There’s something oddly unsettling about Alejandro Cardenas’ slim and surreal figures, characters whose form possess the angular limbs of a praying mantis with a humanoid gait. Between sculpture and painting, his sinewy subjects are symbolic of an imaginary world not to far from ours - at least in appearance.
Coming from a background in various disciplines, the Chilean artist, having gone through the wringer of textile design, videographer and art director at fashion house Proenza Schouler, Cardenas’ biography is emblematic of the multi-dimensional and textural approach he takes in his work.
One characteristic of his work, something that makes his pieces stand out, is the complete contrast between the worlds he paints and the things that inhabit them. His world is recognisable, if not completely ‘human’. There’s strong hints at Dali in there, with both composition and palette, but the humanoid figures are post-human, futuristic visions, roaming the lush weird wilderness of another Earth, like lone survivors of an atomic war, basking in organic mutations.
Magical Realism is a huge influence on his work. It’s not a surprise, since the genre, which brings together fable and mythology, the fantastical, and the all-too-real world, thrives in his homeland. Think Pan’s Labyrinth, a film so unsettling and immersive precisely because it feels so oddly believable. Closer to home, you could look at the emotive and beguiling Post Tenebras Lux, a Mexican masterpiece that keeps the torch of Latin American magical realism alive.
Through these fantastical settings, filmmakers, writers and artists are able to explore explicit political, social and environmental issues, engaging with mystical elements that begin subtly, before drawing you fully into their world. It’s like an alternative historical narrative, where the truth is twisted, bent and spat out, leaving the audience to piece it back together with a semblance of what makes sense to them.
Sense, by its other definition, is another interesting aesthetic and philosophical element in Cardenas' oeuvre. His figures look almost robotic. They’re rigid and metallic, lacking the key elements associated with our sensory system. Yet they languidly perch in exquisite architecture, soaking in the environment, wearing expressions that are all too recognisably human to be anything else. They are, undoubtedly, sentient beings.
Purposefully ambiguous, his protagonists don’t have a gender, an age, an ethnicity. They don’t need to. Their individual biography thrives in the grey zones. If anything, to derive meaning, one should turn their attention to the artist himself, who sees his reflective works as mirroring his own life. They’re symbolic representations of certain feats, certain fears, certain thoughts and dreams.
He trusts his own vision, guided by his imagination's reaction to the world around him. In one image, a figure sits isolated amongst vested. Painted during the lockdown pandemic, this character was not only him, but a great many people. In others, they sit cross legged, partially slumped in a chair, almost cinematically composed. We all know the feeling.
Whichever the gesture or the posture, there’s an inherent sense of intrigue and insight, an open-endedness that could both give meaning to life and take it away. What isn’t shown is the glue that binds reality and surreality. The paintings are full of sparks, leaving us to start the fire.
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