The practices of Alicja Kwade and Jose Dávila are both broad and distinct. Each artist has ventured successfully into an array of mediums: video in Kwade’s case, and painting in Dávila’s; but it is in sculpture, the discipline that perhaps they are both best known for, that their oeuvre intersects.
Furthermore, the aesthetic crossover occurs in their use of specific materials such as glass, stone, concrete and steel. What is most interesting about the formal similarities are their contrasting approaches to dealing with said materials, the manner in which each artist handles space, and the concepts behind the work. Also of great interest is how the artists converge in terms of scientific references, intention, and stimulating the viewer’s senses.
It was during the customary gallery talk with Dávila at Dallas Contemporary that the contrasts between how markedly Kwade and Dávila handle and display materials began to emerge. Dávila spoke of the I-Beam as a universal element used in construction across the globe: “they are always the same,” he explained. Other than painting and cutting the I-Beams, Dávila displays them in their original state. The same is true of the rocks that complete the sculptures: they are untouched. Dávila displays the uniformity of the industrially fabricated I-Beam in relation to the singularity of the primal, natural stone. He uses a similar approach in works consisting of compositions of concrete cubes and rocks, such as The Weaker has Conquered the Stronger I (2019). The industrial concrete cube looks perfect and smooth when seen next to the singularity of the rock.
Whereas Dávila builds artworks with existing elements, Kwade is compelled to transform and combine materials, pushing matter to the limit of what is possible. In the work Force (Sandstone) (2016), she displays a bent I-Beam resting against a curved tablet of sandstone. Both materials appear to be melting as they support each other. For Kwade the original state of matter is the starting point, then it must be stretched to the limits of what is possible, pushing against its intrinsic characteristics, where hard stone appears to softly bend and metal begins to liquify. In an example of large-scale transformation and custom fabrication, Kwade responded to the former hedge maze at the Crane Estate in Ipswich, Massachusetts with TunnelTeller (2018). The immense site-specific structure, composed of concrete walls, was placed on the remains of a former maze. The walls were intersected by mirror-polished stainless-steel tubes and surrounded by a series of blue stone spheres of varying sizes. Unlike standardized I-beams, the stainless-steel tubes—which ranged in length from four to eight meters, and in diameter from twenty to 120 centimeters—were custom made by steelworkers, then hand polished using specialized tools. Polishing required extreme skill and unique implements, as it is nearly impossible to polish the interior of a long and narrow tube. The naturally chalky and angular Azul Macauba stones, found in Brazil, were shaped into perfect spheres, transforming the material into Earth-like orbs.
It is important to point out that Kwade and Dávila possess significant similarities, particularly in terms of the purity of their materials and the symbolic meaning behind their selection. It is essential for both artists that the material itself be real, not simulated, regardless of the shape or process. Kwade chose concrete and steel as the primary ingredients for TunnelTeller because they are used to construct our cities, “our reality.” Dávila describes concrete as “man-made rock.”
Perhaps the works that are most physically similar are those that are made simply using sheets of glass and cut stone but have distinct conceptual origins. Kwade’s series Hemmungloser Widerstand, roughly translated as “uninhibited” or “unrestrained resistance,” is a play on words to describe a force that is simultaneously unstoppable or uncontrollable. The title refers to the socially transgressive and primordial act of letting go by throwing a rock, as well as to the relationship between the materials as they come into violent contact. Here Kwade deals with the time-honored tradition of protesting by throwing rocks and breaking windows. There is a specific reference to the annual May Day celebrations in Berlin where protestors dig up the cobblestones in the street to throw at the police. Hemmungloser Widerstand (2018) is composed of three stacked rocks forming half an arc. The rocks are intersected by two sheets of glass at an angle creating a sense of motion. Surprisingly, the glass does not break as it is penetrated by the cobblestone.
Dávila takes a different approach in an Untitled work from 2020, in which nine rocks are segmented by square sheets of glass. Like Kwade, the glass panes rest between cut rocks. Dávila shows progression by increasing the size of the glass sheets. Consequently, the rocks grow in size from a technical perspective, with larger stones needed to hold increasingly bigger panes in place. The inspiration for incorporating the materials is quite different: the progression references conceptual art pioneer Robert Smithson’s iconic Mirage No. 1 (1967), as well as works like Gravel Mirrors with Cracks and Dust (1968). The materials are shown together as a means to highlight their “opposing qualities”: dense/brittle, transparent/opaque, organic/inorganic.
Kwade also explores progression and transformation in a series of works inspired by Fibonacci numbers. Trans-For-Men 8 (Fibonacci) (2018) is composed of eight sections separated by mirrors. Each section features a volume of distinct materials including copper, brass, bronze, bronze with patina, granite, sandstone, marble, and concrete, all resting on the floor. The progression and transformation takes place in the changing shape of the various materials, which are simultaneously divided by the mirrors and unified by the reflection. The sequence starts with a milled granite stone, a replica of a natural stone in the center of the work, and then progresses to show the varying states as it mutates into an eight-sided copper polygon at one end and a granite sphere at the other. Following an algorithm based on Fibonacci numbers, which determines the shape of the material blocks, the facets increase and decrease from the granite starting point, each shape becoming more rounded in one direction and angular and multifaceted in the other.
Both Kwade and Dávila are exceptionally adept at using simple means in their artworks to awaken the viewer’s senses and provoke a phenomenological experience. At Dallas Contemporary, Jose Dávila placed four I-Beams ranging in length from six to eight meters. The bright colors were inspired by Donald Judd’s palette. One end of the beam was raised perilously off the ground, the other attached to the concrete floor with custom-made hinges. Small boulders sourced at a local quarry functioned as the counterweight, connected via thin steel cable which kept one end of the beam aloft. As one entered the exhibition, diagonal lines of bright color energized the space. There was a sense of hazard as one approached the precariously balanced sculptures. Any change in the conditions, and the beam collapsed. This shows the way Dávila goes to great lengths to remind us, through eliciting a primal experience, of the power of gravity—a force of nature that for the most part we largely ignore and take for granted. The elevated beams demonstrate what could happen if gravity ceased to exist.
Kwade’s approach to stimulating the senses can be seen in Changed (2016), in which a rock and its cast, along with a reversed aluminum replica, are separated by a large, framed, double-sided mirror. When seen from the correct angle, the two objects defy logic by appearing to become one; the reflection unifies rock and aluminum. The effect is fascinating. Kwade, who is skeptical of the gratuitous use of mirrors in art, is a master at incorporating reflection as a tool to activate the object. However, much like in the Fibonacci sculpture mentioned earlier, “the viewer must be in motion to make the work visible.” She describes the experience as “performative.” In effect, the viewer completes the work by the performance of navigating around it to see it properly.
It is in questioning established canons and human conventions that Kwade and Dávila share the intention and conceptual underpinnings of their work. Both look to science and our limited understanding of natural phenomena and ourselves to reveal what Dávila refers to as “cracks in the system.” In the elaborately balanced sculpture Newton’s Fault (2020), Dávila reminds us of the discovery of gravity which took place in 1665, while Newton was on leave from his studies at Cambridge due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague. This elaborate work combines a hanging I-beam with a balancing metal structure, both of which are counterbalanced by a pair of rocks. The centerpiece is a red apple that references Newton’s famous myth of the fruit falling on the scientist’s head while he contemplated the universe. Although there are no historical records specifying that an apple fell on Newton’s head, he was driven to ponder the phenomenon of gravity when he observed the fruit falling straight down instead of falling sideways or even going up into the sky. During the installation of Newton’s Fault in Dallas, Dávila mentioned his fascination with the myth of Newton’s apple as an ideal vehicle to propagate his theory. Dávila suggested that a simple anecdote is a more effective means to convey a complex idea than scientific theories accompanied by incomprehensible mathematical equations. Perhaps the real genius was creating a narrative that the public could relate to at a time when scientific observation conflicted with religious doctrine.
In addition, Dávila takes us one step further by going beyond mere representation of scientific ideas and putting them into practice. Balance, force, tension, friction, gravity, as well as the cornerstone of the scientific method and the arts—trial and error—are all at play. There is no artifice, the work is carefully balanced: although one would think it must be secured, it is not. Just ask the startled visitor who intentionally knocked Newton’s Fault over in an attempt to dispel the illusion.
Curiously, we live in a moment when scientific discoveries are constantly challenged, misinformation runs rampant, and inconvenient facts are easily discredited. As humanity struggles to regain trust and establish a sense of control and order, works like Kwade’s All at any time (2019) remind us of the limits of our senses and the impossibility for humans to fully comprehend or control reality. Consisting of a series of deep black ceramic forms that appear fluid and in motion. Standing side by side the figures fit into each other without touching. They appear to hold power over each other’s shape, “an endless cycle of reciprocal influence.” Kwade points to a fundamental aspect of cosmic reality: “what is the universe?” If the universe is everything, then by definition there is only one. However, if our universe is only what astrophysicists can see 14 billion light years away, and originated with the big bang, then there are most likely many universes. The point is that we are incapable of knowing or as Kwade likes to say it: “There is no truth. Just points of view and agreements.”
However, if our universe is only what astrophysicists can see 14 billion light years away, and originated with the big bang, then there are most likely many universes. The point is that we are incapable of knowing, or as Kwade likes to say: “There is no truth. Just points of view and agreements.”
© Text Pedro Alonzo
© Images Kevin Todora