Turning Modernism Inside Out: Magdalena Fernández’ (Ir)reverent Order

I discovered Mondrian’s trees and cathedrals, and then understood their evolution toward abstraction. . . . I tried to make [Mondrian’s] work dynamic, to take it out of bi-dimensionality. . . . Trying to make movement visible, I decided to repeat it on the surface, with a separation equal to the measurement of each square using a black line for one of its sides and making the line look as if it were moving around the square, I suggested the idea that each one was turning over itself clockwise. In the middle of the work, I realized I no longer needed the white square, and it was enough to make the line turn. Always looking for a greater abstraction, I thought of reducing the line to its two ends indicating them by a couple of black dots and make a sort of summary of all their movements, and represented them as if it were a matter of an orthogonal projection on the plane, which generated those continuous lines of dots.(1)
           Jesús Rafael Soto

We shouldn’t say that modernity failed but rather respect it even though it
is a tradition that doesn’t function any longer.
           Magdalena Fernández

Orchestrating an aesthetic experience at the intersection of art, science, nature, and technology, the Venezuelan artist Magdalena Fernández takes on the modernist canon with an iconoclastic fervor and urgency. Appropriating and then distorting the pristine pictorial elements deployed by geometric abstractionists, Fernández succeeds in making their legacy contemporarily relevant. By replacing the rigid materials of traditional painting and sculpture with the ephemeral experiences of light projected on walls and sound transmitted into the viewer’s space, Fernández reverses the reductive modernist mandate. The artist projects onto the screen images of constructivist forms identifiable with works by the 20th-century pioneers Piet Mondrian and Joaquín Torres García, as well as those by a subsequent generation of Latin American artists including the Brazilian Hélio Oiticia and the Venezuelans Alejandro Otero and Jesús Soto. Fernández meticulously overlays the visual elements with sounds of nature—most notably those from the tropical surroundings of Fernández’ home country of Venezuela. The artist creates an oppositional tension between the modernist formal components and the discordant sounds from nature that transform them into seemingly haphazard irregular shapes and thereby diverts the evolutionary order through a complex act of naturalizing abstraction. No longer part of an imposed form of modernity or, in the words of Ariel Jiménez, “a failed utopian vision of modernity”(3), Fernández coordinates the sounds of nature, in utopian harmony or disharmony, with the visually immersive experience of light.

In the work entitled 1pm006 (Ara ararauna), Fernández makes direct reference to Mondrian’s simplified abstract style both visually and in the work’s numeric title (pm referring to Piet Mondrian). In 1pm006, she projects an image typical of Mondrian’s nonfigurative paintings, such as his Composition C (No.111) with Red Yellow and Blue (1935), in which the Dutch artist painted a grid of black vertical and horizontal lines on a white background and planes of the three primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—in order to convey what he described as a “dynamic equilibrium.”
Fernández transforms the strict rectilinear composition of the work by visually pulling the grid obliquely in seeming reaction to the cries of a tropical bird, the guacamaya, and by introducing the color green into Mondrian’s restrictive primary color palette. The shrieks of the parrot, whose colored feathers are similar to those of the red, yellow, and blue of Mondrian’s neatly painted squares, appear to physically twist the precise geometric composition into an organic reticular form, one that interacts with its acoustic environment.

In 2iPM009, Fernández similarly evokes Mondrian by projecting a series of light forms on a black background, bringing to mind Mondrian’s black and white paintings such as Composition in Line (1917), a part of the artist’s Pier and Ocean series. Whereas in this series Mondrian sought a way of simplifying forms found in nature, parallel to the subsequent practice by Jesús Soto in his serial rotation of lines in space found in works such as Rotación (1952), Fernández complicates her predecessors’ practice of abstraction in her own work 2iPM009. She reverses Mondrian’s and Soto’s process of simplifying the landscape forms into a series of horizontal and vertical lines, by coordinating the video progression with the sounds of a mounting tropical downpour. Fernández turns the reductive aesthetic process into a cumulative one. Individual pinpoints of light expand in size and shape in a way analogous to that of the drops of rain heard in the background. Eventually turning into an audible and visual deluge of lines and sheets of water, the sound seems to separate the visual layers and points projected. As the dots become larger with the mounting rainfall they invade the entire space of the screen as a white mass, only to recede as the sound of rain eventually diminishes into that of droplets. The formal elements of projected light, the points of light that dot the screens, then increase in length to actively become lines rotating on the black screens. The viewer becomes acutely aware of a cyclical yet complex interactive relationship with nature in direct opposition to that proposed by earlier artists.

In 1pmS011, Fernández turns her focus onto the artistic practice of her Venezuelan countryman, the kinetic master Soto. Here, Fernández builds up the pictorial elements found in Soto’s iconic work Desplazamiento de un elemento luminoso (Displacement of a Luminous Element) (1954) through a narrative that takes place over an almost seven-minute duration. The sounds overlaid and seemingly responsible for the image’s distortion are no longer those of a passing shower or a bird in flight but rather those of a daily event in which nature is gradually awakened at sunrise. The shifting sounds separate the collage layers found in Soto’s original work: a black radio grill pressed between the white painted wood support and a clear Plexiglas pane painted with white dots repeating the holes of the radio grill. In 1pmS011, the animal sounds deform the layers of white dots found in Soto’s collage in an increasingly radical way that makes the viewer conscious of an “awakened” multisensorial experience within an ever more complex environment.

Although seemingly presenting reverent references to the modernist canon established by the European master Mondrian or a kinetic master most often associated with Venezuelan national projects such as Soto, Fernández’ works irreverently dismantle the modernist paradigm. The political and social implications of Fernández’ work become acutely apparent. Her geometrically abstract projections, laid over with sound tracks that intensify in volume and references, present an alternative to the functionalism and progress advocated by an earlier generation of artists such as Soto in Venezuela or Mondrian in Europe. In a way described by Alicia Torres as “naturalizing abstraction and abstracting nature,”(4) Fernández turns over the modernist paradigm by finding a liminal space wavering between the rationalizing evolutionary order from nature to abstraction and a deviation back to nature.
Fernández’ work goes beyond a historical cataloguing of past generations of modernist artists, pioneers such as Mondrian and the Venezuelan kinetic artists such as Soto, or the more traditional landscapists of Venezuela. Fernández takes their work as a point of departure in establishing her own powerfully personal lexicon. She takes the challenge set forth by Soto, “to make Mondrian dynamic,” and makes it contemporary. Appropriating the visual legacy of the modernist tradition of geometric abstraction, Fernández creates a series of sensorial collisions—exploding dots, lines, colors—choreographed to the sounds of untamable parrots, the rushing onslaught of driving rain storms, the gradual dawn awakening. She expresses vibration as light to make movement visible in a physical and acoustical world of natural phenomena that envelops the viewer in unpredictable ways. In her work, Fernández achieves a truly dynamic fragment of an infinite, unstable reality as the essence of all things.

Estrellita B. Brodsky

(1) Soto, in Ariel Jiménez, Conversaciones con Jesús Soto, trans. Evelyn Rosenthal (Caracas: Fundación Cisneros, 2005), pp. 153–56.

(2) "No hay que decir que fracasó pero hay que respetar la modernidad aunque sea una tradición que no funciona mas." Magdalena Fernández in conversation with the author, April 25, 2011.

(3) Ariel Jiménez, "Neither Here nor There," in Héctor Olea and Mari Carmen Ramírez, eds., Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), pp. 246–53.

(4) "In other words, the work [by Magdalena Fernández] looks into the process of naturalizing abstraction and abstracting nature." Alicia Torres, "Magdalena Fernández: cuando el espíritu sopla sobre las aguas"
Vasos comunicantes, Superficies: Magdalena Fernández (Caracas: Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, 2006), p. 14.