The author remarks Alzamora’s “uncanny aesthetic” as “a fusion of classical sculpture and Surrealism, with occasional shades of Minimalism and Expressionism,” and that “each bust, body and hybrid organism has a striking presence and tangible mass. Most forms are creepily, intentionally lifeless, calling to mind ancient Greek sculptures, but also the imposing, enigmatic object-hood of a Robert Smithson installation. Other works still bare traces of the artist’s hand, calling to mind the stretched-out bodies of Alberto Giacometti.” (Benjamin Sutton, Emil Alzamora’s Sleek Metaphors) Mention of the “primordial chasm between body and mind” and the visual commentaries on contemporary body image issues “reflecting the idea of being fundamentally estranged from one’s body” avert the viewer to the artist’s manifest intention to denature conventional representations of the human form. Lyle Rexer too thinks that in Alzamora’s sculpture, “concept meets craft at a very high level,” and sees this in contrast with “the general de-skilling of art and the rise of conceptual strategies, which have gone hand-in-hand since the early 1960s,” amounting “to an old-fashioned, Henry-Fordish division of labor” that has taken over in the art world. Rexer adds Alzamora to a list of sculptors such as Cemin, Kiki Smith, Pier Consagra, Martin Puryear, or embroidery artist Angelo Filomeno, who “demonstrate that knowledge of materials, and, more importantly, of techniques, opens doors to imagery that can’t simply be ‘conceived’ out of the cultural ether.” (Lyle Rexer, Emil Alzamora: Random Mutations That Work) The author addresses not only the artist’s “virtuosic performances,” to mark the line between fairy tale and allegory, which – as in the case of Kiki Smith – is always “in danger of veering into literalness, an art that speaks too much for itself,” but also the psychological and political character of the distortions of the human “that work only as expressions of a distorted society.”
In a more comprehensive account of Alzamora’s work, accompanied by an interview with the artist, Philip F. Clark has said that “Emil Alzamora is a sculptor who utilizes the body’s limitless and profound incarnations as inspiration to explore psychological, emotional, and cultural states of being, expressed in parameters of anatomy and psychology. For Alzamora, the body is a history, and a map; it is an archaeological site of surfaces that can exhume psychic identity as well as cultural meanings. His three-dimensional depictions of emotional states of being are founded on a rich association with the body’s inherent beauty. For as complex as these skins we inhabit are, it is how we use them to relate to one another that is Alzamora’s focus. He is not only sculpting from life, he is sculpting from mind.” (Philip F. Clark, Emil Alzamora: Bodies of Wisdom and Misdemeanor) “Our bodies are at once our cages and our arenas,” says Clark, “with them, others perceive us by stance and gesture; they are our armor, and our glass. The human form of each of us is a sum total of experience at any point in our lives, and the indelible imprint of our current state of mind.” Observing the artist’s interest for natural sciences, literature, and history, Clark claims Alazamora’s work is an art “of the eye, mind and hand, working together […] to reconstruct the body from its puzzle of meanings and physical associations into a rich vocabulary of sensate materials and surfaces.”
The Peru-born, New York-based sculptor has in recent years explored and subverted various codes and conventions for representing the ‘human’ form. His often massive, deformed sculptures indeed offer an uncanny glimpse into body frailty and nostalgic sentiments that the play with different scales, craftsmanship and restricted colour palette express. At times, the body seems pale, almost cadaverous-looking, displayed in often melancholic or contradictory postures; yet it refers less to an actual body, and rather to a figure of rhetoric that seeks to dismantle culturally encoded representations that have been established and defined through particular sets of socio-cultural and conceptual conventions. It is not the strictly corporal or existential experience these sculptures seek to probe – instead, their oscillating figuration of the beautifully strange and strangely moving instils a formal plasticity expressive of destructed souls and disaffected emotions.
Alzamora’s body of work comprises hyper-real and quasi-abstract elements that create body assemblages rather than formal bodies; his use of bronze, graphite, aluminium, ceramic, or gypsum confirms both his mastership of traditional techniques and the ability to fabricate with new technologies, to encompass the full spectrum of emotional body manifestation. Any clear narrative, identity, or subjectivity has been erased here, since the artist’s manipulation of proportion and material has less to do with the unsettling of the human figure as a means to carve matters of presence and absence, or familiarity and strangeness, and more with an emotive constitution of individualities. In many of his exhibitions, Alzamora seems interested to create a space for encounter and conversation, inviting the viewer to draw her/his own connections; here, the sculptures are formal surrogates that enact the missed and neglected encounters with others and ourselves. Since we too often find ourselves alienated, Alzamora’s silent monuments confront us with aberrant expressions of individual ideas, emotions, and reflections. Figures are only approximated, never fixed; they are generic and thereby prompt instinctive reactions; and they are most of the times cut, disarticulated, deformed or elongated, suggesting both organic plasticity and the vulnerability of matter. In spite of discreet references to corporate culture, global lifestyle, and culture-wide inquietudes regarding our sense of time, the question of full body versus parts, the specific motion of the body, or the bizarre postures inspire a sense of theatricality. Even in its more anachronistic and art historical reflections, Alzamora’s sculpture seems to create a scene for the liberation of sculpture from the dominion of the figure and pursuit of individual emotion, manifested through the abstract and distinctly medium-specific language. One could even see in these sculptures a permanent questioning of the iconic status of the figure.
Through the formal simplicity, strange juxtapositions, and ambiguous meanings they generate, Alzamora’s sculptures simultaneously question the conventions of different eras, but also bring forth mythological narratives that are reinvested with a sense of universality. Some of his new works, like Andromache or Hector’s Return, propose a further dialogue between Modernism and Surrealism in towering gender-undifferentiated figures informed by total plasticity. The mummified figures in Strange Situation or Bowlby’s Wall are not only the figures of an embalmed body transcending its mortal history, they equally mark historical congruence and a return to the origins of purity. In older works like Ancestors, The Water Cycle and Waymaker the sculptural confronts the rust of industrial detritus; in Icarus, Liposphere or Spaceman, influences of twentieth-century modernists and contemporary science-fiction imagery reflect on myth, consumer society, and fictional utopias with equal power; Prism or Sustain seem to reflect on both the industrial heritage and look into the future of technology, offering distorted and deflecting perspectives upon the body. Yet Alzamora’s ‘images’ are not powerful because they’d be too shocking or too delicate in the romantically imbued rendering of their surfaces – they are powerful in that they confront the archetypal with the personal.
Modernism in particular had privileged a certain aesthetic integrity and faithfulness, perpetuating the enduring character of its constituent materials and rejecting the deceitfulness of paint and colour. In Alzamora’s work, rust and dysfunction corrodes the plainness of this aesthetic in a gesture that seeks to unmask the physical reality of body and material. Against the clean formalism of rigid poses or the hyper-realistic detailing, Alzamora’s rusty and uncanny figures express both the transient presence of an actual body and the atemporality of its archetype.
It is not without a sense of theatricality, characteristic of recent figurative sculpture, that the artist explores the different ways in which our visual and corporal encounters are staged. Sculpture is not the contemplation of an object’s formal dynamics, be they internal or external – it is an exploration of the intangible relationships established between matter, form, setting, and participant. I would argue it is a question of reception that Alzamora is interested in revealing through his sculptures: it is not an essence inherent in the art object that the artist shows, but an emotional charge that emerges along the audience’s subjective understanding, response, and participation. His sculptures are the setting of an emotional, often private encounter. This also helps the artist subvert the habits of seeing as entailed by the photographic construction of reality. Hovering between object and image, his figures are an indeterminate presence that questions flattened space-time perception and experience. They erase the barriers between temporal markers in order to render the consistent physicality of sculpture and the indexical traces characteristic of photography. What is a mark of the real is at the same time a mark of the unreal. The viewer is confronted with objects that, for all their size and substance, remain difficult to grasp, mainly because they figure and are a figure of strange inaccessibility, referencing an emotional time and space that enshrouds the silent realism of the sculptures. In their strange frozen images, these sculptures reference both the elusive and haunting quality of memories, and the fundamental conventions of sculpture, photography, and painting. Propped up, perforated, cut and dismembered, Alzamora’s sculptures evoke a rupture that is constituent of all fiction, memory, space, and time – the rhythm of matter.
The reflective surfaces of Everything, Spaceman or Icarus offer a hint at our complicit participation and understanding. Whether filmic or photographic, Alzamora’s perceptual experience is rooted in an attempt to bend the inherent spatial and temporal coordinates of sculpture. While representing a whole body most of the times, Alzamora’s figures are but a flickering moment in a suspended temporal sequence and an expression of fractured material reality. Their subversive nature lies in the deep reflection on media-derived conventions that inform our perception and understanding of the ‘real.’ As the personages seem surrounded by a sense of isolation, their disarticulated postures avert to the articulation of a different understanding. Whereas classical sculpture’s insistence on its enduring material and symbolic appearance was a means to counter the decay, frailty, and mortality of our bodies, transforming the sculpted figure into a witness blind to the passage of time and the impermanence of life, contemporary sculpture returns to ancient conceptions connecting sculpture to death and surrenders the viewer to individual confrontations. In Alzamora’s sculptures, however, the disarticulated forms and decomposed bodies are a work-in-progress, that is, a work of understanding. By rejecting the enduring physical form of classical figuration in favour of time-bound or time-bending materiality, Alzamora does not question human mortality but stages the emotionally charged scenes of a process of perception, understanding, and transformation. Cathartic by its very nature, the material flux of the world that lies concealed beneath the surface of traditional forms invites us to acknowledge that it is not only matter or form that bend – but our own minds as well.
Text by Sabin Bors, April 27, 2015