes taken from 17th-century garden hedge patterns. Together, they read simultaneously as rugs and aerial landscape views, toggling between scales to create something akin to an indoor landscape or an outdoor room. Much like in a real garden, viewers trace the space by walking through the mazelike, geometric volumes that contract and expand into shifting vistas.
Borrowed Landscape (Citron, Cerulean, Violet, Blue), 1998. Wood, fabric, oculus light, graphite, and paint. Originally commissioned at Artpace, San Antonio, Texas. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Teresita Fernández is a 2005 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and the recipient of a number of awards, including a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship and a Louis Comfort Tiffany Biennial Award in 1999. Appointed by President Barack Obama, she was the first Latina to serve on the United States Commission of Fine Arts, a 100-year-old federal panel that advises the president and Congress on national matters of design and aesthetics. Her new public art project, Paradise Parados, will be installed on the rooftop of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater in 2020. Fernández’s recent site-specific commissions include Viñales (Mayombe Mississippi), New Orleans Museum of Art, Sculpture Garden (2019); Island Universe, Ford Foundation, New York (2019); Autumn (. . . Nothing Personal), Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2018); Stacked Waters, Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin (2009); Blind Blue Landscape, Benesse Art Site, Naoshima, Japan (2009); and Seattle Cloud Cover, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle (2006).
Teresita Fernandez, Brooklyn, NY.
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION
Teresita Fernández: Elemental is co-organized by Phoenix Art Museum and Pérez Art Museum Miami. Its premiere at Phoenix Art Museum is made possible through the generosity of the Ford Foundation, The Diane & Bruce Halle Foundation, Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust Exhibition Endowment Fund, Meredith and Charles von Arentschildt, and National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by Lee and Mike Cohn. It is also made possible through the generosity of the Museum’s Circles of Support and Museum Members.