Teresita Fernández / MATRIX 182
December 5, 1999 - January 30, 2000
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New York–based conceptual installation artist Teresita Fernández spent last summer on a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. supernova, her MATRIX installation at the Berkeley Art Museum, is informed by a visit to Tiberius’s Cave in Sperlonga, a coastal city south of Rome. This ancient grotto–triclinium, that is, a nymphaeum and banqueting hall combined, dates from the Augustan era, first century A.D.2 Sperlonga has been described as a "fantastic cave, with pools, four Homeric marble groups and other sculpture, which like a gigantic heathen presepio, faces the sea..."2 Fernández, who possesses an instinctual ability to present illusions and transform physical sensations, was struck by the hypnotic, perception–altering reflection she experienced in Tiberius’s Cave. That she would be inspired by such a place is not surprising because pools and water, actual or implied, factor prominently in her iconography. Historically, grottos have been places of mystery, reverie, and eroticism. Fernández employs the visual form of the grotto to evoke some of these sentiments. Suggesting the pastoral, the idyllic, and the dramatic, grottos have been offered as an escape from the world of reality, from the rules and artifices of society.3 Interestingly, landscape architectural historian Naomi Miller also writes, "The grotto is a metaphor of the cosmos."4
supernova refers to the luminous pattern that results from the extinguishing of a star. Fernández’s installation consists of six circular forms of varying size and color placed on the floor in the MATRIX gallery. Using the reflective surface of the gallery floor, the sculptures create the illusion of deep puddles or caverns descending into the core of the earth. Referring to the hallowed grotto with its secret inner recesses, these carved–out, planar objects seem to burrow into the ground. A layered, topographical stratum, Fernández’s floor structures echo the massiveness of Roman architecture. Hovering both over and under the ground, supernova creates a hypnotic vortex. The walls of the gallery are painted a light bluish gray, the same color as the exterior of the sculptures, creating a unified, ethereal atmosphere. This monochromatic similarity enhances the surprise of viewers as they peer into the forms to see hazy yet brightly colored depths. Large, elliptical rings thrown by the rippling, luminous surfaces of the forms continue the repetitive optical illusion. The upper and lower realms are joined in a seamless transition between what might be sky, heavens, earth, water, and a subterranean core. Fernández is interested in evoking a phenomenal place that exists but is not specific or concrete, a place where viewers can assign their own impressions of location to the forms perceived. Inherent in the work is a dilemma; how does one explain and describe something one has not seen?
Teresita Fernández practices the architecture of illusion in her room–size installations. supernova seduces the observer into questioning received knowledge regarding the placement of the human body in space. She does this by employing perceptive, behaviorist, psychological, and cognitive concepts of space. There is play of parallax—the apparent displacement of the position of a body caused by a change of position of the observer—that occurs in Fernández’s installations. In her environments, spectators are encouraged to explore and to make their own connections. Here a viewer’s experience is often interrupted by the discontinuous time of involuntary memory. The artist creates non–places that exist only through the experience of time and motion that the viewer may make.
Presenting human–scale environments, Fernández activates the metaphysical part of architecture that results from an experimental knowledge of movement in space.5 In supernova, she leads the viewer to explore horizontal, vertical, circular, and non–linear movement. She succeeds in presenting what historian Uvedale Price called "intricacy in landscape—the disposition of objects that, by a partial and uncertain concealment, excites and nourishes curiosity."6 Fernández’s work exists in a space between Baroque architecture—defined by architectural historian Vincent Scully as "architecture intended to enclose and shelter human beings in a psychic sense, to order them absolutely so they can always find a known conclusion at the end of any journey"—and the work of Richard Serra, the expanse of whose sculptures "allows one to perceive and locate a multiplicity of centers."7 supernova may also reference the "picturesque" as defined by artist Robert Smithson who said, "The picturesque...is based on real land; it precedes the mind in its material external existence."8
The material external existence is what Teresita Fernández so skillfully calls into question. When I walked into her 1996 untitled installation at Deitch Projects in New York, I felt as if I had been let in on a secret. The experience transformed my notion of a physical interaction with art. The enormous "swimming pool" perfectly inserted between the gallery walls was an impressive, elegant object. My awe was clearly shared by other viewers as a blanket hush imposed itself upon us all. Ascending the stairs that led up to the walls of the pool left each viewer exposed to the gaze of the others. Without the traditional intimate accoutrements of swimming—water and swimsuits—dry and fully clothed, I felt somehow more visible. I was reminded of one of the few times that, as a child, I had seen the swimming pool at my parents’ home empty. My sister and I were allowed to enter the empty pool, but instead of running around yelling, we were reverently still. It was as if we knew that anything we revealed of ourselves would be absorbed, rather then reflected, by the empty space.
Fernández has employed the empty swimming pool form in several of her works. It is but one of the familiar spatial notions she distorts to effect a reconditioning of the viewer’s understanding of architecture and landscape. As Patrick Murphy, former Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, told The New York Times, Fernández is "part of a new generation of conceptualists who insist on both an analytical and a suspension–of–disbelief approach."9 Fernández’s methodology is a postmodern feminist one in which she presents seemingly contradictory notions of feminism and the feminine and demands acceptance of both. Her work is at once extremely feminine in its use of materials and volume, and critical of established, gendered ascriptions of space. In another untitled work, based on an unbuilt house with an interior pool that German architect Adolf Loos designed for the African-American performer Josephine Baker, Fernández included four rectangular "windows," two on each side of the pool, that were reflective from the interior and transparent from the exterior. In Loos’s design, Baker, an exoticized Other, was intended to be observed as she observed herself.
Applying a postmodern feminist approach to Fernández’s work provides an interesting context. Postmodernist feminists are able to maintain a constant yet evolving place within a shifting perception of social reality and identity. That is, they can perceive multiple realities without losing a sense of self-coherence. In addition, within postmodernist feminism there is no absolute; the context defines who people are at the moment. There is no inherent conflict with disparate and seemingly discordant perspectives. Thus, Fernández, by taking the familiar and distorting it just enough to make it either unfamiliar or less familiar, posits the possibility that self–knowledge about one’s placement in time, space, and memory may be only partially true. She creates a subtle temporal and spatial disorientation that reminds us to remember to look around to know where, and perhaps who, we are.
1A grotto is an artificial cavern, usually with fountains and other water works; a triclinium is the dining room in an ancient Roman house; and, a nymphaeum is literally a "temple of the nymphs," but generally a Roman pleasure–house containing fountains and statues.
2Naomi Miller, Heavenly Bodies: Reflections on the Garden Grotto (New York: George Braziller, 1982) pp. 23, 25. The author thanks the artist for suggested readings.
3Ibid., pp. 11, 20, 27.
4Ibid., p. 7.
5Yve-Alain Bois, "A Picturesque Stroll Around Clara-Clara" in October: The First Decade, ed. Annette Michelson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987) pp. 350, 352. Note: the definition is indicated to be from the Petite Robert Dictionary.
6Uvedale Price, Essays on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful (London: J. Mawman, 1810). Quoted in Bois, p. 353.
7Bois, p. 355.
8Ibid., p. 346.
9Ann Wilson Lloyd, "From an Architect of Desire, Many-Layered Constructions," The New York Times, March 21, 1999, Section 2, p. 41.
Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator
The MATRIX Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is made possible by a generous endowment gift of Phyllis Wattis.
Additional donors to the MATRIX program include the UAM MATRIX Council Endowment, Ann Hatch, and the California Arts Council.
The museum also wished to thank the LEF Foundation for their support of Teresita Fernández / MATRIX 182 supernova.