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Caracas in the 1950s and 1960s was a modernist boomtown. Croesan oil wealth and a powerful military dictatorship together created massive urban planning projects, built in the modernist style both by renowned American architects, like Philip Johnson, and South American practitioners of the style. The city was once called “pedacito del cielo”—a little piece of heaven. This is not just a nickname, but also seems to refer to the unfulfilled dream of a modernist utopia. Now, slums surround many of the geometric concrete surfaces and glass curtain walls of the mid-century expansion.
Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck’s exhibit at the Sert Gallery in the Carpenter Center, titled “Pedacito del Cielo (1998-2008),” tackles the tangled exponents of Latin American geometrical abstraction, from modernist architecture to sculpture to a video of performance art. At the same time, the show is also a supremely individual creation. Balteo Yazbeck, while not the curator of the exhibit, is perhaps best called the artist of the exhibit. He has brought together and installed, over the course of three weeks, a unique collection of objects. Some of them are important examples of Latin American minimalist art; others are of little intrinsic value, but gain meaning through their relationship to the other works.
The process by which the works gain significance through their interrelationships and associations, which Balteo Yazbeck calls “entanglement,” is at the heart of the exhibit. Of course, in any well curated show the individual pieces mediate and enhance each other, but this process is traditionally not its central feature. The gallery brochure cautions against looking for a unifying theme: “To select the grid as a leitmotif for the show might exaggerate the relationship between art and architecture in Caracas. It might also exaggerate the relationship between the grid and Caracas, and the grid and art.” However, a geometric grid is an important aspect of nearly every work: you find it in the windows of a high-rise, in the bars of a jungle-gym, in the arrangement of photographs, and even in a black wood bench (with a nearly invisible sign requesting “Please Do Not Sit”).
The nature of the entanglements also generates the urge to discover hidden connections between distant pieces. There is an unobtrusive grid of small colored boxes in one of the black-and-white photographs of Caracas by Paolo Gasparini in the first room of the show; a similar pattern of colors turns up in a group of color photographs of the present-day city in a different room. The more you look, the more you find.
It is therefore a pleasure to find every detail of the show executed with precise care. The plastic frame holding a book’s slip-jacket is perfectly recessed into the plaster wall as it bends around a corner, for example, and the speakers which play a hopeful Latin tune about Caracas on repeat are hidden by beautiful wood grates.
There are details like this everywhere through the exhibit, fingerprints left by Balteo Yazbeck’s personal touch. This is the intimacy afforded by what Balteo Yazbeck calls the “intimate museum”: the connections drawn (both metaphorically and physically, with a thin pencil line ruled against the white walls) are the extremely personal products of one person’s mind. The show is museum-like in the way objects are presented as part of a narrative—the story of geometric abstraction in Caracas—but this is also what makes it intimate. The artists are some of the friends and teachers of Balteo Yazbeck, and his own art clearly bears their influence. In some ways, it is a self-portrait. “Pedacito del Cielo” is an attempt to physically register and record the thoughts and influences of one artist.
The questions of artistic authorship—is the exhibition a group show, the brochure asks, or a solo show?—are less interesting than the way that this collection of entangled objects evoke a city, an era, a style, an individual. The grid doesn’t end at the exhibit’s door, and Balteo Yazbeck’s entanglements even become visible outside the walls of the intimate museum.
—Staff writer Alexander B. Fabry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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