Contributed by Julia Bland / The eleven canvases in Firelei Báez’s current exhibition “Americananana” at James Cohan Gallery continue her decades-long practice of painting directly on found maps and printed materials. By activating the surface with historical references, Báez calls into focus the dual nature of the painted gesture as both action and erasure. While considering what relevant details have now vanished behind an outstretched arm or pale yellow swath, one might also wonder whether any canvas is ever truly blank.
In these recent works, abstract forms spill and explode across scratched and stained surfaces, nearly obscuring the printed imagery entirely. Animal features emerge from the tumbling gestures, adding sympathetic protagonists to the unfolding drama. The resulting images read almost like astrological charts, overlaying recorded historical events with mapped constellations and their competing symbolic influences. In this context, the swirling chromatic abstractions evoke far-away galaxies and exploding stars.
If “Americananana” conjures the myopic absurdity of nostalgic American mythologies, the work itself seems to go a step farther, perhaps locating the origin of our national confusion within the origins of the universe itself. This outstretched metaphor does not negate the contemporary social urgency of Báez’s work, but rather extends it. As scientific discoveries in space exploration seem to gather exponentially, these paintings stoke a longstanding meditation on the colonial impulse to venture into “uncharted” territory. In layered images, her canvases bring alive myriad daunting questions of fact, fiction, action, and erasure.
“Firelei Báez: Americananana,” James Cohan Gallery, 48 Walker Street, New York, NY. Through December 21, 2022.
About the author: Julia Bland is an artist working at the intersection of painting and weaving. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY and is represented by Derek Eller Gallery in NYC and Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago.
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