Recycled Reality

The artist duo Guerra de la Paz turns rags into artistic riches

It gives me no great pleasure to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes, especially when he's traipsing through the galleries of one of my favorite South Florida venues (the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood) at the invitation of one of my favorite curators (Samantha Salzinger).

The emperor is exposed because his abundant wardrobe has been appropriated for "The Four Seasons," an exhibition-sized, site-specific installation by Guerra de la Paz that takes up all four of the museum's first-floor galleries. The 28 components of this extended installation are identified as works in "mixed media," but the medium is really just secondhand clothing, augmented here and there with mannequins, pieces of wood, and other items.

Artist Guerra de la Paz, it also turns out, is not what "he" seems. The name is that of a nonexistent person, a conflation of the names of two individual Cuban artists -- Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz -- who work collaboratively. Guerra was born in Havana and spent a portion of his childhood in Madrid, where he was exposed to art from the extraordinary collections at the Prado Museum. De la Paz spent his early years in Matanzas before his family came to Miami in 1961, and in an interview with the Miami-based Arte al Diamagazine, he recalls receiving as a child a book on Dalí that "changed my view of the physical world forever."

Icicles and spring flowers, courtesy of the local thrift store
Icicles and spring flowers, courtesy of the local thrift store

Both artists ended up in Chicago for a time before coming together as a team in Miami, where they have worked as Guerra de la Paz out of their Little Haiti studio since 1996. Two years ago, they started making what they call "clothing sculptures" by using leftovers from neighborhood rag shops that export used clothing to underdeveloped countries.

Let me quickly emphasize that Guerra de la Paz don't intercept clothes that would otherwise make it into the hands (and onto the bodies) of needy people in the Third World. That would be contrary to their whole aesthetic of recycling things that have outlived their so-called usefulness and been cast aside. They work with the scraps that remain after the usable items have been selected and sent on -- the rejects from the rejects, in other words.

The pieces of fabric are aired out or washed and dried, if necessary. Some are knotted, tied, or woven together to achieve the desired effect. Others are attached to wires or metal frames or draped over mannequins. Buttons, clasps, grommets, and such decorative touches as beads and sequins are often left on the garments as accents.

This art of detritus makes up "The Four Seasons," and it's quite something to walk into the Art and Culture Center's main gallery and encounter the results. Walls that are usually covered with paintings are bare, but the space is far from empty. Instead, it's full of strategically placed piles of colorful fabric.

The notion of four distinct seasons is immediately conveyed through the use of color. Most of the pieces fall readily into one of those seasons. Even from a distance, it's clear that a "palette" of earthy rags designates a representation of autumn, while neutral whites and grays indicate a piece with a wintry theme.

A large, sprawling work called Garden suggests spring by starting with a nearly five-foot-high pile of fabric in greens and browns, then adding huge, colorful "flowers" that rest atop the pile and spill out onto the surrounding floor. An approximation of a rose, for example, is created with cloth in a range of rich reds, some of it featuring glittery filigree, with green items, including a long, satiny glove, trailing off to form leaves and a stem.

Summer is summoned up by Siren, which features a mannequin clad in a splashy one-piece swimsuit layered with multiple bikini bras. She stands in the shallows of a beach that's fashioned, ingeniously, from little more than a swath of wrinkled blue fabric. There's a little whitecap in the middle, and at the far end, a wave is formed from bunched-up white, blue, and blue-gray rags.

Seven smaller pieces work together to embody fall, including the oh-so-obvious Rake -- Raking, which plops a real rake into a pile of autumnal-colored rags. Some pieces are flat-out surreal: Racockosan, which consists of a circle of half a dozen well-worn children's shoes and socks topped with a raccoon cap; Cub, in which a child-sized mannequin wears an eared hood, a wig covering its face, and a fuzzy garment that's half-on, half-off; and Critter, an Addams Familyesque... thing composed of wigs and falls of many colors, with another raccoon cap worked into the mix. One of the most evocative pieces is also the simplest -- a brown crocheted item covered with a lighter-brown cap to make up Acorn.

A more abstract construction called Dropevokes winter with a big clump of neutral-colored fabrics suspended from the ceiling to create what looks like a cross between a mass of icicles and a jellyfish. Part of it snakes across the ceiling and then downward, merging with pieces of gray wire and clusters of large safety pins, chandelier crystals, and tassels before finally spilling onto glittery panels of glass on the floor.

Other pieces in the main gallery suggest one season or another, with a couple of them -- the waterfall of Cascade, the plant springing out of Hydroponic -- ambiguously situated in the scheme of things. Most of the works in the remaining galleries also adhere, at least minimally, to the exhibition's stated theme, although with an exception or two, the going gets rougher. For instance, Flutter, a strobe-lit installation of sequined butterflies at the end of the show, seems weirdly out of sync with everything else. And Convoy, which features a faux highway lined with four little vinyl trucks, each packed with a T-shirt, feels only marginally linked. Several other pieces seem similarly superfluous.

One exception is the four-part title piece, The Four Seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, which has the museum's long, narrow central gallery all to itself. Each of four big white cubes is topped with a "tree" (and ground cover) appropriate to the season, and the attention to detail is amazing, even if the overall effect is garish.

But the biggest exception is Ito's Roadside Picnic, an elaborate installation in which de la Paz's acknowledged Dalí influence runs rampant. It features a wooden picnic table set on grassy-green garments dotted with little yellow flowers, bordered by a patch of "plants" that bear an unsettling resemblance to hungry mouths. A strange little creature of some sort with a beverage sits on one side of the table, which is covered with a spread that's as repellent as it is fascinating: shot glasses with eyeballs, a plastery-looking dip accompanied by crackers made of mirrors, a margarita glass filled with a fake breast, a cake made of fur, and -- lending new meaning to the term "finger food" -- a bowl filled with mannequin fingers.

This hellish déjeuner sur l'herbe is hardly subtle in its critique of consumerism. But the outrageous extremes work in its favor -- how can something so exuberantly, unashamedly over the top be accused of taking itself too seriously?

I'm not so sure about much of the rest of "The Four Seasons," which at first feels refreshingly silly but ends up seeming contrived, gimmicky, and a little too self-satisfied. The Guerra de la Paz guys speak, in the Arte al Dia interview, of "the modern myth that the Earth is an infinite resource and, at the same time an infinite garbage can..." (They're alluding to a piece not included in this exhibition, but the same aesthetic applies.)

"We believe that human energy is embodied in these garments, and when they are gathered in large quantities you really feel their presence," the quote continues. "Each piece of clothing is unique, and when singled out they can reveal a small part of the identity of the individual who once wore them."

And piece by piece, the emperor's clothes start to fall away.

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