There is an innate duality to being human; It is the basis of Freud’s id and ego, Plato’s being and form, and Aquinas’s body and soul. All of these dichotomies fit under of a large umbrella of the sacred and the base. The best works in Teresita Fernández’s As Above So Below, recently on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), evokes this sense. The artist displays haunting landscapes which turn into evocative metaphors of the human condition. The exhibition includes three separate installations, whose works do not engage on the same visceral level as the paintings.
Fernández constructs her paintings with two dualities: the image and the materials. All of the paintings depict land or seascapes with two definitive main parts: the surface and the sky. On an almost archetypal level, the sky reflects our finer more sacred element and the ground or sea reflects the baser elements of our humanity. The artist uses two materials to make these images: gold leaf and India ink. Again, the parallel is obvious. Gold is a precious metal while ink is made primarily out of carbon, the single most ubiquitous element on the planet.
Adeptly, Fernández does two things that keep the viewer deeply invested in these pieces. First, she mixes up the works. In some pieces, the gold is used on the ground and in some it is used for the sky. In Golden (As Above So Below), 2014 the artist aligns the two elements. She uses the ink to draw out a mountainous ground which opens up to a gold field. Although highly abstracted, the work approaches Turner in its ability to articulate the sublime.
As Above So Below includes several pieces where the artist mixes up the material and the images to create a sense of irony. The lower portion of Golden (Obsidian Sky), 2014 reveals the gold leaf and the sky is almost completely black. While all of these works are sublimely rendered and engaging, the inclusion of both literal and irony plays on sacred and base iconography elevates all of the works in the exhibition. Fernández’s skill at carving space into her image links all of her works. The works appear almost as if you can walk into them. Many of the works are equally seductive, brilliant and erudite.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the three installations of As Above So Below. Lunar (Theatre) 2014, was the only one that used different materials in which the artist laid glass beads on a layered gold platform. The most seductive element of her flat paintings was their ability to draw the artist into their space. Lunar (Theatre) is essentially a real open space, but you can’t walk into it. Ironically, this created a conceptual wall.
The most successful installation was Sfumato (Epic). In this piece, Fernández placed over 40,000 pieces of mined graphite in swarms around the gallery. Each piece had a small tail-like extension. There is a sheer obsessiveness, and balance of chaos and structure to illicit a little interest from the viewer. The same cannot be said for the final installation, Black Sun 2014, a series of alternating black and yellow tubes hanging in a curve from the main gallery ceiling. By suspending the piece above the viewer, the artist obliterates any sense of the work being grounded.
There is a final duality that emerges from the exhibition as a whole: that of interesting works. As Above So Below includes Fernández’s best landscapes, which completely capture the viewer’s psyche so that there is no room to consider anything else. Opposing this are the few installations where paying attention is a laborious act. In the end, experiencing the high points outweighs experiencing the low points. The best works will linger in the viewer’s mind for years; the worst will be forgotten as soon as the viewer walks away.