Xerocole Dreams
Alexis Zambrano

Opening Reception: Thursday, June 9th, 2016
through July 10th 2016

Centro Cultural Plaza Fatima
Esquina Río Eufrates, Avenida José Vasconcelos, Del Valle Sector Fátima
San Pedro Garza García, N.L., Mexico 66250
 

“We’re forming patterns and moving together, so we all have to be doing exactly the same thing at the same time…Pretty much we all even have to breathe together.”   

In Alexis Zambrano’s paintings, unlikely characters become co-actors in a sequence of peculiar encounters: haloed bathers enjoy the outdoor swimming pools of mid-century architectural marvels, decorated with artworks by Antonio Canova or Jeff Koons; soldiers from an eighteenth century English cavalry regiment stand at attention in the desert yard of a rotating home in California. For Zambrano, the picture is primarily a site of proposition, wherein temporalities become foldable and history becomes collage. Appropriating images from an array of cultural materials—architectural photography, vintage advertisements and postcards, mid-century aqua musicals, history painting—Zambrano renders these borrowed elements in paint, where they come to share both medium and frame. The resulting scenes are at once implausible and concrete, speculative yet imageable. In Zambrano’s pictures, propositions become perceptible.

The desert city of Palm Springs is a recurrent setting, as is the general ambience of the mid-twentieth century. This place and time mark for Zambrano the intersection of two interests: architectural modernism and synchronized swimming. Thus do the homes and outdoor swimming pools of Desert Modernism—a particularly Southern Californian style of mid-century building which embraced fully the region’s temperate climate—come to accomodate a succession of figures: from emissaries and cowboys to juvenile giraffes and pearly, swimsuited bodies.

While residences designed by modernist architects Albert Frey, Pierre Koenig, and E. Stewart Williams appear in Zambrano’s pictures in turn, the home to which the artist returns most frequently is Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann Desert House, built as a vacation property for the Pennsylvania businessman Edgar J. Kaufmann in 1946. A refined structure of steel and stone, featuring expansive sheets of transparent glass and an open floor plan, the home is exemplary of mid-century modernism. Seen from above, Neutra’s architectural design resembles a pinwheel with four arms, each oriented along a cardinal axis (to the East, an outdoor swimming pool accentuates and balances a smaller fourth arm). Neutra’s plan and his glass effectively merge residence and landscape, coupling them visually and tactilely via Palm Springs’ warm, natural light. In Zambrano’s paintings, this home soon becomes that of both inflatable swans and Spanish infantas.

In the oil on canvas A Nubian Giraffe visits the Kaufmanns (2015), the house’s lawn provides the stage for a meeting of three men, one wearing a black top hat and two cream-colored turbans. The latter two bear a golden basin filled with milk, toward which a giraffe leans its long neck to drink. Zambrano borrows these figures from a nineteenth century work by the Swiss painter Jacques-Laurent Agasse, wherein Agasse envisions the presentation of a Nubian Giraffe calf to an emissary of King George IV of England by two envoys of Muhammed Ali Pasha of Egypt in 1827. In A Nubian Giraffe, the characters of Agasse’s scene find themselves collaged onto a photograph of the Kaufmann House taken by Slim Aarons, translated in monochromatic paint in keeping with the photograph’s originary hue. Mrs. Kaufmann can be seen lounging on an inflatable raft in the outdoor pool, a vestige captured by Aarons’ camera, transferred by Zambrano’s brush, and now observing a curious transaction unfold. Bands of color have been added to the image as well, extending from the Kaufmann House and into the desert landscape beyond: two in yellow and aqua blue trace the building’s horizontal planes, while a thicker, green stripe extends the form of the chimney stack into the sky above. Within these bands, slight alterations in tone mark the Kaufmann House’s native edges.

Zambrano has assembled figures and objects across space and time like this before, such as in an earlier series entitled Interior Artscapes (2014). Unlike these previous works, however, in which the artist placed whole artworks (discrete and self-contained objects) alongside one another in a painting, Zambrano here produces assemblages of disparate elements within a single, shared frame. These aggregatory and atemporal gestures blur together, forming idiosyncratic ecologies. Like those modernist architects who sought to dissolve the distinction between inside and out, to soften the frame between them, and invest instead in “centrifugality and a free interplay of contrasting elements, an equilibrium of tensions rather than harmony,” Zambrano makes the line between various cultural materials a hazy one.

The contrasting elements Zambrano employs in his pictures settle always into a choreography of tension rather than perfect harmony, if harmony might be understood as the smooth assembly of like things in the production of a greater whole. Rather, Zambrano engages in generative juxtaposition, wherein disparate figures and places travel uninterruptedly across cultural and historical frames—as one would through a sliding glass door to a sun-soaked lawn outside—sharing space without losing specificity. In this way, Zambrano thinks Neutra, and Mrs. Kaufmann comes to preside over the gifting of a young giraffe from the comfort of her own pool.

In Kaufmann Rodeo (2015), the Desert House appears again, though this time Zambrano borrows from an image taken by the architectural photographer Julius Schulman. On the lawn, decorated with rocks and shrubbery, a cowboy pulls tight on the reigns of his horse. The muscular kineticism of this horse and rider, along with their being painted in full color, disrupt the scene’s still, monochromatic setting. These figures are those from a painting by nineteenth-century “American West” artist Frederic Remington, whose images mythologized the cowboy as a veritable symbol of adventure and the unexplored. Behind these characters, a single, glimmering pink stone pulses forth past its black and white siblings, and perpendicular beams of blue and yellow zip along the horizontal and vertical axes of the Kaufmann House’s facade. Variously colored, inexplicable, these individual elements inhabit Edgar J. Kaufmann’s home with healthy tension.

The painted frames that Zambrano gives his works, often completed in a warm yellow or navy blue, are integral to the works’ compositional functioning, being the devices by which heterogeneous characters and temporalities may be contained. In both geometry and hue, these frames also resemble those bands of color which trace architectural form in Zambrano’s pictures—those blue and yellow zips. Observing the same logic, these bands act as a sort of scaffolding for the painting, holding the interior of the image tight to its frame. It is tempting to see as well in these beams and bands a perfecting of Neutra’s design, a pictorial emulation of what have been called Neutra’s “spider legs:” the spider-like extensions with which Neutra extended the frame of a building beyond its exterior walls, producing an undetermined, interstitial zone between inside and out. Like Neutra’s spider legs, Zambrano’s frames and colored beams are both of the picture and outside it, simultaneously of the landscape and beyond it. Zambrano, completing Neutra’s work, collapses demarcation, in ways made possible only within a painting.

In an adjacent salon, another series of works continue Zambrano’s use of photographically-sourced modernist architecture as ground, though the characters that figure it are no longer those of art history. Zambrano turns now to advertising images and postcards, to sunbathers and synchronized swimmers. In these works, the outdoor swimming pool emerges as a sign of recreation, and as a visual metonym of mid-century Southern California. Marking a particular time and place, a materialization of the meetings between nostalgia and fantasy, identity and voyeurism, the pool becomes for Zambrano a site for play, and the stage for conversations had under a baking sun and across cool water.

In Volleyball at Edris House (2016), the backyard pool of the home designed by E. Stewart Williams for William and Marjorie Edris in 1953 is the black and white scene for a prismatic game of volleyball. Collected and collaged from vintage hotel advertisements and scenes from aqua musicals, two groups of swim-capped women position themselves on either side of the net. On the pool’s further end, eight synchronized swimmers support the weight of a ninth, who, with arms outstretched, rises into the air in a choreographed routine. In front of her hovers a large beach ball in tripartite primary colors, suggesting that she must have just volleyed it across the distance; another woman, dwarfed by both server and ball, extends her arms to receive it. Behind them, a black and white palm trees shoots up from the landscaped desert poolside, breaking the painting’s double frame of navy and gold.

Despite both mid-air suspension and exaggerated gesture, the humorously static nature of each of the painting’s individual elements underlines some inherent ties between synchronized swimming and image-making. For sports historian Synthia Sydnor, “In its practices and intentions, synchronized swimming has always been the same: a work of art in water. Because it is art, the life in synchronized swimming (the swimmers) must appear as if they are frozen in a moment, ‘spellbound.’ The performance—all performance—must be framed-by-time, by a televisual screen, a pool, the water and so on.” Synchronized swimming is thus an effort of framing bodies moving in unison through air and water, stilling them (if for a moment) within the confines of a picture. The synchronized swimmer as tableau vivant, as living picture, may be seen in the aqua musical films of mid-twentieth century competitive swimmer and actress Esther Williams, in Neptune’s Daughter (1949), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), or Dangerous When Wet (1953). Such a tableau may be seen in Zambrano’s work as well, made more manifest still by the fixing of of canvas and paint.

A triptych entitled Busby Berkeley at Loewy House (2016) features the exterior of a residence built for the industrial designer Raymond Loewy by architect Albert Frey in 1946. The home’s outdoor swimming pool sets the scene for another synchronized routine and for another living picture. In the largest panel, a line of divers, appropriated from a vintage postcard advertising New York’s Jones Beach, stand along the pool’s edge among boulders and cacti. While finding themselves now in Palm Springs, and not at all in New York, the divers settle into familiar routine, stretching their arms over the water in unison. (Bent and outstretched, those closest to the painting’s foreground nearly resemble one of Neutra’s spider legs, their bodies acting as links between inside and out, poolside and water.) One after another, the women dive, though several do so precariously close to a partially submerged rock, and the pool itself appears all too shallow for safe diving. In the rightmost panel of the triptych, the exterior of the Loewy House may be seen, and in the topmost, a colossal palm tree is rendered in close detail, its feather-leaved head seemingly too large for both trunk and surroundings.

In Zambrano’s paintings, such seemingly distinct and incompatible elements—oversized swimmers and palm tree heads, too shallow pools and decontextualized divers—sync time and space. If, following Synthia Sydnor, we understand synchronized swimming as image-making and synchronicity as a being at the same time, these paintings themselves are a kind of synchronized swimming, and Zambrano a synchronized swimmer. Across disparate cultural frames—postcards, films, paintings and photographs—Zambrano’s houses and characters come to share time. These assemblages image, in the sense that imaging is always also an imagining. And in a sculpture cast in bronze (AZ TOWER #1, 2016), Zambrano himself now poses in a vintage swimming suit. Inserted into the synchronicity of his tableaus, the artist makes even of himself a living picture.

1) Olympic champion and synchronized swimmer Heather Pease in 1996, as quoted by Synthia Sydnor in “A History of Synchronized Swimming,” Journal of Sport History 25, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 257.
2) Sophia Psarra, Architecture and Narrative: The Formation of Space and Cultural Meaning (New York: Routledge, 2009), 59.
3) Sydnor, “A History of Synchronized Swimming,” 253.