Leonor Antunes' Discrepancies at the Museo Tamayo
Entering Leonor Antunes's latest exhibition, Discrepancies with Clara Porset at Mexico City´s Tamayo Museum is not only a visual experience; hanging, knotted leather sculptures and varnished wooden screens exude a warm, musky odor. Dim, bare-bulb lamps light the exhibition rooms, illuminating some of Ms. Antunes's sculptures while allowing others to remain in the shadows. Hanging woven objects, made of ultra-thin brass wire, descend from the atrium ceiling, ethereal and impervious to iPhone photos. Scattered throughout the museum are several furniture-like objects, seemingly impractical in their design, size, and structure but nonetheless welcoming of visitors to use them, or to at least imagine how they could be used.
Sensual, though more appropriate than visual in describing Discrepancies, does not do justice to the range of feelings the exhibit evokes. Visitors may feel the natural impulse to impose meaning on the sculptures, only to find themselves barred from making easy assumptions. Are the horizontal leather hangings meant to resemble human forms? Are they harnesses? Are we in a dungeon or an absurdist workshop? And there are deeper layers of connection and meaning—including a wordless commentary on the legacy of early 20th century Cuban designer Clara Porset—that deserve mulling over. “There is a certain precariousness and instability in the work,” Antunes tells me. It is as if Antunes (b. Lisbon, 1972) is having a private conversation, both with Porset and with the museum space as a zone of mysteries and epiphanies. Thus the central puzzle of the work: Antunes visualizes the gap between the representational world and the ambiguous, albeit calculated world of visual synecdoche that lies beside it.
What is not ambiguous about the exhibit is its conceptual basis in the methodology and design of Clara Porset. Born in Matanzas, Cuba in 1895, Porset studied in the US and Europe, working with Walter Gropius and Anni and Josef Albers. Disillusioned with the political situation in 1930s Cuba, Porset relocated to Mexico City. Inspired both by her experiences working with prominent designers and by the rich, local craft of Mexico, Porset began producing modernist furniture made of indigenous materials and techniques. Despite her association with some of the most well-recognized designers of the 20th century, Porset remains rather unknown outside of Latin America. Ms. Antunes explains that she first began investigating Clara Porset on a research trip to Mexico City in 2007. Her subsequent projects—on Anni Albers and Lina Bo Bardi—always touched on Porset´s work, but never addressed it directly.
Antunes duplicates and magnifies selected structural and textural components of Porset´s work for this exhibition. “This is not a reinterpretation,” Antunes explains. “I am literally translating her work to a much bigger scale by selecting parts.” Some of the pieces reflect Porset´s design more obviously than others. Clara I, II, III, and IV bear a strong resemblance to Porset´s most famous furniture designs, albeit enlarged and functionally difficult. The rest of the show´s pieces are more vague translations of Porset´s work. The hanging brass pieces, titled Discrepancies with Oaxaca textile, I and II, are “woven” in the style of an Oaxacan textile, echoing both Porset and Albers's interests in indigenous weaving. Screen-like wooden dividers at once evoke Mexican breeze walls and the patterns on some of Porset´s most famous furniture designs. The leather hangings engage, in an oblique way, with Porset´s fondness for leather seat-covers.
Like Porset, Antunes is meticulous in her devotion to finding just the right materials. For the leather and wood pieces, Antunes worked with a carpenter in Berlin and a leather artisan in Lisbon. “I work with people, not with companies. The relation that has been built throughout the years is very important.” Like the designers and artisans to whom she continually pays homage, Antunes continues the legacy of deliberate and scrupulous craftsmanship. Continuing and translating the legacy of bygone designers and artists highlights the textile-like interweaving of space and time. Antunes is exceptional in this sense, as she is both a conscientious artist and historian, splicing her own legacy into those of the great 20th century designers. She is careful and respectful, never appropriative, and always one to pay careful tribute. “We need to take care of relationships, bodies, and objects.” Antunes explains, “if we want it all to last, we have to take care.”
Written by Miller Schulman