Mateo López “Play” Colombian art at Casey Kaplan

Play, an exhibition of new work by New York-based, Colombian artist Mateo López, is at Casey Kaplan gallery in Chelsea, Manhattan, Tuesday-Saturday, from January 11 through February 16, 2019. FREE

The exhibition opens with a reception on Friday, January 11, 2019 from 6-8pm. FREE


Artists reflect the societies they live in. Art says a lot about the health or sickness of the body of society.

Violence has been an essential element of the Colombian character since the assassination of populist political leader Joge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 and the American-supported anti-communist efforts of the 1960s that wreaked havoc for a generation of Latin Americans. The violence peaked in the 1980s with endless fighting between the government, narcotics traffickers, left-wing guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries. The people were caught in the middle.

Living under the constant threat and reality of violence is exhausting. It kills the joy of life and wipes out human potential. The days become one long post traumatic stress disorder.

Colombia with its strategic location and rich land has huge unrealized potential. In the same ironic way that the U.S. blockade of Cuba preserved the island’s natural riches, the twin Andean mountain ranges that divide Colombia, and the longest civil war in the Americas have largely preserved Colombia’s natural riches, at least until the present.

The land is so rich and alive, you can’t imagine. Colombia is a world treasure of biodiversity and human diversity as well. Today many Colombians are looking for a way forward out of the endless cycle of vengeance and fear.

Some of Mateo’s work shows the stiff and formal modernity of the capital Bogotá. He is better when he goes off the wall.

Colombia has a rich craft tradition that is being preserved in a new generation of craft artists in Colombia. Mateo’s use of everyday household objects suggests the influence of Colombian installation artist Doris Salcedo (1958, Bogotá), a prominent Colombian artist of the previous generation.

Salcedo turns common tables and armoires (things you find in every traditional Colombian home) into metaphors for family and the family members who are missing from the table or whose lives are buried in cement.

Salcedo’s installations are filled with the most beautifully, poetic dread. Working through the heights of Colombia’s four-way civil war, she calls the spirits of the dead. They are so present in her installations that you can almost hear their cries.

Step by step, Lopez has turned the corner in ways that mirror the changes in the country of his birth. Mateo’s first show at Casey Kaplan was Never Look Back When Leaving. That was when he first moved to New York from Bogotá in 2014. When you are escaping some shit, you want to forget it, just like a bad breakup.

His first New York City museum exhibition, Undo List at the Drawing Center in SoHo in 2017, reduced the human form to geometry. It was as if the pain of his experience was so great that he couldn’t face the human form directly. He could only see it in the simplest abstraction. But it was probably part of a cleansing and rebalancing process. When you start over, first you have to strip everything down.

Play now flips his experience upside down. Play is the opposite of violence. Violence is destructive. Play is creative. Instead of Salcedo’s household objects as tombs, Lopez turns household objects into toys. Instead of voices of the dead, we hear the voices of children laughing.

The importance of play is a very astute observation on the part of Lopez. In conflict zones around the world, adults hate each other and are quick to fight, but left alone, their children play together. Play is natural and there is no serious conflict during play.

A similar change happened among the gangs of New York once upon a time in The Bronx. There used to be a fight on every block until one day after a killing, the kids got together at a Boys Club, and listened to the murdered boy’s mother plea that his death not be avenged. For the first time they listened to each other’s complaints and decided then and there that there would be no more fights. They channeled their fighting instinct into rap battles and hip-hop, the pop music of a generation was born.

In the Latin world, hip-hop evolved into reggaeton (Latin reggae) which was originally all about sexual violence, but is being softened into something more positive and even romantic by Colombians and Puerto Ricans in of all places, Medellín, Colombia.

Medellín was one of the fountains of the violence in Colombia, but has transformed itself into one of the most vibrant cities in Latin America.

Play also shows the influence of Brazilian artist Lygia Clark. One of the great Brazilian artists of the 20th century, she is best known for her “bichos” (bugs). These are moveable sculptures that encourage viewers to interact with the art.

Clark eventually abandoned her art practice to become a therapist. She used her bichos for therapy. Lopez is on to something – the transformative power of art and its ability to heal the human psyche.

Going through the dislocation of immigrating to New York City, Lopez found himself disoriented and felt himself dancing with the objects in his studio. Dance is a very natural Colombian expression because African culture on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts is very much part of who we are.

Dance brings people together and in the African or Afro-Caribbean context is also a healing art. In a similar way, Lopez uses interaction to draw the viewer into this art. You don’t just stand next to the wall, he invites you to move through the art like a dancer moves through the room.

Doors in the exhibition are a literal metaphor for change. The sitting door is marvelous. It looks like it’s going to get up and dance. Mateo’s door itself is transforming and becoming human. To find your own humanity all you have to do is loosen up and step through the door.

Everything in the exhibition speaks to a process of transformation. Lopez has transformed himself just as Colombia is transforming itself now. Both are worth watching to see what they come up with next.

Mateo López

Mateo López was born in Bogotá, Colombia in 1978. He moved to New York City in 2014 and now lives and works in Brooklyn. Play is his second solo exhibition at Casey Kaplan.

Casey Kaplan

121 West 27th St, New York, NY 10001
Chelsea, Manhattan

Tuesday-Saturday: 10am – 6pm

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