Small Voices


Liliana Porter at El Museo del Barrio

Liliana Porter has managed to subvert some pretty big notions within the History of Art and with figurines smaller than your pinky, no less.

The world we live in does not pause for dramatic effect– it barely takes a breath. Our present is defined by excess, our politics are defined by extremes, and our art world, since the 1940s, has been defined by scale, the bigger the better. (Perhaps the most egregious recent example of this was Damien Hirst’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale, unveiled last year– I mean, yikes). If all the art world (and I mean the splashy, auction house art world) is concerned about is outdoing their predecessors (as the aforementioned Hirst was trying to outdo… the pharaohs?) then going big is easy– you just need a lot of money to do it. So what, then, do we make of Liliana Porter’s retrospective “Other Situations” at El Museo del Barrio, which flies in the face of all this, and uses the least to say the most?

What makes Porter’s work so successful, and frankly so bold, is the way her position on the smallest extreme brings you closer to its polar opposite, the not just large, but the enormous. Think of the pioneering artists who insisted on the size of their paintings in order to have them envelope the viewer to create an immersive environment. But then think of Porter’s work, which places tiny toy people to interact with other materials, and instead of coming out at you with the force of its grand formalism, like a Robert Motherwell might, it insists that you approach it. And when you do, sometimes crouching, often squinting, you are suddenly looking from the perspective of a four centimeter tall human figure, from whose point of view the world is huge. What is ostensibly tiny recasts the rest of the world as enormous.

(This is not completely dissimilar from the way Mark Rothko wanted his paintings to be viewed– ten inches from their surfaces– but what is different is the change in perspective Porter’s work demands. In front of both one is similarly immersed in the world of the subject (in Rothko’s case, the subject being Color), it just so happens that the subject of Porter’s work is miniscule, making its (and thereby the viewer’s) context that much larger.)


Porter’s oeuvre does not stop there, but tackles other questions fundamental to the history of art in the 20th century, namely concerns with the dominant Greenbergian theory of the two-dimensional picture plane, which (sometimes too) neatly summarizes the last century of art as culminating in a canvas that acknowledges itself as a flat surface, giving no illusion of depth. So then what of Porter’s assembled sculpture of a small figure “watering” a flower which is flatly painted on a porcelain dish as decoration? When presented with two types of dimension within the context of an art object, the flatness of the flower and the dimensionality of the figurine, which do we choose? Is the figurine akin to the flat flower because both fall into the realm of representation? Or is the flower dimensional because the figurine is pulling it into our three-dimensional space, interacting with it as if it were real (as we perceive receding perspective as dimensional, even though we intellectually understand it as flat)? This is an unresolvable question which leaves us to do what we often do when we’re not sure how to feel about something: we laugh. Because, after all, playing about with the fundamentals of perception with such innocent objects is, well, funny! I often gave myself permission to laugh out loud in this show, something I think only reveals Porter as a wit of extremely high intelligence.


Dimensionality appears again in the almost 45 minutes of video vignettes included at the end of the retrospective. Here dimensionality appears in the form of giving life to static three dimensional objects. Porter reveals a stunning gift to imbue what otherwise might seem trite or tired (kitschy objects you might find high on a grandmother’s shelf) with humor and vitality.

Porter does not use kitsch in the way a pop artist might employ it, insisting on recognizable forms as a stand in for emptiness, tchotchkes as the accumulation and clutter of a consumer. Porter’s use of porcelain figurines, windup toys, and other such items are still dopey or junky (she doesn’t insist otherwise), but are arranged so that we reap meaning from these qualities. She uses her art to draw out what is already there.

Part of Porter’s genius is in knowing the extent of the object’s expressiveness, and how exactly to extract it (it turns out the answer is often with musical accompaniment). In one vignette, a stuffed chicken lies horizontally on a brick, its glassy eyes staring directly at the camera, still. The soundtrack to this short film (of perhaps 30 seconds)  is “Mambrú se fue a la guerra (Mambrú left for war),” a peppy Latin American children’s song. It’s not hard to believe this toy chicken is in mourning, lamenting the departure of Mambrú. Not only is this image comical, making me laugh out loud, but so sparing in its content that it’s almost shocking how much emotional complexity it can communicate. These films are akin to Picasso’s drawings, in which the artist expressed multitudes in a few drawn lines.

This subtlty is seen again in a porcelain figurine of a young girl gazing at her reflection in a hand mirror. The camera lens is positioned at a low distance, the lighting is dramatic, and the music is the type that would echo down the nave of a grand cathedral. Nothing in the image changes but for the rise and fall of a choir’s deep timbre, but so much on the nature of vanity and youth is explained in this clip it will be hard to approach any kitsch again without thinking of the truths it holds.

In a world that has pushed so energetically towards the extremes, it is hard to make an impression. But lean in, look closer– Liliana Porter is a true radical.

Liliana Porter: Other Situations

El Museo del Barrio

Until January 27, 2019

Hall Rockefeller