Pia Camil’s hand-dyed and stitched canvases offer a fresh approach to the well-worn field of geometric abstraction. For her first solo show in Los Angeles, this Mexico City-based artist has created four large, square wall works whose surfaces are divided into loose grids of colored stripes. Each work has a dominant color theme—cream, tan, blue, and purple—with brighter accents of yellow, red, and peach. Within this framework, fragments of letters and numbers peek out but are illegible, unable to convey coherent linguistic meaning.
These works are based on abandoned billboards found in and around Mexico City. Unlike recent projects that utilize actual billboards, which adapt their original promotional function for the dissemination of art, Camil’s works look at the failure of this commercial system to deliver comprehensible messages. On the original billboards, pieces of earlier advertisements are visible alongside the owner’s phone numbers, presenting a mosaic of piecemeal and incomplete information. In Camil’s handmade works, she captures the entropic aesthetic quality of her sources, while subverting the mass-market consumer culture they once espoused. Public enticements to the marketplace are transformed into personal explorations of craft.
It is telling that the word for billboard in Spanish is espectacular, alluding to its function as a spectacle. Billboards demand attention as two-dimensional visual stimuli, but Camil’s works call attention to their own objecthood. Although her works are visually composed of flat planes of color, they are physically constructed through a labor-intensive process of dying and sewing. Although they are made of stretched canvas and assembled by hand from smaller elements, they are not quite paintings and not quite sculptures.
Camil further explores the relationship between the visual and the physical with Espectacular Transparencia (2014), a large sign-like structure with a transparent scrim in the center of the gallery. This work possesses a theatrical quality; visitors are meant to walk around the work and see through it. (Looking at this work, it is not surprising that Camil often engages in performance, and formed art-rock band El Resplandor in 2009.) Unlike commercial billboards that offer only one surface, there is much to be seen beyond the façade. On the other side are shelves that support a number of small, brightly colored ceramic works. These Fragmentos resemble the linguistic fragments from her wall works, removed from their previous context and given new life. Here, too, Camil counters disposable consumerism with handmade craft. Rendered on a modest scale, they hover between domestic objects like vases and quirky minimalist sculptures á la Richard Tuttle.
The most impressive piece in the exhibition is a 27-and-a-half-foot-long curtain assembled from hand-dyed and stitched canvas pieces like the wall works. Freed from its support, The Little Dog Laughed (2014) is a visual delight that also asserts its physicality. Partially blocking the entrance to the room, it serves to set off the space inside as special. It suggests that things will be different once the threshold is crossed. The work alludes to the functionality of a household object as much as it does to the theatricality of a stage curtain. It invites interaction, begging to be pushed or pulled along the metal rail from which it hangs. Instead of a single, static image, Camil offers the potential of infinite permutations.
More than simply emphasizing handmade craft over the anonymous and mass-produced, Camil creates new meaning and beauty from the failures of these corporate communiqués. The title of her exhibition comes from John Fante’s Depression-era novel set in L.A., Ask the Dust. The protagonist, Arturo Bandini, has published one short story, “The Little Dog Laughed,” giving him an overinflated sense of success. Like the dilapidated billboards that once held grand pronouncements, Bandini’s story is not as compelling as he imagines. Through her artistic labor, Camil is able to create a new narrative from among these worn and faded symbols.
Pia Camil: The Little Dog Laughed is on view at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles through August 23, 2014.