The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao examines the thirty-year career of Pello Irazu
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The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao examines the thirty-year career of Pello Irazu
Pello Irazu, Dream Box (Caraqueño), 1993. Plywood and vinyl paint, 62 x 86.5 x 68.5 cm. Collection of the artist. Installation view at the John Weber Gallery, New York, 1993 © VEGAP, Bilbao, 2017.

BILBAO.- The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is presenting Pello Irazu: Panorama , which examines the thirty-year track record of one of the foremost renovators of contemporary Basque and Spanish sculpture. As the title suggests, more than the backward glance which any retrospective entails, this show is a multi-directional vision where time wrinkles and folds in space, offering a kind of panoramic landscape.

The exhibition, featuring over one hundred works, hinges on a conceptual and physical device invented by the artist himself that incorporates some of the most significant milestones and masterpieces of his career. The aim is to create a kind of simultaneous perspective where past and future are reunited and refreshed in a continuous present. In the Museum, the walls of Gallery 105 help create an enveloping atmosphere that draws viewers to experience the work, making them part of it and inviting them to reflect on the language of sculpture.

A key figure on the contemporary art scene, Pello Irazu has forged a consistent body of work since the 1980s, alternating between broad-spectrum sculpture—from small-format three-dimensional creations to massive installations and hybrid objects—and photographs, drawings and mural paintings. In every medium he uses, Irazu's oeuvre exhaustively explores the problems that arise in the multiple relations between our bodies, objects, images, and spaces.

The backbone of this retrospective is a large corridor that cuts diagonally through the center of the space and divides it into different areas which are organized in a circular fashion. This layout proposes a complex spatial experience, where visitors will be free to choose between several more or less linear routes at any point along the way. The central corridor contains a chronological survey of Irazu's most important works on paper as well as a mural painted for the occasion that illustrates the evolution of his drawings, collages, and paintings, while the peripheral areas house his sculptures and photographs.

This artist's oeuvre runs the entire gamut of sizes—from diminutive sketches to large-format works—, and media—from pencil and watercolor to wallpaper, adhesive tape, and all sorts of prints—. The exhibition also allows visitors to discover different forms of artistic expression: figurative, geometric, documentary, gestural, etc.

1984–89 Early years
The tour begins with photographic records of Irazu's first ephemeral experiences in the mid-1980s that would lead to the creation of his first steel piece, whose physical forcefulness is permanently questioned by the partial use of paint. These years witnessed the rise of what contemporary critics began calling "New Basque Sculpture", in which artists like Pello Irazu, Txomin Badiola, Angel Bados, María Luisa Fernández, and Juan Luis Moraza rejected local sculptural tradition and began to reconsider the work of Jorge Oteiza from more contemporary perspectives like Minimalism, PostMinimalism and Conceptual Art.

In this early stage, Irazu established some of the parameters that would remain constant throughout his career, such as limiting the size of a work according to his own physical possibilities so that the piece would act as a condenser of a performative act, or dealing with his growing proximity to Minimalism and Oteiza, always from a heterodox position.

During these years, Pello Irazu produced works of an intense material density, like Gante (1988), which create a spatial discontinuity wherever they are inserted. Little by little, color began infiltrating his work in thick coats of oil paint, as we see in The Land that Sleeps ( La tierr a que duerme , 1986), or more industrial spray paints. In the artist's words, "In both cases and with nuances, a contradiction is created between the optical (the eye) and the haptic or tactile, with their different spatialities."

Around this time, Irazu began working with media like drawing but maintained the characteristics of the sculptural genre. His drawings and paintings, developed alongside works in other media, were not conceived as sketches or designs for sculptures he intended to make but as independent creations. In 1989 Irazu produced his first mural painting, Corridor ( Corredor ), at Galería Joan Prats in Barcelona, transferring ideas developed in drawing to situations closer to real space. With his pictorial, sculptural, or photographic wall interventions, the arrangement of his sculptures in space, and the fragmentation of that space, Irazu gradually altered the viewer's perception in the course of the itinerary.

1990–98 New Objects — The Domestic
After a brief time in London, in 1989 Irazu moved to New York and entered a phase which, for the artist, was marked by the idea of externality, "for the important thing is not just the distance placed between you and what you leave behind, but the fact that you become something external to yourself". This decade is represented by works made of lighter, more readily available industrial materials like plywood or plastic, with expressive treatments and constant allusions to the domestic space. He created pieces that play with architectural references which disappear as mere constructions yet retain symbols of those references, such as brick or dialogue with household objects.

In this period of his career, he deconstructed objects to reassemble them in a disjointed fashion, creating a sense of defamiliarization with regard to the meaning of everyday objects and materials. In works like Unknown (1994) and After Pris (1997), Irazu revealed the tension between public and private. That tension is multiplied in photographs like White St. (1992) and Switch (1997), images of private creative processes destined for a public relation with other works by the artist, treating spaces and walls like trompe l'oeil s or open windows onto an action performed in a private setting. "The domestic and familiar is rendered uncanny by a process of defamiliarization." He also managed to convey this unsettling sensation in works like The Good Teacher (On the table being itself a piece of wood) (1993) and The Bride (Y ou will be whatever you want) (1993), where the artist intervened in the pedestals, the flamboyantly patterned fabrics that dress up the works, or the titles themselves.

In his drawings and paintings from this decade, Irazu applied basic colors to found pieces of printed paper or wallpaper which served as a continuous or reactive point of departure for his work. During this phase, he added new layers to his drawings using materials like adhesive tape, as in The W ound 5 (1998), allowing him not only to design an alternative pattern but also to link diverse materials.

In the year 2000, back in Bilbao, Irazu embarked on a new phase in which his works questioned the signs that surround us, using forms that were suggestive to spectators yet far removed from their habitual points of reference to create mixed feelings of familiarity, ambiguity, and strangeness. Irazu appropriated the space, combining mural painting with three-dimensional materials and sliding along the blurred boundaries of conventional artistic categories. We see this in Acrobat (2000), where the mural painting fractures the wall which the sculpture seals.

Another important piece is Life Forms 304 , in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection, a work originally created for Gallery 304 and now adapted to this new setting. The pentagram-like mural painting that surrounds the viewer modifies our perception of the space and its architecture as well as our relationship with the constructed object. The work resembles an unstable, impassable shelter in which color is combined with different ordinary materials like adhesive tape and plywood. We get the impression that we are seeing a deconstruction prior to reconstruction, the reused detritus of previously inhabited architectures or spaces. Drawing on this and other similar works from the period, Irazu produced sculptures like Fold 04 ( Pliegue 04 , 2005), which he calls "drawings in three dimensions", based on the idea of "taking a drawing, cutting it, creasing it, folding it and placing it in space, but in a real way".

In works on paper like Johntrash ( Juanbasura , 2003), the forms are quite simple, and through the layering of different transparent volumes and materials we can make out everyday objects such as bags or familiar faces from art history.

The final areas house Irazu's most recent works, which challenge the idea of representation in sculpture through reproductive processes such as plaster, aluminum, bronze, and steel casting or photography. In works like Nol i me tangere (Mistrust) [ Noli me tangere ( La desconfianza ) , 2009], whose title alludes to the biblical episode, frequently depicted in art history, where Jesus Christ appears to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection, Irazu created pieces of cast aluminum that visually resemble other materials like cardboard and assembles them with screws, making it difficult to tell the real and represented materials apart. In the artist's words, "The way they are articulated has more to do with the idea of accumulation than with the notion of assemblage." In Annunciation ( Anunciación , 2014)—another major theme in art history, the depiction of which played a central role in the development of pictorial perspective—serial photographs reproduce the artist's immediate surroundings (the studio and production processes), which are gradually modified by paint rather like a trompe l'oeil , thus exploring the relationship between representation, materiality, and ornament.

In a nod to the idea of "eternal recurrence" and the circularity of all artwork, the exhibition ends where it began, with photographs and metal sculptures reminiscent of those with which the show opened.

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