April 29 – June 5, 2021
In 2000, a program called Of Beauty and Consolation aired on Dutch television. Hosted by journalist Wim Kayzer, the show gathered numerous intellectuals, scholars, and artists, and asked them all the same question: “What makes life worth living?” Although this is certainly a lofty and intimidating topic, artist Gabriel Rico has decided to tackle it in his new exhibition, which shares the title of the television program, at the New York outpost of Perrotin.
For Of Beauty and Consolation, Rico—who is currently based in Guadalajara—explores mortality and meaning in the modern era through large sculptural pieces that incorporate scientific motifs and found objects such as neon lights, antlers, and horseshoes. This work is largely a continuation of Rico’s previous sculptural practice, which creates tension through the juxtaposition of natural and man-made objects combined in larger-than-life works, such as his 2019 installation at the Venice Biennale. Here, Rico aims to create a near-hieroglyphic code that will help to draw out deeper ontological meanings—a task similar in scope to the aforementioned Dutch show.
Rico’s maximalist exhibition is at its most successful when it takes advantage of Perrotin’s gallery space to move away from the show’s central visual language. Engaging the gallery’s tall ceilings and skylight, Of Beauty and Consolation’s centerpiece Du’uej gui, from the series (2021) hangs from the rafters in a cloud of gently curving branches to which gold leaf has been delicately affixed, twinkling in the light. The suspension of this piece in the middle of the room allows it to interact with Rico’s other sculptures—most notably, two pieces that feature taxidermied deer. In Hairy yellow, from the series – Can you smell maths?– and Golden arrow, from the series – Can you smell maths?– (both 2021) two deer perch on mounds of dirt. In Golden arrow, the deer’s neck bows to touch a vintage Coca-Cola bottle as its torso is pierced with golden arrows, while the deer in Hairy yellow appears alert, staring into the distance. White and yellow balls from various sports are caught in its antlers—Rico revisits this imagery in another exhibited piece, X from the series –Excessive butter– (2021). Together, the deer sculptures read as a delightfully kitschy ode to the readymade as well as a comment on capitalism’s relationship with the natural world, as companies permanently alter ecosystems for the sake of profit. The use of taxidermy gives these sculptures an added urgency, blurring the boundaries between the real and fake, the living and the dead.
Rico’s presentation lags, however, in its strict adherence to the artist’s well-established code and interest in ontology. A selection of works hung on Perrotin’s walls, such as Rather than the obvious object (Theorem) (2021), present themselves as a literal code: fabricated and found objects such as ceramic steaks and leaves are connected to golden script by neon parentheses and arrows. The wall arrangement has the effect of a standardized test question, but Rico does not provide any sort of key to solve this riddle, or even to understand the artist’s intentions beyond superficial aesthetics. (Theorem) and accompanying pieces such as VI from the series –The poller and exactor of fees– and Rather than the various object (Verification) (both 2021) are thematically muddled and dense, hinting at some greater understanding of the human condition but never actually providing the audience with any way to interact with the work meaningfully. The artist’s creation of a distinct visual language is commendable—and almost assuredly not meant to be read literally—but without any sort of cypher, context, or emotional grounding, Rico’s exhibition feels too clinical and opaque to engage the viewer productively.
In the television version of Of Beauty and Consolation, a panel member describes the beauty of science, remarking that “[when] you look at science as it’s done, it has a lot to do with building a house. It’s very largely hammering and clattering and a lot of talk. It’s not a solitary activity.” What Gabriel Rico’s exhibition Of Beauty and Consolation lacks is this very sense of warmth and conversation—his enigmatic sculptures shut out the viewer, providing no way to decipher Rico’s ready-made signifiers and visual language. As aesthetically fascinating as Rico’s work is, the art seems in need of a translator. It fails to speak on its own.