by David M. Roth
Composer and experimental sound artist Guillermo Galindo operates on the belief that all things possess spirits that can be made to “talk.” Border Cantos, a traveling exhibition featuring Galindo’s instruments and Richard Misrach’s photos (both culled from the U.S.-Mexico border), is, perhaps, the artist’s best-known, most persuasive example of that animistic premise. To demonstrate, Galindo took cast-off human detritus (clothing, water jugs, toys, grave markers, bullet casings) and turned it into instruments which, when manipulated, generated sounds that lent an audible dimension to the humanitarian crisis documented by Misrach in his shots of the 2000-mile border and the surrounding landscape. The result was a kind of carceral sublime.
Transonic, an exhibition at Qualia Contemporary Art in Palo Alto, expands those investigations. Its contents – altered photos, sculptures, musical scores and drawings made over the past seven years — generate few audible sounds. Yet the feeling is overwhelmingly that of a shamanistic enterprise, one that betrays the influence of composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen and early 20th-century nonobjective artists like Mondrian, Malevich, Klee, Miro, Kandinsky and Hilma af Klint. Their imprints can be seen filtering through the practice of an artist whose life and worldview originated in Mexico, where ancient beliefs and mythologies exist alongside the encroachments of modernity.
While Misrach’s photos form the thematic backbone of Transonic, they are not, by themselves, the exhibition’s focal point as they were in Border Cantos. With Galindo’s written scores superimposed, they simultaneously amplify and transcend the tragic events (death, harassment, detention, extortion, deportation) Misrach’s pictures allude to but don’t describe. Hovering like apparitions, they burrow into your psyche, pulling your gaze back and forth between what can be gleaned from the source images and what your own conjurations say about mysteries that remain unseen.
To Lone Jug, Misrach’s photo of an empty plastic water bottle, Galindo added a blizzard of musical instructions (notes, clef signs, arrows, circles, squares, dots and other marks) that turn the original photo into a requiem. It resonates at operatic intensity. Entrada Imaginaria, a beach scene shot at the border wall, shows bathers on the Tijuana side through metal bars. Galindo’s inscriptions, derived from immigration data, transform those foreboding shapes into vibrating force field. Stare for a few seconds and your field of vision turns black. I thought I was suffering a neurological crisis until the gallerist informed me that she also experienced the same phenomenon. Broken Mountain Landscape, based on another Misrach photo, is a collage sliced into vertical bands overlaid with
geometric shapes; they fracture the topography in ways that suggest the hallucinatory effects of heatstroke. In these ways, Galindo’s interventions function as conduits through which we sense, however ineffably, the strange and unsettling reality inhabited by migrants seeking refuge in the U.S.
Of the four sculptures on view, The Fluid Spirit of Nagual is the most potent. It consists of plastic bottles pulled from the Tijuana River that the artist compressed into panels and cut into serpentine shapes that call to mind the ectoplasmic forms seen in “spirit photographs.” The idea, however, was not to commune with the dead but to call attention “to the effects of the border wall construction on flora and fauna and desecrated Native American burial sites,” Galindo told me via email. Tree of Life, fashioned from the hood of a VW into a similar shape, and connected by a tangle of cables to an electronic transformer, emits a low hum – an inanimate object exhibiting signs of life. As for the the hydra-headed, multi-limbed creature common to both works, Galindo says it came to him in dreams, the origin of which he traces to indigenous beliefs in spirit guides that appear as animals.
A third part of the show consists of segments from a 174-part graphic score called Unidad, an exercise in geometric serialism that recalls some of the 20th-century artists I mentioned earlier. They read as cryptic codes. But in point of fact, they are designed as open-ended musical instructions which you can hear being played on a wall-mounted iPad, indicating how a musician might respond. What I heard resembled a minimalist composition with the timbre of a vintage video game.
Transonic concludes with a suite of “collaborative” drawings the artist made with Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons as a healing ritual during the height of the pandemic. In a variation of the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse, the artists traded drawings via WhatsApp without modifying each other’s work. Though we see only Galindo’s side of these exchanges, the results will likely surprise those who know only the musical/sculptural side of his practice. A half dozen or so small works displayed across two walls read like snapshots of the artist’s subconscious: Jungian archetypes (an angel, a spider, embryos, a dog, talking plants), abstract stains and a drawing done in Yves Klein blue that looks to have been made with a sponge: a nod, perhaps, to sculptures Klein actually made with sponges. Filament Cactus Ritual, an outlier in the group, shows a musical score combined with the textures of cactuses and insects. The intent is to represent genetic engineering gone awry: an idea Galindo first explored in a 2017 commission for the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Pacific Standard Time in which he linked such practices to “what happened in colonial times with classification of species to be commodified.” The impenetrable density of the print may remind you of Bruce Conner’s mandala drawings.
Such an array of dissimilar works might be mistaken for the efforts of several artists. For Galindo, they’re simply different aspects of what he calls “a healing practice” or what the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo; The Holy Mountain) termed “psycho-magic.” Taken whole, Transonic feels like a core sampling of the artist’s oeuvre, one that cries out for a survey encompassing the breadth of the artist’s interests and material inventions.
The gallery is also showing, in a separate room, a selection of works on paper and canvas by Gregory Rick, a recent SECA award winner currently completing an MFA degree at Stanford. Rick’s works, rendered like murals in a high-key palette reminiscent of Robert Colescott’s, portray violent conflicts among mostly male combatants. Floating (sometimes disembodied) figures, weapons and altercations with police and soldiers point to a turbulent past that seems to inflect the present. The artist merges both in sweeping allegories of epic proportions and ambition. The exhibit is appropriately titled Collision.
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Guillermo Galindo: “Transonic” and Gregory Rick: “Collision” @ Qualia Contemporary Art through September 2, 2022. Galindo performs as part of the electronic synthesizer duo, Red Culebra, Saturday August 6, 7-9 pm @ McEvoy Foundation for the Arts.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.