Basque artist Asier Mendizabal (b. 1973) explores symbolic forms and the ways in which they relate to, or become abstracted from, the cultural structures in which they are based. His Soft Focus (2011), a slide show exhibited at the most recent Venice Biennale, examines issues of the formal presentation of objects—and the usage of the title photographic device—in documentary images chronicling the Basque region and people. The wide range of Mendizabal’s practice was evident in his recent Raven Row exhibition, which brought together around 30 works, in sculpture, photography, collage and engraving, from the last five years.
On entering the foyer, one was greet- ed by two long MDF beams—Hard Edge #5 and Hard Edge #6 (both 2010)— placed close together on the floor and resembling overdesigned museum seat- ing as much as Arte Povera or Minimalist objects. Shallow dips scooped out from along the edges of each form at ir- regular intervals (ergonomic? esthetic?) enhanced this equivocality.
Sculpture, either physically present or represented in photographs and texts, cropped up throughout the show. A Letter Arrives at Its Destination (2011) is a text in which Mendizabal translates a letter written (but never sent) by Basque artist Jorge Oteiza (1908–2003) to the London ICA, in response to a rejection of his sub- mission to a 1952 sculpture competition for a monument to “The Unknown Political Prisoner.” Mendizabal’s text was placed under glass on a table, and also distributed as a booklet. Visitors thus encountered Oteiza’s letter, and the sculpture it proposed, at multiple levels of remove.
Apparent gaps between symbolic form and referent occurred with numerous works. For example, in Mendizabal’s “Delimitar” engravings from 2009, which appeared at intervals throughout the galleries, shapes resembling territories on a map are etched on otherwise empty, veneered wood grounds. The works’ do- mestic scale (around 12 inches square), elegant finish and decorative appearance raise faintly sinister questions: exactly what is depicted here, what kind of border, surrounding what kind of territory, and to what end? The abstract shapes also suggest the outlines of excised content, conveying a sense of political subterfuge, its mechanisms disguised as artistic motifs: acts of whitewashing co-opted as esthetic ornament.
Elsewhere, Untitled (Picket), 2010—a large pigment print composed of six photographs—depicts the progression of a peaceful protest on a beach. Picketers successfully persuade beachgoers to join them in forming a human barricade, clearing the sand of occupants. By the last image, the evacuation is complete, but the purpose of the protest remains inaccessible. Untitled (Picket) can be read as a gesture without content, but as such, it serves as a template for ideal practice. Mendizabal seems to advocate protest as a form, a right and a potential means, while also maintaining the indeterminacy inherent in all political structures and actions.
Photo: View of Asier Mendizabal’s exhibition, showing Hard Edge #5 and Hard Edge #6, both 2010, MDF; at Raven Row.