Through January 4, the Brooklyn Museum will present a major survey of contemporary Brooklyn art, featuring more than one hundred works from 35 artists. Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond includes work in virtually every medium, including painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, installation, video, and performance, linked only by place and by an engagement with the modern world. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be rolling out profiles of artists who appear in the exhibit. You can read the rest here.
The Honduran-American artist Paul Ramirez Jonas is a semiotician. It’s right there at the top of his artist statement: “From the beginning of my career in 1989, I had always considered myself merely a reader of texts,” Jonas states. “The pre-existing text could have been any cultural artifact that I could interpret as a score: a diary, a plan, an old photo, a footpath, sheet music, etc. The reading could take the form of a performance, a sculpture, a photo, or a video.”
Consciously or not, we all read meaning in the signs and surfaces around us: the presentation of the self, social categorization, and the visual encoding of meaning all depend on sifting through the thousands of signs we’re presented with every day, and minutely adjusting our behavior accordingly. Since prehistoric man began painting on cave walls—since the beginning of artistic representation, then—human beings have sought to render meaning and memory through visual signs and symbols. Not only is being “a reader of texts,” as Jonas states, an inescapable element of being human—it’s also a prerequisite for being an artist.
The more unique and telling part of Jonas’s statement is the second part. If all artistic creation is the rendering of meaning into visible form, then the interpretative aspect of the creative act is where an artist who has anything to say gets his chance to say it. In Jonas’s work, this interpretation is often also a transubstantiation. One cultural artifact (and its inherent meaning) is alchemized into something else uniquely of Jonas’s vision: a musical score becomes a sculpture, a travelogue becomes a video, the plans for a flying machine become a photograph.
The Commons, Jonas’s piece in Crossing Brooklyn, is a large cork sculpture of a horse, modeled on the one Marcus Aurelius is mounted on in a famous ancient Roman statue of the emperor. The transformation takes place on two planes of experience. The first is elemental and obvious: whereas the Roman statue is bronze and depicts imperial power in the form of the emperor, The Commons is made of cork, and the horse is riderless.
The reasons for these choices explain the second, hidden transformation of meaning enacted by Jonas: whereas the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius encodes permanence, power, and remove, The Commons invites participation and plurality. “Cork is a material that can ‘publish’ an endless number of voices,” Ramirez says. When we see cork, we want to approach it, pin something to it, puncture its surface. To facilitate this, the base of The Commons is covered with pushpins and blank notes; the audience is invited to write something on the notes, and pin them to the statue. Thus, the commons, a democratic, participatory mode of engagement, “in opposition to the singular voice of the state, or the singular identity of the hero, or the immutable inscription on the public space that bronze and stone allow,” as Jonas has written of this work.
The Commons was first erected in 2011. It’s an artistic iteration of a philosophy Jonas began exploring in the previous decade. “I began to ask myself, being a reader, don’t I have more in common with the public than with the author?” he says. “And isn’t it that commonality or collective feeling that I find inspiring in working with pre-existing texts?” Rather than thinking of himself as removed from his audience—a transmitter of meaning from behind a veil—Jonas subscribes to Marcel Duchamp’s that “art is a game between all people of all periods.”
Jonas was born in 1965 in California, attended Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, and moved to Brooklyn in 1989. “Prior to living here I always felt homesick,” he told me. He now teaches at Hunter College.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.