Sebastián Gordín at Cecilia Brunson Projects, London

As part of their aim to bring innovative Latin America art and cultural production to London, the recently launched Cecilia Brunson Projects is exhibiting watercolour and wooden marquetry magazines by Argentine artist Sebastián Gordín. Gordín rose to prominence in the post-dictatorship Argentina of the 1990s. His practice is a departure from the prevailing conceptual and political tendencies of the time, and favours a more playful experimentation of life and aesthetics through the use of everyday or traditional materials. Collected Tales is Gordín’s first solo UK show.

Sebastián Gordín, Cecilia Brunson Projects

Un visitante Inesperado, Sebastián Gordín, Cecilia Brunson Projects

Entering the project space in Bermondsey, my first impression of Gordín’s magazines, and, as it transpires, the one that steadfastly endures, is of their vitality; how absolutely alive they seem. Arranged on five trestle tables, the magazine-sized wooden sculptures depict macabre, lugubrious, ironic and disquieting scenes from nether worlds derived from myth, fantasy, art history and pop-culture. Gordín’s magazine titles originate largely from 1920s American pulp magazines – Avon Fantasy Reader, Ghost Stories, Sea Stories, Everybody’s Romance and Weird Tales – although his images, however, have little connection with those of their pulp originals.

Gordín’s graphic images comprise deceptively simple, plaintive black outlines tracing stained veneers of wood in a flourish of colour, texture and density. The assortment of woods that make up the colour palette – teak, jacaranda, maple, rosewood, laurel and ash to name a few – read like a roll call of the exotic. Together they render the pictorial plane of the front cover using the process of marquetry. Additionally, Gordín has teased the wood to create gentle undulations, as though aged by time and wear, reminiscent of its pulp magazine counterpart. Vanished and polished, the surface is smooth and sensuous to touch, beguiling the viewer, demanding to be picked up and held. Like the way children re-read their favourite books, poring over the images as though seeing them for the first time, Gordín’s magazines invite repeated handling and contemplation by the viewer.

Despite the likeliness to pulp magazines, wood imbues Gordín’s works with a life of its own, and a depth lacking in its pulp cohort. These two qualities add to the character of the drawings – some are playful, veering stealthily into the realm of black comedy. A magazine christened ‘The Labotomist’ on its spine depicts a cover of an ambulance-type ‘labotomobile’ driving into a richly-hued sunset; others have the flavour of a gothic fantasy (Everybody’s Romance portrays a ghostly grey Lord Byron standing by his seated lover, as her eerie blanked out face is directed towards the dark night); whilst others have the dreamy wistfulness of a fairy tale (In Sea Tales, a character is lulled into the deep by two mermaids).

Sebastián Gordín,Cecilia Brunson Projects

To Teresa With Love 2011, Sebastián Gordín, Cecilia Brunson Projects


Gordín, Cecilia Brunson Projects

Sea Stories # 1, Sebastián Gordín, Cecilia Brunson Projects


The Exhibition Room, Cecilia Brunson Projects, London

Collected Tales, Sebastián Gordín, Cecilia Brunson Projects

The vividness of the wooden magazines on the trestle tables contrasts with eight delicate watercolours depicting miniature magazine covers, hung across two perpendicular walls of the project room. Reduced in scale and executed in a water-based medium, the watercolours provide a counterpoint to the wooden magazines – fragility with physical presence, transparency with density, evanescence with verve. In addition, they also provide context to the magazines; Gordín first experimented with the series using this medium. The overall watercolour effect is a kind of nostalgic tales of the unexpected. ‘Wonder Stories’ shows a family sitting down to dinner, one of the diners slumped on the all too familiar and familial cheesecloth covered table. The scene is one of mystery and intrigue: is the slumped diner dead? Or is he simply objecting to the dish of the day? Displayed in a single room, the personal scale of the watercolours and magazines are beautifully complemented by the intimacy of the project space.

Sebastián Gordín describes the process by which he arrived at making the magazines as the result of improvisation and experimentation, via his earlier stage-set series, comic influences and watercolours. Gordín does not paint or dye the wood himself, selecting the veneers already stained. Choosing the wood is a critical element and one that Gordín does himself, procuring it from a source in Italy, which in turn acquires wood from all over the world. I like the idea of each veneer as a ‘found’ wood, already having a story of its own before seamlessly fitting into Gordín’s magazines, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Fantasy and irony are key themes that run through Gordín’s work, as does a deep vein of nostalgia. His drawings pay homage to Edward Gorey’s unsettling Victorian and Edwardian scenes, Winsor McCay’s comics from the turn of the century, the underground comic artists of the 60’s like Robert Crum and Spiegelman, and more contemporary comic artists like Chris Ware and Jim Woodring.

Sebastián Gordín, Ceclia Brunson Projects, London

Ghost Stories #7 2009, Sebastián Gordín

The sense of disquietude present in various guises in these artists’ work asserts itself in a particular way in Gordín’s magzines. They leave the viewer with the feeling of standing on the edge of a precipice, a presentiment of something terrible about to happen, but ‘terrible’ in Gordín’s visual language has the capacity to slip either way, manifesting as terribly beautiful and profound, or just plain terrible. One suspects that for the goggly-eyed, character that appears in many of Gordín’s magazines, the ‘so-called’ terrible scenarios of death and disaster, which lingers like an long unspoken secret about to be revealed, is a beautiful thing, a place of peace and transcendence from the whirligig of life. Gordín has dubbed his character the ghost or the time traveller. I think this terminology is apt, flitting, as the raggedly dressed ghost seems to do, between the macabre and ironic situations of the present, and the nostalgic past of childhood fantasy. And irony, after all, is an adult kind of response; it points to a lack of conviction so at odds with childhood’s absolute belief in fantasy.

These thoughts are echoed in Gordín’s own writings on his magazines. He intends the magazines to evoke ‘a certain acuity we unlearn in life’ a slippage from our habit of ‘disciplining our senses and repressing our desires,’ or what Nietzsche called ‘life in the void’. Indeed Gordín’s ghost, who appears to embrace his situations with something between bewilderment and curiosity, and foresight and naivety, hints at life beyond the void, reminding us that it is not just the stuff of fantasy.

Sebastián Gordín, Collected TalesCecilia Brunson Projects, London, through 7 December 2013

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by Gowri Balasegaram
in Focus on Europe

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