05.27.2018 - 08.15.2018
In George Kubler’s influential book The Shape of Time (1962), the noted art historian proposes that the objects around us, which we obsessively accumulate, “mark the passage of time with far greater accuracy than we know.”According the Kubler, objects, be they works of art or functional tools, live many more lives than their makers often envision. Consequently, these lives build on one another to form the strata of borrowed ideas that define culture. Alexis Zambrano’s new works recognize the myriad lives of objects, emphasizing the shifting nature of their value and function over time, while questioning the ways in which western institutions commodify and colonize the sacred.
Since his formative years, Zambrano has hoarded oddities, objets d’art, and the unwanted antiques of dissolved estates, becoming obsessed with the transformation of religious objects across cultures. This almost manic preoccupation manifests in his new work Untitled (Mudejar Ceiling) (2018), a meticulous oil painting of a cathedral ceiling in Granada, Spain. The intricate geometric tessellations, rendered here by Zambrano’s careful hand, reveal Alhambra cathedral’s past life as a mosque. A place of worship first built by the Moors of Al-Andalus, medieval Spaniards transformed the building’s function and ritual purpose after the Reconquista, yet the physical architecture itself remains largely unadulterated. Architectural spaces like museums and churches recur frequently in Zambrano’s work; but instead of simply painting an iconic building, he uses the painted ceiling to reframe the gallery space. Installed on the ceiling, the painting suggests a divine context for the other works in the exhibition, repositioning the white cube of contemporary art as a new kind of cathedral or — from a more profane perspective — a place of ritual and convention.
No matter the culture of origin, the divine effigies in Zambrano’s paintings face the same fate: acquisition and entombment into one of the preeminent Enlightenment enterprises, the encyclopedic museum. Rather than attempting to memorialize or preserve the life of an object within a linear or monolithic account of history, Zambrano’s work astutely reinscribes relics and other holy things into the flow of time. In All Seeing Eye (2018), Zambrano layers a faithful reproduction of a reliquary bearing the imagined likeness of Saint Teresa with a series of colorful concentric circles, suggesting the “original” object’s accrual of ideas, energies, and functions. Transitioning from warm to cool tones, the circles visualize the relic’s various, interconnected lifecycles. Throughout the middle ages, pious kings and serfs alike coveted the remains of the canonized, creating economies of relic-trafficking, theft, worship, and fraud. This reliquary now enjoys a new, different life of veneration, as a precious art object in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Replication and modification ascribe new dimensions and values to this object, and Zambrano fashions yet another life to the reliquary. It becomes the research material and subject matter that underpins his art.
Anubis (2016) extends Zambrano’s ongoing inquiry into how the divine becomes comprehensible, secularized, and conserved to dynastic Egypt. The statuette, excavated from the grave of Tutankhamun, keeps watch at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, itself a contested site of colonial history. The Anubis, intended to eternally guard a tomb, becomes interred by frames of black, gold, green and white.
Kubler reminds us that “human desires in every present instant are torn between the replica and the invention.”Zambrano’s work invents with replicas and replicates inventions, asking viewers to contemplate the afterlife of an object. As Zambrano’s art reveals, the afterlife of an object is often inseparable from commodification. What, then, is the true cost of eternity?
Text by Owen Duffy.