On ViewYeh Art Gallery, St.John’s University
September 10 – November 25, 2020
In the book Thinking: The Ruin (2010) the contemporary Lebanese writer Jalal Toufic offers a paradoxical definition of ruins as “places haunted by the living who inhabit them.” It is through this notion of ruins that he approaches his own city, Beirut, and the trauma of civil war. “A ruin cannot be intentionally eliminated since even when it is reconstructed or demolished and replaced by a new building, it is actually still a ruin,” he writes. “[It] contains a labyrinthine space and time, this becoming manifest at least in flashes.”
Cuban-American artist Rafael Domenech’s solo exhibition, Bad infinities: laboratory of fragments, makes one encounter their own contemporary urban landscape in such flashes through a careful and sporadic gathering of works where book-making, poetry, photography, sculpture, and painting become one. In his layered work, Domenech invites viewers to join him on a journey: to walk the city. In Domenech’s fragmented reconstruction, this landscape can be the artist’s current residence, New York; the Miami of his recent past; the Havana of his upbringing; or a territory entirely imagined. Domenech’s exhibition invites viewers to pay attention to what is ignored, to unearth the history carried by objects left behind, to witness the labor required to maintain the industrialized metropolitan, to join the laboring body.
Visitors are welcomed to the space with large letters cut throughout the ceiling tiles “LA CIU DAD MÁS ALLÁ LA CIU DAD” (the city beyond the city). Looking up and walking through the gallery to read the text of the piece, Tactical publication for the endless grid (After Lafebvre) (2020), one sees the ceiling pipes, the HVAC corridors, and all the interiority of the building. Domenech’s process for this piece began with ceiling tiles that were taken from his current studio located in a decommissioned high school in Yonkers. He then used a mechanical laser cutter to carve the words, before completing his gesture by replacing them with the gallery’s tiles. The effect is the labyrinth space and time of the ruin, a meeting point between the two architectural sites, the university’s gallery and the studio’s closed high school. The heart of the exhibition, this piece touches on many of the questions core to Domenech’s practice including his deep interest in found objects, industrial production, and ready-made sculpture as well as his long-standing engagement with the history and socio-political legacy of Concrete Poetry in Latin America.
Installed in the middle of the room is Heteroglossic City (2019–20), a book shut between two large pieces of concrete. Opening the handmade publication reveals a dizzying photo essay. The photographs accompany Domenech on his daily commute and create a fragmented documentary: colorful close-ups of pavements, cracks in the concrete, construction material left behind in the streets, objects thrown away, the texture of chipped paint on a wall. Domenech distils a sort of subtle poetry from these mundane moments. In his intro to the book, he writes “the act of walking is a timeless moment. Systemic walking through the transitional space (space between point a and point b) creates micro amnesia isolating the body from the context. […] The function of transitional areas shifts and becomes an act of political exercise, when I am aware; aware of entering and exiting, of crossing a boundary, of trespassing.”
Bad Infinities is defined by this invitation: to see our surroundings through the awareness of a marginalized body as it moves systemically; as it trespasses; as it becomes momentarily amnesiac, loses contexts, becomes fragmented. Yet rather than offering reductive statements on identity politics, relying on biography, or even technical mastery, Domenech focuses on his immediate surroundings, meditates on language itself, and ultimately leaves his viewers with the transient nature of what Toufic calls the “labyrinthine space and time” of the ruins we carry. Domenech’s body disappears. We are left with the found materials and the histories they echo.
Domenech even takes away his hand. In his sculptures and paintings, he approaches his material based on the demands of his preferred artistic tool, industrial machines. It is ultimately in this conversation with the machine that Domenech—as artist and technician—formalizes, arranges, realizes, and makes sense of his collection of found objects. One stands in the middle of his Laboratory of Fragments, shocked by all the layers of meaning carried through the care in which Domenech treats these encounters.
Domenech’s deep attention, his commitment to opacity, and dedication to the multiplicity of meaning is most persistent in his playful engagement with his two languages, English and Spanish, and he offers us the poetry and the complexity that results from their meeting within him. In Repositioned subtitles, fragmented pom (tactile occupation) (2019–20), a long white fluorescent tube balances on a small concrete rock. The text “por donde hacia la luz huye el sonido process of sonic disparities” is written on the left and “through cracks, the building breaths producing consecutive eco chambers” is on the right side. Located at the end of the gallery, the black interrupts the clinical white light. Surrounded by all the subtle moments Domenech has evoked, one is left to face Toufic’s question: “What is site-specific […]? It is the labyrinthine space-time of its ruins, what undoes the date- and site-specific.”