If you were as small as an ant and dropped on a computer motherboard, you might mistake the chips and transistors for a cityscape. The tubes and diodes inside a transistor radio would look like silos and water towers, and thick upturned screws and driven nails might resemble the spires of cathedrals. This is not an accident. Engineers think architecturally and spatially. Their creative thoughts gravitate toward the most efficient distribution mechanism ever devised by man: the metropolis.
Many visual artists have pointed this out. Few have plunged us into the bowels of the machine with the comprehension — or the commitment to total immersion — of Jairo Alfonso. His paintings and drawings expose the chilly innards of engines, cameras, speakers, antique radios and other electronic objects too arcane to classify. In “Jairo Alfonso: Objectscapes,” which will be on view at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit through June 4, some of these investigations are done on canvases as big as a fridge. Sprockets, widgets, wires and cables are towering, the spaces between electro-components are shadowed and cavernous, and everything has the metallic gleam of a skyline at sunset.
In “Taino IV,” a hooked-leg device squats on a brown circle like a lunar lander or invader from the “War of the Worlds.” “Sylvania IV,” a large watercolor pencil drawing in faded-blueprint purple, centers on a collection of bobbins and spindles that push upward from a crowded flat like skyscrapers seen from the stratosphere. Though no land is depicted, these works are indebted, nonetheless, to landscape painting. It turns out that a wide and detailed view of the guts of a tape recorder has the same breathless sweep as a Thomas Cole vista or a frontier panorama. Alfonso reminds us of something we meticulous map-readers often forget: landscapes mostly exist in our minds, right next to the place where we keep our wanderlust.
The 15 works in this small but relentlessly exciting exhibition are precise and diagnostic. They are also surprisingly emotional. If Alfonso takes apart these devices with the zeal of a teenaged tinkerer in a basement, he reassembles them for the viewer with true love for electronics and for compassion for the outmoded. There is a hovering sense that all of this embodied machinery has deep meaning for the artist — much of it is obviously quite old, like objects that have been sitting on a garage shelf for years after being handled, perhaps, by a beloved grandparent or a favorite corner mechanic.
“Objectscapes” is a sensuous show filled with imagery that is nearly tactile in its effect: enveloped by these images, a viewer can almost smell the grease and the rust, hear the snap of the fan bands and the sizzle of wires, and feel the tightness of the screws, the coolness of the metal plates, and the tickle of the dust. It teases us with the inscrutability of the machines we depend on (what do all of these knobs and resistors do?) and reassures us with their modularity. Break them down and reassemble them and they still have heft, and history, and capacity, even if it’s just the capacity to inspire our imaginations.
They’ve also got cultural significance. Alfonso, a Cuban-American educated in Havana, made many of these works while living in the dense, bustling, Spanish-speaking quarters of Northern Hudson County. Some of the brand names in “Objectscapes” will have special meaning to those who grew up in communities like those where Alfonso lived — or those of us who love hanging out there. “494 (Bergenline Ave.)” captures the essence of one of the liveliest commercial streets in the Garden State in a single massive watercolor sketch on a piece of paper bigger than most rugs. He has crammed it to the edges with depictions of familiar Bergenline objects: Catholic religious statuettes and votive candles, conga drums and footballs from Brazil, tins of Cafe Pilon and boxes of La Llave, parking meters, cheap detergent, corn oil, Goya products (of course), bug spray, hair dye, matchbooks, Español-to-English dictionaries, traffic cones.
It’s a chaotic mess, but it’s not a dump. Every one of these objects is functional. They’re beat-up and enthusiastically used, yes, and flimsy at times, but very much intact. It’s the accouterments of community the artist is showing us, and a saga of Jersey life told in the language of consumer products. Though the drawing is static, the implications are dynamic, and they speak of precocity and a fear of being buried amid a landslide of stuff. Alfonso has placed the eggs, shakily, on top of his heap, and across the expanse, on the lower right hand corner, a figurine of Betty Boop looks up at them warily.
It’s probably impossible to draw a towering wall of stuff without inscribing anxiety into that work of art. Danger is even more palpable in “362,” in which the artist lets an illustration of a Lada truck with Cuban license plates punch through another mountain of chairs, cushions, motorcycles, musical instruments and at least one tipped-over toilet.
But the tone of Alfonso’s illustrations isn’t rueful. If this wave is coming, he is willing to be swamped by it. He’s got great affection for these objects and the meanings they carry, which is why he observes them so closely, pulls them apart, mystifies them and monumentalizes them, and finds the grand hidden inside the grubby. He sees the imprint of his neighbors and the traces of the community they’ve made on the surfaces of these things. Alfonso knows: Where we are is visible in what we use, what we throw away and, most of all, what we keep.
“Jairo Alfonso: Objectscapes” will be at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit through June 4. Visit artcenternj.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.