As evident in Richard Serra’s work with lead, Robert Smithson’s arrangement of salts and Dan Flavin’s infatuation with fluorescents, humble materials are quite capable of conveying strong ideas. At her first New York solo show, Alejandra Prieto is changing the perception of coal. In Invisible Dust at Y Gallery, the artist uses just four works to prove the versatility of her signature material and to make an even greater argument for its significance as a cultural artifact.
For a show dedicated to coal, it is only fitting that the gallery space is below street level. Like a miner at an unfamiliar site, one feels the urge to duck upon entry, relaxing only as the stairs and antechamber give way to a cavernous room not seen from above ground. It is here that each of Prieto’s four works gets a wall of its own.
The first work to catch the eye is Concave Coal Mirror set against the far wall. Spanning six feet in diameter, the work’s unsettling effect is not derived from its imposing presence, but rather its surface. Though coal has a reflective quality, the rough and rubbed textures create a mixture of matte and gloss finishes, making a full reflection impossible. As the surface fails to disappear in the eye of the viewer, he or she is fully aware that they are looking at, not into a mirror. What seems like a novel invention on Prieto’s part is instead a reintroduction of an ancient technique, as coal was used to produce mirrors in pre-Columbian societies.
Set opposite the mirror, and continuing the Mesoamerican motif, is Ornamental Dust (Chita), a coal dust print on black silk. The fabric illustrates a repeating scene of jaguars and parrots in contrasting patterns. The illustration is styled after the animal imagery found in temples, as if the piece were nothing more than a wall rubbing. A second coal dust print on black silk, titled Ornamental Dust (Laberinto), rests on another wall. It features a more contemporary geometric pattern that would be equally at home on a high-end scarf, or alongside the Chita print in a Mayan-themed gift shop.
|Cloud on Coal Screen|
Prieto switches mediums with the exhibition's most interesting piece – Cloud on Coal Screen, a video projection displayed on a slab of coal. The titular cloud is made of coal dust, and like time-lapsed satellite footage of an oil spill, the viewer watches the inky blob metastasize across the glassy blue surface.
With this video, Prieto reminds the audience of the destructive force that goes into coal extraction. One does not have to think hard to recall the Copiapó mining accident of 2010 (an occurrence that came just one year after Prieto began showing her work with coal). Thirty-three Chilean miners were trapped underground for over two months. Plumes of dust and smoke similar to the projection’s were certain to have erupted there. As a Chilean who locally sources her materials, Prieto likely has working knowledge of the human toll inherent in mining this commodity.
In Invisible Dust, Prieto makes a compelling case for the reconsideration of coal as an art material and the reevaluation of socioeconomic relationships between the haves and have nots. Standing in the intersection of all four works, one is aware of Prieto’s deft handling of coal across multiple media as well as her optimization of the limited space, staying well clear of the material’s saturation point. From the same vantage point, the tension between labor and indulgence is unmistakable. A civilization’s lifestyle faces off with a superficial representation of itself, while a raw material parries with a commercial good. Coal’s sooty texture supersedes the luster of the luxury items, blackening the silks, masking the mirror and flooding the projection, subtly shaming the viewer into questioning whether his or her purchases are worth more than the wellbeing of the working class.