Gabriel Rico’s ‘Discipline of the Cave’ at the Aspen Art Museum
IF YOU GO …
What: Gabriel Rico’s ‘The Discipline of the Cave’
Where: Aspen Art Museum
When: Through June 16
How much: Free
More info: Related events include a family workshop and Arte en Español walkthrough on June 8 and a talk by Ute tribal chairman Roland McCook on June 10; aspenartmuseum.org
You must watch your step in Gabriel Rico’s show at the Aspen Art Museum. But more importantly, you must pay attention.
The playful show from this ambitious and cerebral Mexican installation artist is scattered across the floor of the museum’s main first-floor gallery. It includes dozens of small ceramic cacti, bones, Coca-Cola bottles, steaks, an “Æ” symbol, dice and more in a desert-like scene. A second gallery, with fragrant pine boughs laid throughout, is home to taxidermy animals including a jarringly lifelike bear, beaver and fox in a lush-feeling forest environment.
When an overflow crowd gathered at the museum in March for the show’s public opening, museum director Heidi Zuckerman urged patrons to keep their eyes open and their attention sharp.
“If you’re on your phone or trying to talk to someone else or deal with your bag, you’re going to step on the art and you’re going to feel bad,” she said, inviting the crowd to enter in silence and with intention, which it did.
Titled “The Discipline of the Cave,” the exhibition draws inspiration from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (if your high school philosophy is fuzzy, it’s the one about cave-bound humans watching shadows on the wall and defining their reality and meaning by what they see).
The works Rico made for Aspen are his shadows.
“I decided to explore more deeply my relationship with the objects — how the objects define me and how I came to define the objects and how I define myself,” said Rico, 38. “Because I can’t define them without knowing who is defining them.”
The seemingly random objects and symbols in the installation, Rico said, are a projection of his inner being. At first glance, “Discipline of the Cave” might seem a kitschy, pop-art kind of lark, filled with surrealist Looney Tunes cactuses and familiar iconography. But spend some time with these things, or listen to Rico talk about them, and it’s something else entirely.
The ceramic Coca-Cola bottles for him aren’t about the nostalgia and American consumerism they often signal in contemporary art, and they’re not about soda. As Rico explained, they’re about transformation, about how the sand of the desert becomes glass and then becomes things like Coke bottles.
The oversized dice “represent how lucky we are to be here, to be alive.” The bones laid throughout the room and the skeleton seated in a folding chair aren’t, for Rico, necessarily about mortality, but something more literally uplifting: “Bones give us a chance to stand up,” he said.
The cacti, desert plant life and snakes are deeply personal for Rico, symbols of his childhood home in Jalisco and what he calls “the starting point” for his explorations.
“The thoughts that I’m investigating in my daily practice are all right here,” he said.
A trained architect, Rico designs spaces rather than just placing a work on a white wall in an antiseptic cube. Rico’s Aspen show offers the rare chance to think about the neglected spaces of museum floors — usually ignored for sake of exalted walls or pedestals.
In the animal room, he’s invited Aspen’s environs into the gallery with the live pine branches.
“I decided to push my limits and push the limits of the gallery and create a kind of fable,” Rico said on an episode of GrassRoots TV’s “Art Matters” about his exhibition. “If you see the pine branches, it looks like it’s coming from the corners, as if nature wants to come into this space from the outside.”
Rico has in recent years become one of the standard-bearers for a vibrant and much talked-about contemporary art scene in Guadalajara, where Zuckerman first saw his work in a deserted theater that had been converted into a gallery focused on unrepresented local artists. It included some of Rico’s taxidermy work, which has become a signature of his. Animals are often placed casually in his exhibitions, looking up at the work on the walls. In the Aspen show, the animals all look toward a sun fashioned from branches, a mirror and neon.
He emerged on the American gallery scene in 2017 with shows in New York’s Perrotin gallery and in Dallas. But this massive solo exhibition — entirely filled with new work created for Aspen — marks the artist’s major arrival in the States. He repeatedly referred to the show as “my major show in the U.S.”
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The literary nonprofit Aspen Words is restarting its writers-in-residence program that had been on pause during the pandemic. Residents include “Call Me By Your Name” author André Aciman. Public events begin June 15.