By Water, By Fire

Teresita Fernández: Elemental on view through January 3, 2021

To use beauty and pleasure to seduce viewers into engaging with a social issue is an effective strategy. To extend that approach to enable connections and interactions between disparate communities makes it powerful and important.

Amada Cruz in “Teresita Fernández and Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Something Personal” from the Teresita Fernández: Elemental exhibition catalogue

The dazzling and luminous works of Teresita Fernández often leave audiences breathless, in awe of their shimmering surfaces, undulating lines, and monumental stature. But the artist’s sculptures, installations, and mixed-media wall works illuminate more than the galleries in which they inhabit, ask more of their audiences than mere admiration. They are spaces through which Fernández, a 2005 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, has redefined the landscape entirely, presenting it as a site of collaboration and conflict, introspection and interrogation—as something far beyond just a pretty view.

On view now through January 3, 2021, Teresita Fernández: Elemental at Phoenix Art Museum presents nearly 60 large-scale works that expand on notions of landscape and the psychology of looking and reinterpret the relationship between material, history, nature, and the sociopolitical references tied to place. The first major traveling exhibition and retrospective of Fernández’s work—and the first exhibition co-organized by Phoenix Art Museum and Pérez Art Museum Miami—Elemental spans the mid-1990s to the present, showcasing immersive artworks and environments made from materials such as silk, glass, graphite, mirrors, onyx, and charcoal, and that contemplate the landscape as a natural setting, a place for social interaction, and a canvas for political violence.

In an interview with Cultured, Fernández, who was born in 1968 in Miami to Cuban parents and is based in New York, explained her fascination with the word chosen as the exhibition’s subtitle:

Elemental” means the powers of nature: atmospheric, environmental. But it also means essential—the raw core of something that can’t be reduced. The word encompasses the physicality of natural elements themselves—fire, water, earth—but also the hidden, underlying core of a substance, which is more elusive. It’s this quality that’s harder to pinpoint or to name; it’s so often rendered invisible on purpose.

For more than two decades, Fernández has conjured images of natural elements and created with earthen materials, perhaps in an effort to solve the mystery of this raw, underlying core, this elemental essence. Her works of fire, water, and earth, however, are never meant to serve as standalone objects, stagnant artworks in white-walled galleries. They are, instead, sites of participation, intimate and unpredictable spaces in which viewers are encouraged to consider the elements separately, as well as their relationship to them.

Untitled (1997), for example, is a mirrored floor sculpture that evokes the pool from the myth of Narcissus. A straightforward interpretation of water, the work references voyeurism but encourages self-reflection, asking viewers to activate the piece by looking, both down into the artwork and into themselves. In doing so, they are led to contemplate the relationship between art observer and art object, between human and nature. Can one hold meaning without the other?

Teresita Fernández, Fire, 2005. Silk yarn, steel armature, epoxy. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. (Created in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia) © Teresita Fernández.

Teresita Fernández, Fire, 2005. Silk yarn, steel armature, epoxy. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. (Created in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia) © Teresita Fernández.

Fire (2005) similarly relies on audience activation. A suspended sculpture made of thousands of hand-dyed silk threads, its flame patterns stand at ease until they are animated by light and air as viewers move around them. Like Untitled (1997), it presents an interpretation of a physical element, but its essence, its magic cannot be revealed without those who encounter it.

Image credits (left to right) Teresita Fernández, Fire (United States of the Americas) 2, 2018. Charcoal; 137 x 442 x 1 in. (overall). Installation view, Fire (United States of the Americas) 2, McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX, 2018. Courtesy the artist; Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul; and McNay Art Museum; Teresita Fernández, Night Writing (Hero and Leander), 2011. Colored and shaped paper pulp with inkjet assembled with mirror. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul; and Singapore Tyler Print Institute; Teresita Fernández, Drawn Waters (Borrowdale), 2009. Natural and machine graphite on steel armature. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul.

Nocturnal (Horizon Line) pivots and takes a different approach. In the 2010 work, graphite is both Fernández’s material and subject. Inspired by the history of Borrowdale in Cumbria, England, where graphite was first mined, the work is an interpretation of the same natural resource from which it was derived.

“Graphite has been a popular art-making material since the 16th century,” said Melissa Hendrickson in an online article on Elemental for Smithsonian Magazine. “It was a favorite of Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, who used graphite to create some of the earliest ‘landscapes’ in Western art history.”

Fernández, however, does more than use graphite to passively sketch a landscape, Hendrickson points out. Instead, she sculpts with it and transforms the graphite itself into a landscape, one which viewers are free to consider or onto which they may project their own meaning. What the striated and marbled gray panels mean to them is not for Fernández to say.

Fernández’s landscapes have, however, transitioned in recent years, still referencing the elements, still searching for their essential, irreducible cores and the human relationship to them, but now with a greater political edge. Without apology and with crystal clarity, Fernández examines the landscape as a convergent space, where physical and social meet, where the aggression and violence of the colonizers and the disenfranchisement and resistance of the colonized define every reality. And she considers this topic—interrogates it, even—with fire.

The story of Fire (United States of the Americas) 3 (2017/2019) is a harrowing one. Made from charcoal elements arranged in the shape of the United States, it presents a nation smoldering at every edge, its ashes floating to the feet of those who stand before it. With an ominous outline of Mexico extending from the country’s West Coast, it demands silent contemplation on a U.S.-Mexico history marked by the destructive forces of Western expansion.

“Since the 19th century, when the United States invaded Mexico and devised a treaty that claimed more than half of Mexico’s territory, the United States has consistently backed coups throughout Latin America,” Fernández said in an article for The New York Times. “It has militarized right-wing groups; intervened in elections, civil wars and revolutions; and ignited wars, massacres and gang violence that have left deep scars, forcing the impoverished and imperiled to move north seeking asylum. In the 1930s, President Herbert Hoover started a mass deportation program that expelled 1.8 million Mexicans from the United States, 60 percent of whom were legal citizens. Such stories of American history are largely unknown to a great many United States citizens.”

Fire (America) 5 (2017) similarly exposes—enlightens—with flames. The work again suggests a national landscape ablaze, this time with the harsh and uncomfortable realities of America, as articulated through the polarizing political rhetoric of the tumultuous 2016 U.S. presidential election. It may also, however, elicit contemplation on the destructive yet regenerative powers of environmental practices. Is it warning us of the repercussions of deforestation, offshore drilling, fracking, and the like, efforts that continue to devastate the Earth? Or perhaps it is an allusion to the ways in which Indigenous peoples have for centuries used controlled burns to modify the landscape.

Teresita Fernández, Borrowed Landscape, 1998. Wood, fabric, oculus light, pencil, paint. Originally commissioned at Artpace, A Foundation for Contemporary Art/San Antonio, TX. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul. Video ©2019 Pérez Art Museum Miami.

With its astounding variety of materials, works, and subjects, Teresita Fernández: Elemental provides countless opportunities for meaningful interaction and contemplation, its stunning showcase of experiential and intimate creations powerful enough to hold the attention of even the most nascent art-museum visitor with its beauty. In correspondence with Amada Cruz, the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO of Seattle Art Museum and the former Sybil Harrington Director and CEO of Phoenix Art Museum, who co-curated the exhibition,* Fernández offers insight into the role beauty can play in art and political work:

“There is a sidestepping that beauty employs. It’s not that the work is ‘about’ social justice. . . . It’s that the beauty in an artwork can be used as a springboard to attach other urgencies. Beauty seduces, it holds attention, it creates a space and a pause where other messages can be lodged gently, subtly placed to linger. The word ‘aesthetic’ in its original form actually means ‘to make aware’ . . . artists in turn enable [people] to feel palpably connected.”

But connected to what? To art? To themselves and each other? To history, the Earth, and the universe? With consideration for Teresita Fernández: Elemental, the answer is likely, “All of the above.”

Obras cuyos recorridos ‘acogen’ al espectador dentro de una especie de enviroment, invitándole a pensar sobre su existencia y realidad, bajo coordenadas espacios temporales trazadas por estas obras. En esa experiencia afloran dudas y certezas.

Dennys Matos, El Nuevo Herald

The work of the New York-based artist Teresita Fernández engages with two of the most pressing issues of the day—environmental catastrophe and political instability—while also holding personal significance.

Osman Can Yerebakan, The New York Times

Fernández’s work draws from the natural world, though in her hands, it becomes refracted and lambent, less simulacrum than experience. Her images of fire seem hot; her materials—onyx, glass, mirrors—earthen. Her world is dreamlike: the landscape rhetorical. Or its own kind of body.

Monica Uszerowicz, Cultured
Teresita Fernández: Elemental 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 and Art Solutions & Installations. It is also made possible through the generosity of the Museum’s Circles of Support and Museum Members.
*Teresita Fernández: Elemental was also co-curated by Franklin Sirmans, Director of Pérez Art Museum Miami, and María Elena Ortiz, Associate Curator of Pérez Art Museum Miami, with Gilbert Vicario, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs and the Selig Family Chief Curator of Phoenix Art Museum.
Header image credit: Installation view, Teresita Fernández: Elemental, 2020. Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum.

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