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  • Writer's pictureArtists in Rise


Updated: Aug 11, 2022

Earlier this year I came across the work of Miami based artist, Juan Pablo Garza. Something about his use of colors, textures, and forms really appealed to me and I wanted to learn more. I contacted Garza and asked if he would be willing to talk; he graciously agreed. However, he informed me that he wouldn’t be able to chat for a few months because he was in the process of making a piece for an upcoming museum exhibition. Those few months went by and we were finally able to have our conversation. We talked about his overall approach to making, his personal and cultural background, and, more thoroughly, the work he recently finished for that exhibition.

“Llegarán a la puerta donde la luz se dobla, los arbustos siempre les recordarán” (They will arrive at the door where the light bends, the bushes will always remember them), 2022. Mixed media installation. Images courtesy of artist.

Garza’s installation “Llegarán a la puerta donde la luz se dobla, los arbustos siempre les recordarán” (They will arrive at the door where the light bends, the bushes will always remember them) is currently on view as part of Denver Art Museum’s Who Tells a Tail Adds a Tail. This piece is a playground of misfit objects converging and creating five assemblage sculptures whose forms, textures, and colors are brought together in ways that are both familiar and surreal. Anatomical forms are scattered throughout this piece. The sculpture on the far left has two heads (suggestive of a mother and child) at its center. There are speckled faces at the base of the next sculpture to the right. There is an object with an orange mustache, nose, and mouth in the upper center of the middle sculpture, creating the impression of a face. This sculpture also has an orange and white colored foot springing from one of its legs. Finally, the sculpture furthest right has a pair of red and white hands at its base.

There are also decorative objects involved in the installation, some determinate like the two vases at the foot of the left sculpture. Some obscure like the gray, ribbed vase-like object and the items gathered on the surface of the second structure. The sculpture furthest to the right has a similar ribbed, organic vase, but their colors contrast. The yellow used on this object is only ever clearly repeated on the legs of the middle structure.

The sculpture on the far right also has two horn-like objects. As I look back and forth between them, I see that all of the shorter structures have a variation of this form. But the sculpture second to the right has crescent moon-like shapes as legs, a shape shared only by the two taller structures. Additionally, the top section of the moon-legged sculpture has three hill shaped forms with a giant eyeball in the middle of each, which links them to the anatomical features of the taller structures. The more I look at this installation, the more I play with these seemingly endless connections.

And yet as I look, the figures, textures, colors, and objects seem to collect themselves with a kind of order: I see in these untraditional art objects the structures of a traditional nativity scene. In the sculpture on the far left I see the manger with Mary and Jesus inside and an angel swooping in from above. I see the second sculpture immediately to the right as the gifts presented by the three wisemen, suggested by the moon-legged triclops. The tall middle sculpture is evocative of a shepherd calling to his sheep, the sculpture roving away further to the right.

As I reflected on this analysis of the interpretation, I see how I had both consciously and subconsciously organized my impressions to formulate this narrative. I prioritized connecting things that are immediately recognizable: first the figurative objects and then the decorative ones. I went on to make connections between the indistinguishable, shared elements within the five structures. Finally, I characterized each sculpture within the installation based on their similarities, distinctions, and placement. These characters are not in fact representative of anything I’d ever seen before, so how did I come up with such a specific narrative? Considering the theme of the exhibition Who Tells a Tail Adds a Tail and Garza’s practice may be helpful in understanding this process of perception and interpretation.

Curator Rapheal Fonseca based this exhibition on a Brazilian proverb that says “quem conta um conto, aumenta um ponto" which translates to, “who tells a tale, adds a point,” emphasizing storytelling and its ability to create conversation. Garza, along with 18 other Latin American artists, was selected to create work surrounding this idea with a specific focus on the conversational interaction between the artist and their audience.

Garza considers “objects as concepts” with infinite potential. His practice involves going to places like thrift stores or hardware stores where he might be able to find random trinkets. He chooses his objects impulsively, perhaps motivated by an interest in the texture, color, or size of the object, or in its power to evoke memories, cultural practices, or emotions. He calls his sculptures “mixed encounters” and assembles them by moving objects around and intuitively fixing them together. He maintains “a sustained creative speculation from and around objects” and considers them as “entities wavering between truth and fiction, and entities that respond to instinct and logic interchangeably.” The first object I was drawn to in this specific installation was the bust of the mother and child; I immediately recognized this symbol. But because of the surrounding forms and unrecognizable objects, it became simply a reference to anatomy. It was not until my imagination explained the possible relationships between the other objects and sculptures that I understood the bust to be Mary and Jesus in a manger.

Artist Helio Oiticica thought about this kind of work as “suprasensorial,” work that is “an attempt to generate creative exercises, through increasingly open propositions, dispensing even the object as it has come to be categorized.” This exercise, and Garza’s practice, both suggest and ultimately strip away previous understandings of an object so that the viewer can create their own associations, meanings, and stories.

This is what happened to me in my interpretation of Garza’s installation as a nativity scene: these structures are familiar from my own childhood, and so the collection of familiar objects, unfamiliar placements, and semi-recurrent structures naturally evoked something from my memories.

But that isn’t the whole story.

The nativity scene interpretation wasn’t simply the product of my own memory stimulated by the installation: because Garza himself was deeply influenced by nativity scenes – not so much in the making of this particular structure as in his larger theory of aesthetics/aesthetic practice. He describes his childhood this way: “I grew up in Maracaibo, Venezuela and every December we would set up the pesebrismo, which is like an ornate nativity scene. One year, I was finally able to be a part of the construction of the pesebrismo and the decorating of the christmas tree.” Moving figures around and decorating, storytelling and creating aesthetic experiences – this was Garza’s first creative experience. And these seasonal practices would deeply shape his life as an artist: “I continue to do this with my work,” Garza said during our conversation. The work of moving, decorating, and storytelling within a structure but with increasing freedom stimulated his ongoing interest in the interchange between decorative and art objects, as well as in humans’ learned and instinctive responses to those objects. Garza also mentioned that when he makes a piece with a specific project in mind, he will go out and find objects that are aligned to how he’s thinking about a theme, prompt, or space.

When I learned this about Garza’s creative theories and practices, I realized that my associative response to his work was not entirely free wheeling: it was in some way stimulated, regulated, directed by his work, his mindsight, his own childhood which he had embodied in the work itself. Not all viewers will see this installation as a kind of nativity scene, even though this was formative for Garza himself. They might see other kinds of patterns in his structures, patterns correspond more naturally to the viewer’s own life and values. Llegarán a la puerta donde la luz se dobla, los arbustos siempre les recordarán (They will arrive at the door where the light bends, the bushes will always remember them) is not biographical: it is, rather, an invitation for his audience to experience the suprasensorial, to swing through the objects and react to them in a manner free but not open ended. The work becomes a cognitive map, marking instinctual, learned, and animistic jumping points – in noting how my mind associated things in its interpretation of the installation, I saw into my own self, what had shaped it, what it valued, what practices and figures had registered themselves in my subconscious as forms by which I see the world. It is an exercise in drawing out the structure of thoughts that may not be related in an immediately known or rational understanding but that are nevertheless connected to deeper truths found in things like personal history and consciousness, lived contradictions, and sensory memories.

Juan Pablo Garza has been an artist in residence at Bemis Center for Contemporary Art.

Learn more and stay updated on Juan's happenings here:

Instagram: @jp.garza


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