IN HER writings about abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, French-American art collector Dominique De Menil once opined that "nobody is visually naive any longer. We are cluttered with images, and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine."
Of course, divinity is in the eye of the beholder. For artist Alexandro Santana, standing on its threshold means tearing down the sacred doorway, adding eclectic scraps of to the pile and painting the whole thing scarlet. That’s meant to be an abstract image, but it’s not too far from the literal truth.
Santana is a man of many layers, an architect-turned-fine artist who questions staid cultural conventions with anarchistic glee. His 2016 show, “Numismatics,” employed film clips, paintings, photographs, the alphabet and a monkey statue to skewer the value we place on social codes and to expose how arbitrary those codifiers are. Held in a former carwash, the one-night exhibition also poked at the art community’s expectations of what kind of space can serve as a gallery.
“The materials, the monkey, all of it shifted the meaning of what an art show is supposed to be,” recalls the painter/philosopher. “The idea was to deconstruct, displace and de-establish the status quo.”
Now he’s upending our notions of high art and highbrow décor with his new installation, “Tio Arturo,” showing at the LGBT Center on Bull Street through February 2, 2018. If abstract art can deliver our monkey minds, Santana imagines what it can do for our living rooms, cluttered to the wainscoting with end tables and tsotchkes.
New and old works curated by Location Gallery’s Peter Roberts have been paired with the accoutrements of a classical parlor: Antique chairs, bronze lamps, filigreed candelabras and clocks with slightly clouded faces bring depth and dimension to Santana’s colorful, eclectic paintings, a juxtaposition that’s meant to be sumptuous and jarring all at once.
“This show presents a deconstruction of the commodity of art itself,” explains Santana in his gravelly Spanish accent, punctuating the air with his hands. “It brings together what we think of as ‘high art’—the paintings—with the chairs and clocks and other objects of our daily life.”
This is where the deconstruction begins: Many of the objects—the “low art,” per se—are actually museum-quality pieces from Christie’s Auction House in New York, each one with provenance and paperwork. (A cherub clock, constructed in 1790, was bought for, then rejected by, William Randolph Hearst.)
Before he and Roberts settled on “Tio Arturo” as the show’s title, Santana toyed with the name “The Elite Meets the Street.”
“We’re bringing these objects to the street, defacing them of their established platform of the museum and the mansion, and bringing them to an LGBT Center in Savannah, Georgia, in an edgy neighborhood, to be seen in context with my paintings,” he says, giving a joyful clap at the irony of it all.
“The bourgeois, established code of these decorative art objects has suddenly been demoted into just another object in a white box, devoid of all its cultural status and power. They don’t have the same meaning in here as they would in somebody’s big house.”
He wryly admits all the “stuff” is actually from his own Hall Street living room where he paints, surrounded by antiques bought and inherited. Many came down through his high-society, highly religious mother, and his series, “Blonde Jesus,” is inspired by the statues on her prayer altar.
“The whole thing is a jab to the establishment, which I realize is all I’ve ever been doing since I was born,” he laughs. “Dad and Mom were so codified, you know?”
Perenially avant garde and savagely intellectual, Santana over the past decade has shifted from literal imagery to increasingly abstract works that aim for DeMenil’s divine threshold. While “Tio Arturo” features some of his figurative paintings and an appearance by that cheeky monkey from “Numismatics,” the new pieces have a pop-art feel that curator Roberts calls “Louis the Sixties meets Palm Springs.”
One painting evokes a forested landscape teeming with dolphins, and a triptych of collages dominated in red with scraps of zebra prints represents Santana’s headlong leap into abstract expressionism.
“Is it a dog? Is it a zebra? Is it a chicken?” muses the artist, tracing a finger along the ambiguous silhouettes.
“At the level of formalistic, painterly discourse, the new ones are meant to further deconstruct established codes of painting. You can interpret many stories.”
Echoing previous themes of exposing the arbitrary worth of cultural codes, perhaps the most subversive idea that “Tio Arturo” puts forth is that art and objects are only as valuable as we decide they are.
“Everything—the art, the furniture—is a commodity that can be bought, sold, liked, disliked,” Santana says with a shrug. “I’ve come to realize at 50 years old that paintings are just as commodity-driven as the chairs—there’s no mysticism. They’re just another commodity that artists produce to share and hopefully, to sell.”
That said, he notes that the gallery proceeds from the show benefit the LGBT Center.
Ultimately, “Tio Arturo”—translated as “Uncle Albert” and intentionally unrelated to anything contained within the show itself—furthers Santana’s mission of divine disruption.
“It’s about questioning established style. Are we happy with the established way of looking at art? Do we like what museums do? I hope it brings the viewer to question that. It’s meant to demonstrate that we can break the rules.”
After a beat, he adds with an impish grin, “It also shows that abstract art and antiques look really hot together.”