One of the earliest works by Mexico City–based duo ASMA, from 2018, is a flower made of felted steel wool, suspended in a capsule of clear resin with a pinkish pastel tint. It evoked the glass-encased rose from the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, whose falling petals represent the Beast’s withering chance at love. For the duo’s first United States solo show, at Make Room Los Angeles in 2019, another steel-wool flower stood eight feet in the air. Titled The Nymph by the Window, it featured a thorny stem that coiled along the cement floor, climbed the wall, and disappeared through a tiny window, where it was revealed to be the Rapunzel-like appendage of a creature trapped behind metal bars. The experience of both these works is like seeing archetypal Western fairy tales beamed back from an alternate dimension. The result is dreamlike: you know what you’re looking at, but you can’t always find the words to describe it.
ASMA’s Matias Armendaris, who is Ecuadoran, and Hanya Beliá, who is Mexican, started dating in 2015, after meeting at a coffee shop in downtown Mexico City. They both enrolled in the MFA program in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, from which they graduated in 2018. Subsequently, they returned to Mexico City, and now live and work in a building only blocks from where they first met. The duo’s sculptures and mixed-media works, which are often painting adjacent but not strictly paintings, draw on the iconography of fantasy and romance—butterflies, goblets, elves, and so on—but cast these loaded symbols in a strange new light, inviting critical reflection on tropes that are usually taken for granted. Over the last two years, Armendaris and Beliá have become known for painting on molded wax and silicone in a way that troubles easy distinctions between two- and three-dimensional mediums. For their 2021 show at Projet Pangée in Montreal, for instance, they resoled a pair of Nike running shoes with silicone bas-reliefs depicting miniature nature scenes—a dandelion on the right shoe and a dragonfly on the left.
ASMA’s most recent solo show, which opened in January at Deli Gallery in New York, revolved around the figure of Narcissus, who, according to Greek myth, was so self-absorbed that he stared at his reflection until he died, eventually turning into a flower. The centerpiece of the show was a sculpture of Narcissus, roughly the size of a small child, draped in a fainting position over a fake boulder in the middle of the gallery. When conceptualizing the exhibition, the artists knew they wanted the Narcissus sculpture to be perfectly transparent, which meant they needed a clear material that was strong enough to hold such a complex shape. The answer turned out to be a specialized urethane resin used for coating solar panels. They liked it because it seemed akin to sculpting with water. “We were drawn to its translucence,” Beliá said via video call from their studio in Mexico City, “its lack of definition, its mutability, flexibility, smoothness.” Experimenting with new materials often entails a frustrating process of trial and error: multiple prototypes collapsed because they weren’t drying fast enough after emerging from the mold. “It broke our heart a few times,” she continued.
On the gallery’s surrounding walls hung large silicone panels painted with abstract and figurative motifs related to the Narcissus myth. One, Only a little water keeps us far (2021), depicts the fountain where he fatally glimpsed his reflection. What appear to be thick lumps of impastoed paint representing a spray of dark-blue water droplets cascading down the work’s surface are in fact molded protrusions from the otherwise flat plane of silicone, playing with assumptions about the divide between handicraft and mechanical production. This tension was also evident in two openwork bronze sculptures on view in the same show, comprising thick, calligraphic lines ending in curlicues, one depicting a spread of fruit, the other a svelte torso presumably belonging to Narcissus. To make these, the artists created wax prototypes by hand, which were sent to a metalworker to cast in bronze. Armendaris and Beliá drove to his workshop to supervise the finishing steps, and midway through applying a patina that blackened the otherwise greenish metal, they looked at each other and started yelling to stop. The pieces looked better with a little imperfection, they decided, and if you look closely, you can even see a fingerprint or two.
This article appears in the May 2022 issue, pp. 58–59.