José Montealegre at MOUNTAINS / Berlin

José Montealegre / Nuevo Mundo

Mar 19 - Apr 24, 2021

Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Weydingerstraße 6, 10178 Berlin


José Montealegre moves between the surface and its content. His work translates historical and personal documents into liminal constructions that playfully instigate reality and fiction. His subtle deceptions are the practice of spatializing concrete temporal orders through truncated narrative strands. Such world making is a constant beginning. Embracing artisanal and sculptural practices from pre- and postmodernist aesthetics, Montealegre behaves like a new world alchemist: History grows out of repeated material transformations. Refining his appropriations and transmutations, he intertwines multiple, conflicted and fragmentary pasts with their otherworldly presence today. Decolonial processes become the horizons of change.

Deceptive Traces

The worlds of Montealegre mutate with ease. In the works hanging from the walls—some with scribbles, others lined, many with glass tile floors, and all manufactured, disguised, drawn, and at the same time, empty—the page functions as a metonymy for space. His temporal worlds become sheets of paper. The variations between the works coalesce in their recreation of a notebook’s structural features. Through their size and visual references, they flirt with being lost pages from a sketchbook that documents and externalizes the inner-workings of the artist. 

Reality informs how we narrate and create. Small flowers curl out of a copper spiral and the outline of a nose peeks above a plastered surface. These notebook pages have translucent glass floors. Elsewhere the tiles lose their transparency, suggesting that what we see and not see is not always all there is. The background has been in fact obscured by dense graphite strokes. The glass lets light flow through, but only to instantiate the impossibility of unmediated reality. What operates under the sign of the tangible is revealed as fate and consequence of deceit. Such repeated and promiscuous translations between worlds constitute the slyness of his deceptions. Not only is art itself duplicitous, but also the materials, forms and contents of reality itself. A stellar organism seen from an inhuman distance or the lost pages of a journal intimate the horizons of deceit.

Historical Papers

The plants take their forms and names from Nova Plantarum, an encyclopaedic study on the flora of the new world. Francisco Hernández de Toledo traveled through central Mexico for seven years under the title of Protomédico de Indias Occidentales [Protophysician of the Western Indies] and compiled more than 3000 specimens. He wrote a series of books that are fundamental to the history of exchanges between worlds that also documents Nahua medicine and culture around 1570-77. The copper sculptures adhere to the book's illustrations, which Hernández commissioned from local artists. The titles of the sculptures refer to specific pages in the book, whose original manuscripts were lost in 1671 during a fire in the monastery El Escorial. However, multiple editions based on the book’s albeit reduced, yet surviving second version, abridged by Nardo Antonio Recchi in the early 1580s, continue to circulate. The relationship of the book’s drawings to the originals—or to the reality of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations—has to be understood within the relentless logic of facsimiles, translation and their incongruities.

The artist confronts us first and foremost with the unavoidable distortions inscribed in the  documents of muddled histories. The sculptures reproduce the distortions of scale and proportion that would have helped distinguish a stem from a branch, or a tree from a plant. These specimens of pre-Hispanic Mexican flora find a casual escape in their newfound reality as sculptures. The visual loop that exists between Europe and its “Indies”—instantiated by the Nova Plantarum’s concatenation of image and text, as well as Náhuatl and Latin—is challenged by the sculptural translations of the drawings. These multiply the possible iterations indigenous ecologies can find today. The sculptures’ copper stems and leaves seem to have survived the historical fire, while their iridescent green patina, which begins to show with time’s passing, defy it. The resistance inherent to the modelling of the plant’s newfound materiality tints the horizons of history.   

Loose Leaves

The artist complains again and again about the many drawers he has had to leave open. He misplaces himself. He begins without hesitation but abhors endings. He courts the temptation to intellectualize beginnings. He tears out a sheet of paper and sketches out another thought. He builds for it a new drawer.

Confronted with the amount of documents stored in a kind of neo-baroque highboy formerly serving ecclesiastic archival tendencies, he grows concerned. It tells the adventure of two travellers in love. They walk around and are struck by a forceful realization: Time moves in circles and no hourglass replaces the feeling of the sun over their foreheads. Another stroll around the convent and they meet again. Repetition structures time and space. A barb-wired paperclip foretells their lysergic pastimes. His elliptical striations transmute into a galaxy. He stops, observes it, and moves again. Repeatedly changing as practice creates new worlds.

Comets cascading over every sea at once. There are not enough sheets of paper to finish tracing the reverberations of the initial impact. Paper pieces scatter away like quiet waves. The foundations of worlds to come are traced onto the loose pages of books without owners. Though in different tomes—the story repeats itself. Time runs out yet again, I fall deeply in love with a hippie, the horizon grows red and they entertain the thought of beginning anew.

José B. Segebre