Artist: Pedro Reyes
For his first exhibition in Los Angeles, Pedro Reyes presents a new series of sculptures and works on paper that focus on the concept of monumentality, drawing inspiration from the traditions of Mexican stone carving and Pre-Columbian civilization and indigenous communities. Through these works, Reyes credits the enduring influence of the Aztec traditions and the language of Nahuatl, which has been spoken in Mexico for centuries. The exhibition follows Reyes’ exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Monterrey, Mexico (2022) and SITE Santa Fe (2022-2023).
“Every gesture conveys a set of political meanings”, says Reyes. Détente (2023) – a new work in the exhibition – refers to a relaxation of hostility between nations, often through verbal diplomacy, and has a particular resonance with policies that relate to arms deals, be it the use of weapons or nuclear power. Speaking to Reyes’ involvement with pacifist organizations and his public campaigns for disarmament, in Détente we see the symbol of the hand-dove, reflecting his aspirations for solidarity, compassion and collaboration. The artist attributed one of his mentors, the Brazilian activist and theatre director, Augusto Boal, as an influence in promoting “Peace, not passivity.” This message also resonates with the slogan by Martin Luther King: “Those who hope for peace should be as well organized as those who fight for war.” To Reyes, the hand-dove symbolizes the intensive labor required to confront the arms race.
At the heart of the exhibition is the concept of monumentality. Monumentality is present throughout Reyes’ oeuvre; he produces work on every scale – from intimate and life-size sculptures and paintings to the activation of public spaces with exigent, participatory installations and performances – yet the essence of monumental extends beyond scale, and into ambition. Reyes also intentionally translates the epic objectives of urban sculpture into the small-scale, approaching production as a means to ignite compassion. Another sculpture presented, Nahuatequi (Nahuatl for ‘encounter’) is a group of anthropomorphic silhouettes that appear to be holding hands, serving as a symbol of fraternal union.
Amoxcalli, the name given to libraries in ancient Mexico, is the title of a large-scale work in the exhibition that depicts a standing figure clutching a book. This personifies the artist’s thirst for knowledge and passion for the communal act of sharing, as evidenced by projects such as TLACUILO (2021), where Reyes launched Mexico’s first Art-lending library, at the Museo Carrillo Gil in Mexico City, as well as the infamous, towering library in his own studio in Mexico-City.
While Nahuatequi and Amoxcalli, alongside Hypatia (2022) and Abya Yala (2022) also exhibited, are more figurative expressions of the human form, in Chac Mool (2022) Reyes takes the pre-Colombian Mesoamerican composition of the reclining figure to a deeper level of abstraction. Previously explored by artists such as Henry Moore, this representation differs from the erect, heroic position more commonly realized in monuments as it is a figure at rest. While noting other pre-Hispanic effigies, such as U-shaped archaeological artifacts, Reyes reduces the Chac Mool to a curve: a circular form created from Jadeiete, a green sedimentary stone that accumulates layers of history. In this way, these stone works, alongside other vertical totemic structures such as Naualli (2023), Abolition (2023) and Tlapacalli (2021), can be understood as a way of reading time, each stratum frozen by the atomic particles placed on top. Two final circular sculptures, Tonatiuh and Tonal (both 2023), illustrate the connection between stone and sun, earth and sky.
These symbols also evolve in the new paintings on show – some paired and others a balance of opposites – made from oil on amate paper, a material considered sacred. Amate paper was historically used by ‘Tlacuilos’, an ancient Mexican term for both writer and painter, who used amate to record their experiences. Often used for renderings of spirits of the earth, here the amate paintings represent an exchange between histories, cultures and traditions. Just as through sculpture, Reyes channels the power of monumental thought into this material, using the work as a way to encourage and celebrate camaraderie and understanding.