process . location . object

Living Spaces Revisited: The Art and Rage of Vanessa Díaz

Living Spaces Revisited: The Art and Rage of Vanessa Díaz

The situational aesthetics of this artist recycles dwelling components to a higher significance.

Egberto Almenas


Friday evening in Central Florida, June 20, 2014. A smart set gathering loafs astir in easy chat under the festively lit rotunda. Some cling near the open bar. Others pluck morsels from silver gondolas on dressed tables. Many already cruise the galleries. You join the opening reception for the Orlando Museum of Art Florida Prize in Contemporary Art. Its inaugural exhibition has cherry-picked works from “10 of the most progressive and exciting artists working in the State today.”

The museum tallies in chic mode another plausible “commitment to support talented emerging and mid-career artists.” Samplings as a whole fan out a wide variety of approaches. The vibe feels experimental and edgy. Descriptions defy and drift guests to unaccustomed latitudes. In particular, the on-site installations by Vanessa Díaz (1980, Fort Lauderdale, Florida) are reaping quite a stir. Something indeed “ominous” about them seizes their ambit, a “mysterious allure,” adds the wall label, an “underlying element of threat” whereby viewers “experience uncertainty” and wonder if there is “more to consider than idle curiosity.”

Extraordinary Sensations

Vanessa Díaz sources her late sculptural tropes from salvaged debris often bearing quotations of a bygone Victorian age of splendor. She foresees a second inner flame from the preterit life and function of furniture, curtains, wrought iron rails, turned wood posts, architectural shards, forgotten home remnants blemished by time and use. The uneasiness her refashioned dwelling kindles seems to arise from an overarching denial. You sense in yourself a spirit whose carnal wrap has yet to befriend the certainty it will naturally extinguish someday. That stubborn deep force of yours slogs ahead seeking to imprint an earthly trace on whatever tangible may outlive your aging body. Alas, supports believed suited for the transmigration will inexorably decay and disappear as well. You know this.

Resistance to the ever-fleeing glint of life largely distinguishes art, and from this mulishness beyond the ordinary roots its attraction and dignity of being. Oscar Wilde, in the novel he entitled The Picture of Dorian Gray, where a handsome young man about to become a hedonist grows older in his portrait rather than in himself, has one of his characters define art as “simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations.”

These sensations at times may haunt as the Cartesian “ghost in the machine,” an allegory that speculates on the mind’s separate entry into a foreign medium. The umpteenth mark on ruined goods awake to an uncanny brightness after Vanessa Díaz obliterates “evidence of the previous owner.” You cannot help thinking about Van Gogh and his heavily worn pairs of boots. In his paintings, they double as self-portraits that exorcised the hardships of a battered existence. Ghosts reside in the wear and tear of earlier belongings. Vanessa Díaz’ interventions call for irreverence at the expense of their own glory. Her sacrilege in ludic glee saves the material from its intrinsic failure.

 Anomalous Claims

You have not spotted this artist at the party tonight. In all likelihood she had to drive back home yesterday, before nightfall, exhausted from work at the museum, where now the jazzy background music funks its beat. —Where is she? Mellowed guests crave for her personal input on the artwork she has displayed.

The Possibility of an Exit (2014) dominates the center of the main gallery. Onlookers apprehensively inch their way closer. You indulge in lax descriptivism. This installation reads as a contorted spine with an embalmed tendon branching downward at one end, and a long bony blade that connects high against the wall from the other. The area it tents would dwarf a mammoth. Window blinds and fencing, among other supplies, shape a prehistoric organism of sorts. Glowing from within hangs a large sac, namely one of the “soft structures” Vanessa Díaz has drawn from her experimental practice with textiles.

 —It is not normal. One sole feature that weds this showing into a family derives from its overt insistence on anomalous claims. You remember that in a 1911 painting by Matisse entitled The Red Studio, at the upper dead center, stands a handless grandfather clock, which alike many other of its neighboring items neither conforms to normality. It has become commonplace to note the intention here to arrest time at least within the imaginative kingdom of our extant matter. Regardless, the ultimate norm is none other than to age and perish, as happened long before with brutes that became fossils. You know this.

Vanessa Díaz lends meanwhile “an alternate observation of function” by customizing her space against “the tyranny of the clock”—to borrow the title George Woodcock used in his 1944 essay. Her situational aesthetics aims to possess by “inflicting damage, enacting repair and resurfacing materials.” Unexpectedly, she sabotages the metaphor of time by becoming “extensively transient” in her artwork, which is to say that the clock’s ticktock cannot enslave the mutable secondary meaning she layers over the original cut of her found objects. Re-interpreting the history of “routine behaviors” on the domain, “chairs with the arm rests worn down, sofa cushions sinking from body weight, scuff marks on the front door, stains and scratches,” officiates a liberating transubstantiation. Furnishings, as in her “seating re-interpreted” series, or in her “raw objects,” flag the passage of a continuum, not a fixed stance.

Do Not Go Gentle

A continual cycle of elements formerly gathered, flaunted, perhaps carried along for generations, and at the mercy of which fashion and levels of privacy then tired and collapsed from age and use. The opening reception also peters out. As you leave the museum, under the balmy night, a citable excerpt you indexed years ago dawns upon you: True artists create art not to save humanity, but to save themselves. They are the apples to their own eyes, and use a third hand to mask with pleasantries the bloodshed of their attacks against reality and others. You believe Camille Paglia said that, give or take a word or two. In any case, Vanessa Díaz fits the bill in her periphrasis of living spaces lugged from refuse whose past intrinsic or attributed worth she repurposes to an edifying rage. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” wrote the poet Dylan Thomas. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” That is the only possibility of an exit: to keep the glow in the sac. You know this.

[July 20, 2014]