American Beauty is not real. Six notes regarding visual friction.

2012. El Momento / The Moment. María Elena Lucero.

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1. At first glance, austere, majestic flat planes of color emerge in tones that vary precisely, distilling serene chromatic schemes. These first impressions that emanate from Rob Verf’s canvases persist while the images gradually project other caustic, even painful, sensations. Calling upon my visual memory to review a past experience in Madrid’s Prado, I find myself face to face with Hieronymus Bosch and his delicious garden, where good and evil battle it out. Why does this recollection come to mind? Perhaps due to the pictorial precision that returns here in a language of great synthesis, quasi mechanized or cybernetic, immutable, but incisive and scathing in the end. These are two versions of one of the most feared and frequently recurring spaces throughout large part of the history of art and of humanity itself: the landscape of Hell, the place of the excluded, the punished and those atoning for their sins. If Bosch’s underworld consecrates a chaotic tide of inflamed –and estranged– figures who commit all manner of insults, atrocities, humiliations, and other varied insanities, Hell (Infierno) (2001) by Verf exhibits a different attitude. His is a scene impregnated with violence as an everyday practice, where a painstaking brush tells of sinister emotions that coexist with both complicity and aberration. It is a kind of contemporary model that stirs up unfathomable areas of the mind, ratifying the impotence provoked by social vulnerability or the wandering astray of childhood innocence following adult abuse (a thorny issue that is tangentially alluded to in Lukas Moodysson’s Mammoth, from 2010). Morbid agitation, despotism and psychic violence constitute new ways of experiencing an abyss of condemnation or frequent depression in a confusing present.

On the other hand, in the case of Bosch’s human, animal or hybrid figures, certain sexual profiles are made manifest to complete each one’s character, not only in appearance but also in terms of the relationships established between them, for example sadism, penetration and swallowing. In contrast, the actors in Verf’s work possess very few traits pertaining to masculinity or femininity and they appear in a purely laconic way and only where needed. This scheme is reiterated in several of his works, such as The Experiment (El experimento) (2005), and it leads to pleasantly disturbing constructions.

The unsettling greys of these paintings remain with me, similar to the cloudy atmospheres found in the works of Dutchman Albert Eckhout, one of the travelling artists who participated in the expedition to Brazil undertaken by Johan Maurits, the Prince of Nassau and later in charge of the Dutch West Indies Company. Eckhout focused on creating a visual record of the native population, the landscape and its fruits and vegetables, a task that would very definitely wind up serving Europe’s colonizing enterprise. His ethnographictype portraits from 1641 included the well-known Tapuyas couple, from the indigenous group attributed with cannibalism and anthropophagy in Brazilian territory. His ethnographic backgrounds featured grey skies leaning toward tranquil light blues or yellows.

Both Eckhout and Verf display a keen interest in evaluating surfaces that coincides with what Martin Jay (2003) denominated 17th Century Holland’s “scopic regimen”, with its strong emphasis on detail along with scientific study of chromatic behavior. A shared horizon of cultural tradition most likely exists that touches on both creators, demonstrated in a cautious, subtle painting technique, and their being genuinely seduced by oil and canvas. Nevertheless, in the contemporary artist there is a predominant dedication to geometry that marks a shrewd twist in regard to past centuries’ historical narratives. This detour undoubtedly accentuates the pared-down iconographic synthesis employed and inaugurates a new organization where the rigor of applied color and the possibility of embodying states of mind in figurative projections come together. The dynamics of the bodies fall back on subjective dispositions that produce a creak in the contemplative calm, a sort of initial panacea that mutates into fleeting instants which, in this case, adopt a perennial tone.

2. There are different ways of approaching an issue as highly complex as social violence. Without a doubt, one of the works by Rob Verf that examines this topic in greatest depth is Chica americana (2005), a magnificent oil painting where an accumulation of garbage and refuse is dispersed before the imminent presence of flesh colored forms that refer to a feminine being who is surprised and aroused. The tidy floor’s grey grid witnesses the battle of the edible leftovers, scattered in the air, spilled out and gathered together again. They are the remains of fruits and vegetables, black bags, crumpled papers, bits of cardboard and plastic bottles, reassembled into a scene that is clearly habitual along paths traveled in Buenos Aires. One afternoon, after walking several blocks from his studio following an interview, the artist observed a girl situated on the ground near a bridge, surrounded by cardboard, refuse and chewed up rags. “American Girl”, he murmured, clearly a reference to an environment that seems to be common currency today, engendered some time ago. An interesting article appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in June, 2009 that highlighted the presence and relevance of Argentina’s cartoneros today as an ‘extract of homeland misery’ that has become more widespread over the course of recent years, occupying new social territories. Said panorama was the result of a furious detonation now familiar to all in late 2001, a moment of crisis, collapse and anxiety for many of the inhabitants of this Republic. Beginning their voyage in the suburbs (that ‘primary move of survival’ according to the author of the article in question) every marginalized worker would find a way to take advantage or make use of that discarded by others. It is an arduous form of harvest that implies searching, selecting and classifying paper or plastic waste in the daily struggle to subsist, a way out of the conflict unleashed by social exclusion using what one finds at hand. Of course, art was not far removed from all this. Focusing on this particular situation, Andrea Giunta (2009) mentions not only the emergence of artists working in collective modalities who, in addition to organizing themselves in groups turned to the street as their work space, but also a variety of proposals involving collaboration that were rooted in solidarity and support: the recovery of urban zones that had been dismantled to be re-utilized for start-up artistic endeavors, new paths opened for the circulation of art, an increase in artists’ residencies or critique sessions in studios, projects to recover visual archives and written documents, less than assiduous and hardly conventional forms of exchange between artists and institutions, and far more inclusive cultural policies with openly de-centralizing intentions. They were all possible expressions of reactivation that endeavored to heal a wide gap of instability and social unrest. The constant political and economic fluctuations set loose by the profound crisis tore apart the social fabric and instigated an overwhelming expansion of belts of poverty, with rising unemployment rates and a multitude of consequences that persist even today. Collapse and consequences, famine and plunder, death rattles and scars.

However, this pauperization involved more than just the remnants we see on sidewalks or on the outskirts of the outer belt of the city, it also translates into socialized hypocrisy. The 1999 film American Beauty portrayed the limitations engendered by the domesticated falseness pertaining to a family immersed in deception, a faked behavior that is necessary in order to cloak realities that are difficult to exteriorize. Mistaken situations reveal the recondite physiognomies of an easy upper middle class target for whom everything soon falls apart, ties clouded over by either lies or human misery, neither of which are entirely exclusive to any one particular sector. As such, this misbegotten American Beauty does not exist, it isn’t real, but a paradox full of contradictions, as is the serene (and abrasive) simplicity of the painting Chica americana: it is the balanced confluence of foul, contaminated garbage in all its crudeness and a sober, majestic pictorial tidiness. In turn, the demarcating lines that pertain to the feminine fragments appear to simulate comma design –the mimicking gesture that we see registered in Teotihuacanos murals– hyper-refined and made techno, mechanical and aligned, expulsing electrified currents and perhaps concentrating vital power. There is an underlying descriptive intention in those pre-Hispanic paintings that is simplified here, cauterizing and unifying figures in a linear diorama that holds forces that had previously been made invisible.

3. As part of a prolific plastic investigation, the Structures (Estructuras) series (2008-2011) comes to fruition in sculptural objects comprised by white spheres that suggest atoms, joined by fine lines of wood. They are shown on occasion hanging from the ceiling, or resting on different supports. In this case, Rob Verf overcomes and transgresses an orthodox geometric arrangement, which becomes clear with the introduction of elements charged with latent energy, elements that are vivacious and above all, moveable: the slightest movement of air sets an oscillation of the Styrofoam balls into motion, stirring up the stagnant atmosphere. These molecular configurations are reflected in the mirrors placed on platforms and they elicit ephemeral states that continually reinvent themselves. These spatial arrangements may well revisit, in part, the ‘vital structures’ that Mari Carmen Ramírez (2004) points to as local versions (and inventions) that emerged in the Latin American field that effect a significant twist (and inversion) in relation to certain veins of geometry outlined and labeled from a Eurocentric perspective. As this author explains, the constructive impulse that proliferated in the post-war period following the Second World War, gave rise, in parallel, to different dilemmas and questions regarding its incidence in South America. These concerns flourished not only in shows linked to this topic, but also in an abundance of diverse productions. As such, the term ‘structure’ became a propitious word for analyzing the regional context, acquiring new meanings related to subjectivity, organization, action and movement. The discrediting of determined European aesthetic models on account of their exacerbated rationalism opened the way for organic compositions within the constructive field, stimulating varied and multiple systems upon which works were founded. In this way, the desire to focus attention on dynamic structures –formatted here by atomic fictions– reveals a turning point that brings Verf’s work closer to these aesthetic concerns. This aspect also takes on meaning in other directions: in the unprecedented annexes to these Estructuras that bear with them certain estrangement –a few semi-spheres of a different color adhered there that intoxicate or function as parasites to the rest– and in his choice of low-cost, economic materials such as Styrofoam or wooden rods. These are two traits that signal conceptual shifts in regard to the components considered most propitious or less instrumented in sculptural practice. Other neighboring objects include porcelain statuettes, small dolls that escort the other objects mounted inside the transparent showcase. These supposedly chance encounters create a particular atmosphere in the intimate space beneath each glass cover. Like artifacts captured in an anthropological museum, these works encourage a respectful gaze employed in unraveling allegorical statements. Why the sphere and the diminutive woman…? The feminine allusion is reiterated in other proposals, similarly producing a dialogue with certain painted figures which, in this case, assume volumetric form and unfold from a point of origin of solid black lines affirmed on the base.

Let us return to the platforms. The atomic structures hang from threads and spin while they are reflected in the mirrors positioned below. This apparent kinetic force recreates patterns of energy in movement, irradiating whitish profiles that are continually, unceasingly transformed. The exploration of optical-type phenomena increases in the ‘viewing boxes’, which invite curious peeping in the hopes of coming across some unexpected discovery. With yellow, blue or transparent covers, the boxes contain a group of mini-spheres that take the viewer by surprise, suggesting biological formations, chemical expansions or laboratory cultures, strange experiments or intruding bodies. Another group is situated on the wall. They seem to be windows behind whose glass walls enigmatic essences are kept. Up close, the white boxes contain a diminutive opening; they are minimal observatories, a playful temptation in geometric formats that house latencies, hidden entities awaiting examination.

4. An aquatic dance is unleashed by different size balls in the video Full Foreground (2010). This project was jointly carried out by Rob Verf and poet, critic and historian Roberto Tejada (Los Angeles, 1964), and the result was translated into a micro-stage set where images and words combine. The spheres display different expressions typed on white slips of paper adhered with translucent tape, such as track, voice, plumb, blood, prick, peel. Footprints, voices, a probe, blood, jab and skin refer to an absent body from which vital fluids, humors, pain, piercing sentiments and groans all resonate. The labeled balls begin to move immediately, the water comes in and provokes currents that tug and shove. The balls spontaneously begin a sort of skin-diving that originates in minute turbulence that gives way to an agitated but graceful ebb and flow. The conjunction between transparency, solidity and liquidity make up an effective trio that in some way positions this work in proximity to an aesthetic inheritance already present in Argentina. One emblematic and historical reference for works involving aquatic devices is Gyula Kosice (1924). His utopian ideas linked to architecture materialized in the manifesto for Ciudad Hidroespacial (Hydro-spatial City), written in the early ‘70s.

From the outset, Kosice advised of the gap that separates the vital impulse that defines man from the constitution of his habitats, a distance that made it necessary to reflect upon global society, its functional structures and the progressive ecological and geological deterioration that dislocates it. One feasible solution would lie in the possibility of constructing and living in hydro-spatial cells. Within the Maqueta C (Maquette C) that Kosice designed for this urban entity, one of the territories he conceived of was an anti-gravitational zone in order to dissimulate what would rise or fall, situated in the lower part of the sketch. It would seem that his concern with gravity was sustained in terms of both ethics and aesthetics. Suspending weights that would rise or fall implies the constitution of a new temporality, a provisory lethargy or a manner of maximizing the experience of every instant. The recent animated video produced by Carbajo and Barcesat on Kosice’s Ciudad Hidroespacial recreates a quiet, pacific invasion of acrylic ships with several colored, rounded cupolas that fly over the city or the sea under a light blue sky, although they do harbor certain expectation or restlessness regarding something unexpected that might take place. It proceeds in slow motion, parsimoniously. The dirigibles appear slow and lazy as opposed to the energetic pulsations of Rob Verf’s spheres, which arrive in impressive leaps that culminate in a mass inundation. However, the suffocation anticipated as the finale does not come to pass, the balls disband and escape. The final destiny of the words placed on these light geometric morphologies is equally uncertain. Whether messages, memories, recollections or statements, the function assigned to them is volatile, wandering or in transit: the poetic sense arises out of a collaborative proposition, where artist and writer each liberate their singularities in the name of exchange and trade, taking on a practice of socialization that derives in a particular way of living ‘foreignness’, as Giunta puts it (2010), validating their joint, integrated and relational condition.

I still retain the image of the water’s impact as it sweeps through, the frenzy it produces with the most minimal contact with the Styrofoam balls. There is an organization that later comes undone, giving way to the uncontrollable. Once again, it is the discovery of an energetic, dynamic and mobile behavior, perpetrated here by volumes, a constant that reappears in diverse visual proposals by Verf, whether in two or three dimensions. It is a constant state that mutates in appearance, in heterogeneous and changeable guises.

5. The Landscapes (Paisajes) (2009) appear surrounded by cosmic blacks. I stumble across absorbing voids, dark backgrounds, flashes and shocks that in turn cover painted or adhered figures. Blustery atmospheres slip away on a reduced scale, alleging to indicate vast immensities. Dark tones provoke brutal contrasts, like the greys and blacks of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. A whitish explosion also recreates luminosity and glare in the stupendous 1633 painting Storm on the Sea of Galilee, a prized and coveted work by Rembrandt that was stolen (and not yet recovered) from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Boston in Massachusetts in March, 1990.

The protagonists there witness the miraculous act of Christ on the Sea of Galilee, embodied in a thunderclap of energy. Somber pigments express turbulence, ebb and flow conjugated in a sublime equation that transmits the anxiety and abandon of the voyagers on board. Verf’s tones, however, are even more powerful, and they burst onto the canvas in an incisive way. Opaque blacks, jet blacks and furtive, enigmatic blacks appear, as do blacks in the most complete silence.

The superimposition of paper and white ink reappear in his new collages. Intervened photos of nudes detonate found symbols in opposition: exasperated pornography is blocked out, covered by profuse, daubed-on explosions of white. At first glance, we cannot determine what lies beneath these abundant, creamy stains. Only here and there in different works are clues left uncovered that might give us a lead. The visual pregnancy of erotic photography is significant, possibly for its excess of information, everything all at once. According to François Soulages (2010), the function of this type of photography is to trigger a process of sexual fantasies and illusions based on a scenario of a situation that has already taken place, and done so in the presence of the viewer. The voyeur client accesses these images by paying for them, at times convinced that his or her memory does not reach as far as the photo-witness. What happens if this voyeurism is abruptly interrupted… if a white area obscures the nude bodies? Exhibitionism based on feminine nudes has a long history. John Berger (2001) has pointed out how a minimization of the passion experienced by the woman herself comes into play as a result of the priority given to feeding the observer’s sexual desire. The spectator is pre-eminent. Comparing Juan Auguste Dominique Ingres’ odalisque and a nudist model captured in a sensual pose, Berger finds similarities, given that both offer themselves up to the gaze of an other who objectifies them.

On occasion, the photos manipulated by Verf are partially covered up by black paint. There are areas that remain uncovered which allow a view of the classic nudie girl from men’s magazines. It is a prototype of beauty that winds up being accessible and fast (similar to Richard Hamilton’s celebrated 1956 collage of a home with a voluptuous nudist and a young bodybuilder showing off a Tootsie Pop lollipop). Nevertheless, these compositions are inscribed in a different way; the images are accompanied by texts that refer to banal, everyday domestic situations. Marks that bring synthesis, alluding to the eyes or sex reappear. This American Beauty distorts herself, the pin-up is usurped and ousted from the usual framework of exhibitionism channels. She invites being spied on or observed, but hides herself and so she is left behind in terms of pornography’s most vulgar function: porno-prostitution and graphic description, the way that representations tending toward sexual attraction and carnal exaltation are instituted. In these images this exercise is de-naturalized and the nude either agonizes beneath the pigment or unknowns arise underneath the accents of black lines that even further dislocate the observer-subject.

6. In the title of this text I suggest the term visual friction in order to refer to Rob Verf’s work. I understand frictions to be tensions, grazing and antagonisms that co-exist, whether harmoniously or not: tractions. All these aspects have been progressively modeled by way of pictorial, sculptural, graphic or audiovisual techniques on different levels, and they establish a body of work that is extremely critical, solid and intuitive. These pieces do not concede anything; they germinate in a context that insists on stirring up the spectator’s thoughts, they assault prejudices from multiple angles and take a stand against a disperse reality with particular strategies, an alchemist’s combination of chromatic exquisiteness, corrosive symbols and skill. I read a conceptual frankness here that does not facilitate swift acceptation. At the opposite extreme is the ironic book by the Mexican artist based in New York, Pablo Helguera, which offers instruction regarding certain rules that should always be followed in the art field. With a healthy dose of cynicism, Helguera (2005) suggests determined tactics that should be kept in mind in order to achieve fame, that range (to cite only a few) from assuming exorbitant conduct of self-praise with disproportionate demands in relation to one’s own work –and if this maneuver fails, to immediately fall back on hyper-humility– or to project a self-image of power and influence, even maintain an appearance of false courtesy capable of covering up the fact that the artist is, in essence, the rival of other artists. The limitless sarcasm and virulence employed in this humorous manual lead us to reflect on the intricate space in which we find ourselves immersed (probably by choice). Far from enrolling in some strange and unusual convention, it may well be that Verf betrays current logic, adopting sinuous paths that are consolidated in his committed, persistent and constant labor, a painter in the enclave of his studio, discovering the real meaning and intellectual density of his daily practice. His production enables a trajectory back and forth between past and present that stimulates a wide range of evocations, an intense voyage of the senses that intersects visual history while at the same time infringes upon and creates ruptures with established notions, re-negotiating ideas and opinions on the basis of plastic language itself.

Bibliographic references

BERGER, John. 2001. Modos de ver. Editorial Gustavo Gilli, S.A., Barcelona.

GIUNTA, Andrea. 2009. Poscrisis. Arte argentino después de 2001. Siglo Veintiuno Editores, Buenos Aires.

GIUNTA, Andrea. 2010. Objetos mutantes. Sobre arte contemporáneo. Editorial Palinodia, Santiago de Chile.

HELGUERA, Pablo. 2005. Manual de estilo del arte contemporáneo. La guía esencial para artistas, curadores y críticos. Tumbona Ediciones, Mexico City.

JAY, Martin. 2003. Campos de fuerza. Entre la historia intelectual y la crítica cultural. Ediciones Paidós SAICF, Buenos Aires.

RAMÍREZ, Mari Carmen. 2004. “Vital Structures. The Constructive Nexus in South America”. In Ramírez, Mari Carmen and Olea,

Héctor: Inverted Utopias. Avant-Garde Art in Latin America. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, pp. 191-201.

SOULAGES, François. 2010. Estética de la fotografía. La Marca Editora, Buenos Aires.