One could say that the primary medium of Jorge Otero-Pailos’s work is liquid latex, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that his medium is time – or rather, the passage of time made visible. In Distributed Monuments at Sapar Contemporary, Otero-Pailos presents a series of latex casts mounted on canvas from the old U.S. Mint in San Francisco, California and from the pool at Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York. Two monumental sites on opposite coasts come together – one representing the literal creation of wealth, and the other an accumulation of it by an elite family. These latex casts have extracted dust from the sites, which are both in states of preserved ruin, but can be visited by the public.
The casts from Lyndhurst Mansion show a century’s worth of water damage on the estate’s pool building, while the casts from the Old U.S. Mint make visible the accumulation of soot and pollution from when the building was operational in minting coins during the California Gold Rush.
Two canvases on view in the exhibition, Distributed Monuments 74 & 75 and Distributed Monuments 76 & 77 present cut pieces of latex from the two sites side by side. The bricks fit together, suggesting that these casts could have been taken from same place – yet the stark contrast of the level of buildup from the soot and pollution decay from the U.S. Mint and the water damage from Lyndhurst Mansion serves as a reminder of their disparate locations of origin. Here, the grid performs the dual operation of unification and erasure – the accumulation of decay at the two sites becomes visible, yet also collapses into a single field, potentially with no beginning or end.
The grid recurs elsewhere in Distributed Monuments, in both casts from various parts of the pool and in the largest series in the exhibition, a twelve canvas arrangement of a single cast made from the attic of the U.S. Mint building which has been cut up. Close examination of these canvases reveals that they would fit together like puzzle pieces if recombined. A violence has been done to them by cutting them up and separating them, yet this dividing up also suggests the possibility of afterlives for the casts and their accumulated material, dispersed across various spaces.
As Rosalind Krauss stated in her 1979 essay “Grids,” the grid is “what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.” Krauss theorized the grid as a foundational principle of 20th century art, which declared art’s autonomy by fully doing away with any references to the real world. In Otero-Pailos’s work, the grid functions almost entirely antithetically to Krauss’s theorization of it as “antinatural, antimimetic, antireal” – it becomes a means by which to see the otherwise invisible passage of time and accumulation of pollution, decay, and destruction.
The grid is prominent not only in 20th century art, but also in architecture. The grid’s ubiquity in architecture was theorized by Colin Rowe, who taught at Cornell’s architecture school for several decades starting in 1962. In addition to being fertile ground for theoretical thinking about architecture, Cornell was, in 1969, the site of the landmark 1969 “Earth Art” exhibition, the first of its kind to show works which engaged directly with site and the landscape, which included works by artists such as Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, and Richard Long.
There is a clear lineage from the art and architecture activities at Cornell concerned with the grid and site-specificity in the work of Otero-Pailos. Otero-Pailos completed his B.Arch and M.Arch in architecture at Cornell, and made an installation at Cornell in 2019 as part of the 50 year anniversary of “Earth Art.” Yet, if land artists in the 1970s and beyond were concerned with space and (literal) groundedness, Otero-Pailos’s work can perhaps be more closely aligned with time and what is usually not seen in an embodied encounter with sites.
Gordon Matta-Clark (another Cornell architecture program alumnus, and an artist who was involved with though not included in “Earth Art”) once quipped that the difference between art and architecture is “whether there is plumbing or not.” There’s not quite plumbing in Otero-Pailos’s latex casts – save for one cast from the Lyndhurst Mansion pool which includes a drain – but there might as well be. For Matta-Clark, plumbing in this context meant function, and Otero Pailos’s works are indexes of the functional preservation work that he carries out – yet aesthetic concerns persist. The works are records of decay and the reminder of the non-permanence of monuments, but are far from a passive observation of the inevitable destruction of time – they point toward alternate temporalities and a multiplicity of possibilities for the generative entanglement of art, architecture, and conservation.
Alex Feim is an art historian and writer based in Brooklyn. She completed her BA and MA in Art History at Binghamton University.