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Santiago Cucullu: Cardboard Center for Libertarians

Okay, so maybe he deserved that $20,000 Artadia Grant.

Santiago Cucullu... Mr. Slocum's Fascination With Radical Politics, 2004... Cardboard and vinyl, 207 X 87 X 48 inches

Santiago Cucullu’s show at Barbara Davis” 11th floor Warwick space goes full-out. As one of the ten short listed artists who didn’t get the money, I naturally look for an ax to grind, but find myself out of axes. This is no skimpy show: a virtuoso mix of sculpture, wall drawings, wall stickers and site-specific pieces, Cucullu pulls out all the stops. If he is trying to repay Houston its investment, he succeeds.

There is a lighthearted feel to this show. The colors — pastel, bright, upbeat — set a sensuous holiday mood. Cucullu uses the architecture at Davis” gallery to the fullest, playing with these spaces that are obviously not a white box, but living spaces for the very rich. Davis is currently located in a corner apartment of the Warwick — a four star Hotel right next to the Museum of Fine Arts. The rooms are proportioned to the body; spacious but not outrageous, they warm the whole space with a sense of aliveness and purpose, rather than the mausoleum-like abstract coldness of many a gallery cube. Like furniture and furnishings, Cucullu’s pieces adapt to the architecture, giving the rooms a nice lived-in feel.

One of my favorite pieces was Mr. Slocum’s Fascination with Radical Politics, a cardboard sculpture jutting down from the ornately mirrored wall as you walk in. Covered in vinyl sticky woodgrain patterns and colors, it is draped over a table that is visible through the opening at the bottom. The piece has an ephemeral quality — a colorful tent structure somebody might sleep in, a kid’s pretend Formula One racing car, a party table gone awry. It is big, bulky, and dumb in shape, but playful and fun in its vinyl covering. A formal piece that transcends pure formality and wants to be played with. I kept asking myself why it wasn’t just arty — art that looks like art should look. This one fits all those specifications, hip colors, everyday ephemeral materials, slightly obscure title, something you feel you might have seen before, but you are very aware that you haven”t. Maybe the bumbling earnestness of its scale stops it from being arty; maybe its location against the mirrors makes it feel even more awkwardly out of place.

Santiago Cucullu... Facade Of The F.L.A (Federacion Libertaria Argentina), 2004... V inyl, 120 X 166 inches

In the back room, the windows are covered in ruffled bands of differently-colored vinyl shower curtain material. They give the room an intimate feel, a bedroom atmosphere. The drawn curtains, blocking out the spectacular views outside, keep you focused inside. Glowing with different colors, they function as backdrop and mood-maker for the other pieces, an unexpected bonus thrown in. (Cucullu installed similar ruffles in Galveston in 2002 against a wall, not a window, where they seemed a purposeless exercise in color. The cute title The girlfriend picked the colors tried to give their rather pointless formality emotional overtones.) Here at Davis” gallery the title is the prosaic Blocked Windows, and the emotion is supplied by the piece. Like a low-fi Felix Gonzalez-Torres bead curtain, Cucullu’s curtains are a thing of formal beauty that has function, but whose function is in turn denied by its formality.

In the pair of coffee table sculptures, Cucullu again stays with the domestic scale and plays function versus formal concerns. Stacked on top of a coffee table covered in fake vinyl woodgrain, up-ended, is a table made of real wood, beautifully worked, smelling of linseed oil, with a stack of blocks balancing off two of the legs, just waiting to be pushed off. The urge was so strong I had to put my hands behind my back, but then I sneaked a touch anyway. I felt a strange let-down in tension realizing they weren”t stacked but glued together. Still, Cucullu balances formal elegance against the precariousness of a child’s playstructure, function against dysfunctionality. Just as the cardboard box could have been my racing car, this was my building block structure — something I wanted to touch and play with, add blocks to, knock over.

Santiago Cucullu ... Stacked Tables with One Extra Leg, 2004... Wood, plastic, 81x 17 x 17 inches

Apart from Mr. Slocum, my other favorite in the show is a sticky vinyl wall drawing of a building facade that is perfectly proportioned in size and scale as if the piece were made specifically for that wall. A real door hides underneath one of the drawing’s arched windows; a ceiling beam and another door bookend the sides. The fake woodgrain pattern, like eroding boards, helps give the facade a feeling of decay. It also looks especially good and tacky when set against the gallery’s beautiful shiny hardwood floor. I kept looking to see if the architectural detail had been lifted and transposed from some other ornate part of the gallery — maybe the mirrored room next door — but then realized it was the facade of a building, a facade suggesting a town where there might be a square and old men sitting in the shade on benches. The title Facade of the F.L.A. (Federacion Libertaria Argentina) is very matter of fact. Already pushed into thinking about the cardboard sculpture in a political way (Mr. Slocum is obviously fat and lazy, maybe wearing his colors on the outside, but not doing anything about it), you immediately think that F.L.A. sounds very much like some terrorist group. Libertarians are anarchists, dreamers who wish for a different political reality. In this case, their building looks all shot to hell and outdated, like Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International — a grandiose dream that came to nothing. The piece juxtaposes different kinds of architecture, different kinds of lifestyles, and ultimately different kinds of politics, but you don’t have to know about the politics to get it: it has that ever-seductive outside-inside thing going for it — bringing an exterior into a domestic setting.

Not all the other pieces (and there are many more) demand the fullest attention, but there is great atmosphere in these living rooms and a just-so-ness to the placement of all the pieces. This is not another show knocked out by a busy artist, but a show carefully cared-for and considered. The watercolors … well, everybody needs to sell something, and they provide the “wall art” in a light, upbeat color scheme for the “furniture.” Not bad, but not great. Not for me, but forgivable (who really has the guts to want a giant, expensive, hard-to-care-for cardboard sculpture?) because I thought this show was great.

Images courtesy the artist and Barbara Davis Gallery.

Francesca Fuchs is an artist living in Houston.

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