by Patricia Albers
“There is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural,” declares the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. In concurrent shows at the San José Museum of Art (SJMA) and San Francisco’s Hosfelt Gallery, the Argentine-born New York artist Liliana Porter takes that idea into realms where virtual and real, reality and illusion, fiction and fact, intermingle. Each show comprises a digital video, photographs, and mixed media works. Each is a mind-bending delight.
At SJMA, Actualidades/Breaking News centers on a homonymous video (2016) structured using section headings as seen in newspapers. Porter’s are bilingual, like “Crime Coverage/Policiales” and “Fashion & Style/Moda.” Each cues an enigmatic and irreverent scene involving an artful mismatch of tchotchkes and toys. The artist subverts the neat world order that the newspaper headings presume, throwing into question the meanings of objects and the symbolic forms they acquire.
In one such section heading, “Tourism/Turismo,” for instance, she vignettes a book open to a reproduction of a 19th-century Currier & Ives print of a suspension bridge across the Niagara River. A bath toy boat rests on the book’s edge. Then, a hand appears. It pushes the boat around the reproduction as if it were traveling upriver, jarring viewers’ assumptions by moving us from one kind of perceptual space to another.
“Memorabilia” gives a star turn to knickknacks representing key players in some of the world’s most consequential events. A miniature bust of Benito Juárez hangs out with a Che Guevara cup for drinking mate. An Eva Perón matchbox, a George Washington creamer, figurines of Mao and a saluting JFK Jr. join them. Historical happenings—what timelines and maps are supposed to keep straight—have transmigrated into an undifferentiated accumulation of stuff, just as they do in the human mind.
Lewis Carroll joins Borges as another essential inspiration for Liliana Porter, the most literary of artists. Indeed, watching Actualidades/Breaking News feels like freefalling down a rabbit hole. Twenty-two minutes, 28 situations, curiouser and curiouser. It left me wanting more.
The 11-minute Cuentos Inconclusos/Unfinished Tales (2022) forms the centerpiece of a larger exhibition at Hosfelt Gallery. Like the video at SJMA, Cuentos Inconclusos/Unfinished Tales is co-directed by the artist Ana Tiscornia with an indispensable score by the composer and sound designer Sylvia Meyer. Her music sets up the emotional space for each scene. So do the soft spotlighting, cast shadows, selective focus and seamless backgrounds, monochromatic or white.
Blithely illogical, Cuentos Inconclusos/Unfinished Tales pulls apart conventional storytelling. Porter’s tales are disparate and unresolved. Sometimes, viewers can’t be sure where one ends and the next one begins in this pileup of pictures and words. The artist takes pleasure in the synergistic play between the two. Often, the subtitles end in ellipses, as if in mid-story, or begin with subordinating conjunctions, as if in mid-sentence.
“Although It Seems Strange/Aunque Parecieria Extraño,” reads one. In the situation that follows, a ceramic duck appears next to the head and torso of a Pierrot, the melancholy clown from Italian commedia dell’arte. Pierrot flirtatiously eyes his companion. The two have little in common, except that both happen to be napkin rings. Laugh out loud, then make what you will of this snippet. Like all the objects in Porter’s videos, the players appear on an otherwise blank screen. This non-event happens in non-space and non-time, making theirs an existential encounter.
“Who are you? Where are you going?/Quién éres? A dónde te diriges?” shows three birds lined up, gazing skyward. There’s a sleek bronze egret, a pudgy white thing, and a battered toy duck. Then, a spiral-bound sketch pad slowly descends to become a backdrop. On it are three checkmark-style birds drawn with a felt marker. Thus, each iteration of birdness is at a further and more absurd remove from reality. Cuentos Inconclusos/Unfinished Tales is the work of an artist who has spent a lifetime thinking about how images function and how the human mind works. In memory, she knows, nothing is linear or logical.
Liliana Porter works in an old barn in upstate New York amid throngs of mass-market collectibles from flea markets and secondhand stores. Windup toys, molded plastic toy soldiers, Orientalist figurines, and glazed statuettes of musicians all figure in her repertoire. So do seashells, Jesus packaging tape, and Elvis potholders. Chipped or broken objects have their purposes. So do the tiny figures from German railroad diorama sets that show up everywhere in her art. Some of the objects that Porter collects are pop culture icons. Some are deliciously tacky. All carry the aura of earlier lives in somebody’s playroom or kitchen. Together, they speak of the intertextuality of her art. Objects circulate and recirculate. That’s not to say that the artist repeats herself but that different combinations of things put other works of art in motion.
Many of the 21 pieces on the Hosfelt Gallery’s walls play with the back and forth between the physical presence of an object and the pictorial space of a drawing, painting, or photograph, between reality and its representation. Most reveal small-scale situations unfolding in otherwise empty white spaces. Tennis Player–Man (2020), for instance, positions a Lilliputian player (he could fit on a dime) atop a tennis ball–sized wooden sphere. The sphere’s wood grain pattern doubles as a target for the forehand the man is about to unleash. There’s no edge or frame around the objects. They simply protrude from the white gallery wall, surrounded by nothing. Disconcertingly, the art space we expect and the physical space we occupy merge.
Reconstruction (Bear Salt Shaker) (2022) also involves a real object. A cutesy saltshaker sits on a shelf, with its copy, a framed pigment print of that same object (so it seems), smashed into pieces hangs behind it. Yet, as logic would dictate, the photographic version should be intact and the actual one broken.
The quintessential Liliana Porter shows up in three acrylic, ink, graphite, and assemblage works, all on notebook paper. Infinite (2022) depicts a miniature cleaning woman taking a scrub brush to an infinity sign as if rubbing out graffiti. The Copy (infinite) (2020) shows a youth attempting his version of the symbol for boundless and endless space and time. Then there’s False Infinite (2022), a whimsy in which that same symbol reveals itself to be only a number 8 on its side. How to read these three works? Back to Borges, as cited by Porter: “The definition of aesthetic experience is the imminence of a revelation.”
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About the author: Patricia Albers is a Bay Area writer, art historian, and editor. Her books include “Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life” and “Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti.” Her biography of photographer André Kertész is forthcoming from Other Press.