“Paris is a gigantic work to be consulted, a species of encyclopaedia. The shops, for example, have their language, there are shops that are like pages of newspapers or like the voice of an encyclopaedia- there are cheese shops that have on display hundreds of cheeses, all different, each with its name attached. A triumph of the spirit of classification, of nomenclature. Look, if tomorrow I want to write about cheese, I’ll leave the house and consult Paris like a grand encyclopaedia of cheese,” said the Italian writer Italo Calvino. Guillermo Kuitca, an Argentine showing currently at Hauser and Wirth with a history of passion for Denis Diderot’s Encylopédie, says he uses maps “to get lost… not to get oriented.”
Getting lost is exactly what happened to Diderot himself, as the gallery’s literature tells us, in embarking on an ‘ill-fated task of compiling all knowledge into numerous volumes.’ “I am interested”,” Kuitca said once, “in the major contradiction between a medium… which is so specific and partial, and the abyss of an enormous knowledge of things,” and this is the overall impact of walking into the South Gallery of Hauser and Wirth, 23 Saville Row. The main event here is a series called Encylopédie (2010), where Kuitca has taken a series of floorplans from Diderot’s attempt, manipulated them, and transposed them onto canvas using acrylic and graphite, only now we have no reference point for them. They are called Encylopédie, but this title is, ironically, useless in aiding our knowledge of what these things are. Contextless, they rest fragmented with a name that suggests a triumph of the spirit of classification and nomenclature.
They are floor plans- that is what Kuitca has done- but now they are floor plans in the same way that a Cubist still life is a glass, or a bottle, or a lute: in the medium we see snatches of a glass, or a bottle, or an enlightenment atrium, but our vision is disrupted into a series of sections, aided by a title, that we artificially place a known shape on, like seeing the Loch Ness Monster in a cloud formation or the face of a loved one in a stranger’s.
And as you walk around these, squinting at the perfect symmetries in what I assume are plans for an Italian garden, or the less perfect symmetry of a village around the summit of a small hill, there is a sense of insecurity in Encylopédie (2010). We are being pulled around in the same way the first viewers of the Cubists were pulled around; by recognising a little piece of something vaguely like something else seen before, and trying to force what is infront of you to comply despite it’s stubbornness in looking only like itself. Kuitca has zoned in on a way of doing an aging trick in a new mode- a return to the mode of early abstraction, only this time, instead of taking advantage of developments and discoveries in optics like Picasso and Braque, Kuitca has capitalised on discoveries about our psychology in seeing things, and uses this to toy with the phrase “seeing is believing”, and us. Like the hundreds of different cheeses in a Paris cheese shop, the Encylopédie series is definitive, too overwhelming, and tacitly incomplete, like Diderot’s. The mosaic of the world, made up of “stuff to know”, is too much for us.
A tube map is the abstract form of the London Underground, and in the North Gallery we can see this played out in a series of enormous, mesmerising canvases, on which lines that resemble lines on a tube map (they have also the black circle where you can change line), but with no station name, are scrambled and criss-cross over painted surfaces that resemble mountains, or cave walls, or nothing but colour, or unprimed canvas. These are very entertaining paintings, pushing and pulling you between the sight of the painted surface and the suggestion of something underneath it indicated but not shown. This, to my mind, is the same kind of thinking that functions in Encylopédie- the difficulty involved in abstraction from the world while still trying to hint at something in the world, and between the world and the presentation of the world lies a certain odd sort of abyss. Or, perhaps, the fact of the painted, non-figurative surface, and the invitation to imagine little tube trains running beneath its jagged mountains, or a car taking a long trip through an unprimed desert.
Because now we finally get to what I most liked about Kuitca’s work, in particular the big canvases from 2011, all untitled. They are, quite simply, amazing to look at. They show an acute, tricksy mastery of foreshortening and the invitation to make perspective from diagonals and light/dark shifts. One, mainly dark, is over 12 feet wide, and I was almost touching it before I was certain there were not bits in relief. It is amazing work, which seems to draw something from (and certainly looks like from a distance) Guiseppe Penone’s wall and floor mounted series of “skins”, which exhibit only the texture and look of the texture of nature- particularly his work using “Spines”. In the paint’s handling it is perhaps Braque, but for me more resembles Cézanne’s late landscapes, particularly Mont Sainte-Victoire (approx. 1902) in its calculated and geometric use of shape and shift of colour- chopped into small shapes that bully your eye into pulling certain parts out, pushing more back, making sharp protruding spines out of some meetings of triangles.
In this way, Kuitca returns us to the landscape. How we catalogue this landscape, or move from it, or through the texture of Mont Sainte-Victoire in our imaginary trains is a whole other problem. It is one thing to see hundreds of cheeses, it is quite another to write about them, and another to write about them systematically. And so, Kuitca (and Calvino for that matter) focus on the problem, which is, to my mind, why Guillermo Kuitca succeeds but Denis Diderot failed. Words by Jack Castle, © Artlyst 2012
Guillermo Kuitca Hauser and Wirth, Saville Row. 1 June- 28th July 2012.