Arts : Walking the walk

Cuban-born Puerto Rican artist Ernesto Pujol takes on the intangible, step by step

Sister Stephen Jane, my second-grade teacher at Our Lady of Sorrows Parochial School, had no patience for the full-throttle, maverick creativity that marked my fill-in-the-blank writing exercises. “The boy listened to the silver music with his circus ears.” I was especially proud of that one. In her bold, Palmer Method script, Sister S.J. wrote “needs improvement” across the top of the page. Montessori it wasn’t. Where the nuns saw recalcitrance, I saw liberation, owned and celebrated.

Ernesto Pujol will perform “Mourning Circle #2” (see still, page 13) June 29 at the McNay.

Ernesto Pujol knows a thing or two about nuns, elliptical expression, and liberation. Pujol, a Brooklyn-based artist, was recently commissioned by the McNay Art Museum to create a site-specific performance, which he’s titled “Mourning Circle #2.” The one-time performance, June 29, will complement his solo gallery exhibition, “Walk #1,” an installation comprising 22 digital images of Pujol’s walk through Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery and 12 hand-blown glass dinner plates, each etched with a single word from Walt Whitman’s Civil War poetry. In the center of the gallery, floating like a disembodied memento, Pujol will hang the black missionary robe he wore during the walk, which is documented in the 22 black-and-white prints. The solitary fragments of text, the costume suspended in mid-air, and the freeze-frame images are the artist’s way of saying, “Use your imagination.” Fill in the blanks, San Antonio.

Asked by museum administrators to write about his creative process, Pujol responded by admitting “no amount of practice can take away the struggle of describing the intangible.” (As if to offer poetic solace across the ages, Emily Dickinson, in a letter written in 1865, noted: “It is strange that the most intangible things are the most adhesive.” Pujol professes a great admiration for the Belle of Amherst.) He writes, reluctantly, that the experience of walking through the historic Charleston cemetery evoked a feeling of déjà vu: “I had experienced recurring dreams of marble arches and colonnades surrounded by gated gardens and water.”

But something else happened as Pujol was developing “Walk #1.” The U.S. invaded Iraq, and the meditative walk, based on the tradition of monastic walks, took on greater urgency and became more elegiac. Pujol’s photographs of the public mourning ritual are evidence that he — that we — were here. More to the point, Pujol’s “Walk #1” is a haunting example of what former Poet Laureate Louise Glück describes as the height of imagination. “The cult of the exhaustive detail, of data, needs scrutiny,” she writes. “News stories are detailed. Their thoroughness is a reprimand to imagination; and yet they don’t say this is what it was to be here.”

Ernesto Pujol:
Mourning Circle #2

6:15pm Thu, Jun 29

Walk #1
10am-4pm Tue-Thu,
Thu 10am-9pm,
10am-5pm Sat,
noon-5pm Sun
Jun 30-Oct 1
Free, suggested
donation $5

Gallery Talk
6:30pm Thu, Jul 13
McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels

McNay curator René Barilleaux, who invited Pujol to create the installation, says that Pujol’s use of photographic images places him squarely within the parameters of contemporary practice. He is also quick to point out that Pujol’s project adds another crucial dimension, theatricality, to the images, making the installation a fine fit with the museum’s theater collection. But where the famed Tobin Collection celebrates spectacle, Barilleaux explains that Pujol’s performance is shaped by the subtle gesture. It’s a quiet, Eastern-influenced counterpoint to Western grandiosity that Pujol represents in his work.

“Art Matters,” the series through which Pujol’s installation and performance were commissioned, is part of an effort to introduce performance “in a contextualized way,” says Barilleaux. He is thrilled that Pujol decided to present the 20-minute tableau, performed in silence, as an outdoor performance. (Pujol says that the temperature in Charleston was 110 degrees when he performed “Walk #1.” And, because he performs in bare feet, fire ants were a constant threat.) His selection of the McNay’s Koehler Fountain as the site for “Mourning Circle #2” is appropriate, given San Antonio’s historically complex relationship with water. For a project commissioned by the Salina Arts Center in Kansas, Pujol based much of the work on water conservation and that community’s dependence on the Ogallala Aquifer, whose levels are decreasing at unprecedented rates. Sound familiar?

The companion show, “Walk #1,” which includes the digital image above, “Entrance,” will be on view at the museum through October 1.

In a spirited email exchange, Pujol readily acknowledges his deep connection to the natural landscape. His work, he says, praises nature as found in “the classical beauty of landscape.” (I think about that classical beauty the day I visit the McNay and walk through its lush landscape, which is carefully tended by two young brown men. An even younger Chicana poses in front of the fountain for her wedding portrait. Here is San Antonio’s beauty, waiting to be praised.) Seen from a distance, the slow circles made by the robed figure of “Mourning Circle #2” suggest minimalism. The form’s insistent motion can be gently lulling or it can set the windmills of the mind spinning ferociously. In either case, Pujol’s inspiration reminds the viewer of the close parallels between the monk and the poet, both of whom are “fine-tuned to see the sacred potential in all things,” according to writer Kathleen Norris. When I mention this to Pujol, he responds enthusiastically and writes that he secretly regards his work as “a sort of visual literature.” In other words, Pujol’s performance art is galaxies away from that of the genre’s icons, including Karen Finley and Tim Miller. In its environmental concerns, it is closer to the work of his compatriota, the late Ana Mendieta.

Born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico, Pujol spent six years in a cloistered monastery after graduating from the Universidad de Puerto Rico. Early in his artistic career, Pujol hewed closely to the New York M.O.: gallery representation, solo exhibitions, the constant whir of the well-oiled PR machine. But recently, Pujol, whose Brooklyn apartment is filled with carved Puerto Rican santos de palo, has been taking his show on the road — where, he says, he finds more meaningful connections. The New York art world, he says, dismisses spirituality as anti-intellectual.

With this latest commission, Pujol continues his exploration of the artistic ferment that is found at the intersection of faith, gender, nature, and mourning. (In case you’re wondering about the gender part, in the late ’90s one of Pujol’s installations, titled “Hagiography,” consisted of a group of large-format, digitally printed self-portraits of the artist wearing a nun’s habit. Where one might expect the kitsch of Pierre et Gilles, Pujol produced a series of reverent, utterly subversive images.) His work’s most important function, he says, is its standing-in for the rite of collective mourning. In this regard, Pujol’s work fulfills his hope that it be understood as a form of visual literature. Or, more specifically, poetry, whose things left unsaid are often as precious — sometimes even more so — than the thing said. “I consciously create narrative art that gently challenges the viewer to read between the lines, to fill in the blanks,” Pujol concludes. Hear that, Sister Stephen Jane?

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