At SITE Santa Fe, Mexican artist Pedro Reyes proves that sometimes sculptors can both make activist statements and focus on sculptural fundamentals, with stunning results.
Pedro Reyes: DIRECT ACTION
February 3—May 1, 2023
SITE Santa Fe
These days, it often seems that sculptors can no longer just make form; their practice must also have an over-arching social dimension—a political cause or issue of personal identity—to be taken seriously.
SITE Santa Fe’s beautifully installed exhibition of work by the Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, DIRECT ACTION, proves that sometimes a sculptor can do both, effectively. (It would be a stretch to call this a “solo” exhibition, since he has a large team of studio assistants, duly credited on the introductory wall label.)
For many years, Reyes has been addressing gun violence in his native country and elsewhere, by developing projects where he invites people to lay down their arms, which he then re-fashions into life-giving, rather than life-taking, artifacts.
At SITE, there are multiple examples of guns turned, not exactly to butter, but at least to more benign purposes: tall skinny vases topped with fresh flowers, whose tripod-like structures and attenuated forms bear witness to their previous incarnation as flowers of evil. (In a project directed by Reyes in collaboration with New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, teens from an Albuquerque high school fashioned these vases from decommissioned gun parts, with support from local artist Jeremy Thomas.) Three large hand-cranked music boxes made of brass and gun barrels resemble early mechanical cash registers, each one playing music by a composer from a country with an iconic gun brand (Vivaldi/Italy/Beretta, Mani Matter/Switzerland/Carbine, Mozart/Austria/Glock). A wall of identical garden shovels seem inscrutable unless you watch the adjacent videos of their alchemical creation (rare but rewarding to see an industrial process, with all its sweat and toil, in an art museum). Forged from the metal of 1,527 relinquished guns, which Reyes procured through an ad campaign on a local Mexican TV station, the shovels were then used to plant 1,527 trees, in a gesture towards global reforestation.
In a room halfway round the show’s circuit, ominous grey-black objects of various shapes and sizes erupt intermittently into clangs and clatters, brrrrings and plings, like a demented Greek chorus. On closer inspection, their anatomies are vaguely familiar: each one is made up of 6,700 firearms, dismantled then reassembled—often in multiples, or intriguing symmetries—into computer-driven mechanical musical instruments. This could be an orchestra devised by the cartoonist/musician Gerard Hoffnung, albeit less humorous, more menacing. As I scrutinized what each instrument was made of, Henry Reed’s 1942 poem “Naming of Parts” came to mind. One looks like a vibraphone from a distance, but its keys are gun barrels of varied lengths; another resembles the inside of an upright piano, except the hammers/dampers are several dozen pistols welded together in an arc, their barrels pointing skyward. A harp-like structure suddenly booms like a plucked double bass; then percussion devices burst into sound, as random as gunfire, rupturing the gallery’s hallowed hush.
This is the latest iteration of Reyes’ Disarm project initiated in 2012 (posters along the wall document previous global enactments). These instruments were brought to life in an opening weekend concert, and a solo performance by Laura Ortman, using one of Reyes’ gun-violins, whose excruciating electronic squeals and scything rhythms evoked (at least for me) the auditory equivalent of bodily attack by gunshot.
Elsewhere are several projects concerned with nuclear disarmament, including a series of banners declaring ZERO NUKES in diverse languages and alphabets, and a searing documentary video Under the Cloud (2023) on the destructive legacy of uranium mining and nuclear waste on Indigenous territory in the U.S. Others address issues of language, text, and group participation: a “lending library,” Tlacuilo (the Nahuatl word for scribe or artist, the traditional caretakers of libraries in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica) from which visitors can borrow books during the show; The People’s United Nations (pUN, 2013-present), presented in videos, participants’ portraits, and a set of 193 books, one per UN member country; and Amendment to the Amendment (2014), a collective re-writing of the U.S. Second Amendment.
But participatory projects may be more exciting as live events than their subsequent printed or video documentation can convey. And books demand a temporal engagement to which the gallery context is less suited, however seductive the furniture provided to peruse them: two blue hammocks in the pUN room; three-legged black chairs in the Tlacuilo space, carved from volcanic stone in a similar sharp-edged aesthetic to Reyes’ compelling large-scale abstract-yet-figurative sculptures (e.g. Versus Machina, 2017, Tlacuilo, 2021, and Amendment, 2022).
The lending library shares a room, painted in a gorgeous hyacinth blue, with several small-scale abstract sculptures in plaster, wood, marble, and steel, that could be the work of a completely different artist. Many of them recall Brancusi (as does Ellipsis, 2022, a tower of oxidized steel discs elsewhere in the show—a riff on his 1918 Endless Column) in their economy of form and deft craftsmanship; few are explicitly political. Perhaps this is why I’m so drawn to these pieces: for once, Reyes sets aside activist statements to focus on sculptural fundamentals—volume, materiality, texture, interior versus exterior space. My favorite piece is, at first glance, merely a spatial arrangement of rust-tinted metal cylinders. Reading the work’s title, however, reveals it as an ingenious “X-Ray” translation of a die—reconceived as tubular interconnections between the numerical dots on its six faces.
Reyes is not only a prolific artist; he also conceived the exhibition Monumental: The Public Dimension of Sculpture, 1927-1979, presented in 2021 at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, and wrote several essays and interviews for its suitably monumental catalogue. This lavishly illustrated history of mid-20th-century Mexican sculpture, in relation to architecture and urbanism, introduces many unfamiliar artists. I consider myself lucky to have nabbed one of the half-dozen copies on sale at SITE in conjunction with Reyes’ impressive exhibition.