Over the past few years, Venezuelan artist Sol Calero has put on a series of vibrant installations that mimic everyday life in her home country. The latest in these series of works, Casa de Cambio, was shown at Art Basel last summer and quickly became a Instagrammer’s dream. The installation appropriated the décor of a Venezuelan currency exchange, complete with colourful wall coverings, exotic travel themed posters, cabinets of tacky jewellery and fake palm trees.
Calero isn’t new to such staging. In the past, she’s transformed the immaculate spaces of European art galleries into a Salsa dance school, a restaurant, an art school and a cyber café. Earlier this year, at David Dale Gallery, Glasgow, she created a telenovela set and filmed episodes of a fictional-yet-credible TV series, featuring the dramatic acting and flashy interiors typical of the genre.
Calero often disguises her paintings within the installations, inviting people to interact with the environments she develops. Her sets – carefully re-creating crucial social spaces in Latin America – work with our preconceptions and expectations, exposing the formulas through which South American culture has been distorted and received by Western countries.
The artist often quotes the US doctrine of the “Good Neighbor Policy” pursued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, as a way of befriending Latin American countries in the hope of creating new economic opportunities. For this purpose, the North American film industry depicted Latin American through a highly-idealised image of exoticism that was perfectly embodied in the movie star Carmen Miranda, the “lady in tutti frutti hat”.
Always over the top, wearing garish colours and her iconic fruit hats, Miranda – herself Luso-Brazilian – became for the West a symbol of South America at large, meaning that marked cultural differences within the continent were often dismissed. Calero addresses these issues (still persisting today), re-appropriating in her paintings the exotic fruit associated with Miranda’s exaggerated persona.
Paying homage to her previous installations, Calero has intelligently painted some parts of the Laura Bartlett gallery in pastel colours: a yellow pipe, some peach and green walls. Although not strictly necessary to the exhibition, these gentle details help break up the dazzling white space. But as the title suggests (Solo Pintura, or “Only Painting”) her current exhibition gives more autonomy to her paintings, here installed without the staging props of her previous installations. In doing so, more attention is directed to the compositional elements at play in the works.
Calero’s long-lasting interest in the surface of things (one of her signature pieces are wallpapers) is noticeable in paintings with the mosaics and coloured splinters of glass directly applied to the canvases. The slatted Venetian blind, interrupting the view of the paintings with a uniform flat surface, reaffirms the bi-dimensional quality of the canvases.
Calero’s super-flat surfaces might well be a metaphor for the cultural facades artfully built for mass consumption. But peel off the first layer and there might be something else behind it.
Sol Calero: Solo Pintura, 23 Sept – 13 Nov 2016, Laura Bartlett Gallery, London