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Red pumas, shark whales, and flamingos are among the animals populating Oakland-based artist Miguel Arzabe’s (b. 1975) second solo presentation at Johansson Projects. Emerging from the abstracted surfaces of his painting-weavings, Arzabe’s creatures form a contemporary bestiary that expands on a genre that spans European Middle Age illustrated books to the watercolors of Mexican modernist Francisco Toledo. Yet, whereas such artistic predecessors reflect imagined mythological beasts, Arzabe presents more familiar specimens, as declared by the title of one of the show’s anchoring pieces.
Animales Familiares is a large-scale diptych that features owls, felines, rabbits, fish, and other birds and animals in blue-green and umber tones. While the work’s title should be properly translated as “Familiar Animals,” it is also suggestive of a false cognate, “Familial Animals,” a meaning which resonates with Arzabe’s artistic practice and personal ethos. The son of Bolivian parents, Arzabe is deeply connected to his family and to his Andean ancestry, whose weaving traditions inform his process and iconography. Thus inspired by the textiles that he grew up with as well as his own research, Arzabe’s bestiary includes less familiar, but nonetheless culturally familial creatures such as a double-headed cat or the hybridized Jaguar Alada (winged jaguar), with its spiritually significant shamanic associations.
Animals who move between all three realms of Amerindian cosmology are depicted in the works on view. These environments of sky, earth, and water are intuited through zig-zag lines, curves, and shifting colors. Forgoing the Western landscape tradition, the delineation between figure and ground is largely omitted in a reflection of what scholar Vanessa Drake Moraga has described as an Andean concept in which “animals are simultaneously of the environment and in it. They are both symbolic of the world and a direct vehicle for human engagement with it.” So important to Amerindian thought, this human-animal connection has been largely severed in today’s Anthropocene era, whose dangers are suggested in Arzabe’s ominously titled and stridently toned La bestia del progreso, devoid of animal life. To this end, in his own practice Arzabe is conscious of not producing unnecessary waste, such that his striated Imárgenes (a portmanteau derived from the Spanish imagen [image] and margen [edge]) series are constructed from the remaining scraps of his multi-step process.
To make his work, Arzabe first paints reproductions of modernist abstract artworks onto canvases that are subsequently cut to serve as the warp and weft for his weavings. Although in some works elements from the base paintings surface, they are largely subsumed into one another or manipulated for effect, as in Tiburón Ballena in which the Rothko-derived substrate (a rare case where the original painting is identifiable) merges into the toothy marine animal’s aqueous environment. The confrontations that arise from the Western and Andean sources in Arzabe’s work have been described by the artist as representative of Aymara sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqi’s decolonial philosophy of ch’ixi. Indeed, Cusicanqi has turned to beings from the animal world to serve as metaphors of the concept, which seeks to embrace the coexistence of contradictory and complementary natures. Held in tension like the plaited structures of his weavings, such are the ideas embodied by the snakes, birds, fish, and mammals that exist within Arzabe’s bestiary of Animales Familiares.
Animales Familiares opens with an Artist Reception on First Friday October 6, 5-8 at Johansson Projects
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Miguel Arzabe holds a BS from Carnegie Mellon University, an MS from Arizona State University, and an MFA from UC Berkeley. He has held many residencies, including Facebook AIR (Menlo Park, CA), Headlands Center for the Arts (Sausalito, CA), Montalvo Arts Center (Saratoga, CA), and Santa Fe Art Institute (Santa Fe, NM). He has been featured in such festivals as Hors Pistes at Centre Pompidou (Paris, France); Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (Montréal, Canada); and the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale (Gongju, South Korea). His recent work “Te Quiero Inti” was acquired into the permanent collection at the de Young Museum (San Francisco, CA), and “La Ofrenda” was acquired by the Harn Museum of Art (Gainesville, FL). Arzabe received the prestigious Artadia Award in 2022 and has been chosen as a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant recipient for the year of 2023. His work has been presented in museums and galleries, including MAC (Lyon, France); MARS (Milan, Italy); RM Projects (Auckland, New Zealand); FIFI Projects (Mexico City, Mexico); Marylhurst University (Oswego, OR); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco, CA); Shulamit Nazarian (Los Angeles, CA); Berkeley Art Museum (Berkeley, CA); Albuquerque Museum of Art (Albuquerque, NM); the de Young Museum (San Francisco, CA); the Jewish Contemporary Museum (San Francisco, CA); Marin Museum of Contemporary Art (Novato, CA); and Johansson Projects (Oakland, CA). Arzabe lives and works in Oakland, California.
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