The wabi-sabi painter and cultural entrepreneur
by Christian Viveros-Fauné Portrait and studio photography by Yasuyuki Takagi
Today, save for the odd airmiles pilgrimage, we typically look to docu- mentation of massive 1970s Earth art to communicate the ground- shaking power of the great outdoors. But in certain exceptional cases, the experience of hard-encrusted dirt, compacted rock and age-old geological matter can also be had under a roof and within four walls – as long as it’s in the right gallery or studio.
This, in a nutshell, was my takeaway from several encounters with the paintings and sculptures of the Mexican-born, New York-based artist Bosco Sodi. In fact, on my last visit to his studio, a persistent thought took hold. Not since visits to one of Walter De Maria’s Earth Rooms or to certain dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History – the two-storey representation of the Bahamas’s Andros barrier reef, for instance – have manmade constructions impressed themselves on your humble correspondent with such brute force.
An artist whose wildly coloured, five-centimetre-thick, extra- large abstractions and boulder-size sculptures speak a direct and elemental language, Sodi has, despite his work’s ruggedness, become a darling of the highly urbane, distinctly nonoutdoorsy global art scene. A Pace gallery artist who also exhibits with Mexico City’s Galeria Hilario Galguera,he has spent the last years engaged with various museum exhibitions – among them a 2013 show of paintings at Valencia’s IVAM – while being simultaneously occupied in at least two countries with several complex aid and construction projects.
Most prominent among the latter have been volunteer relief work for artists devastated by Hurricane Sandy (Sodi organised an opera-fundraiser that also included the auction of artworks made by Mickalene Thomas, Ron Gorchov, Douglas Gordon and Teresita Fernandez), and the ongoing construction of a beachfront artist residency near the village of Puerto Escondido. An Atlantic Center for the Arts-type enterprise located on the shores of Mexico’s own permanent sunshine state – the pre-Columbian and culinary mecca that is Oaxaca – Sodi’s Casa Wabi casts the painter- sculptor firmly in the mould of the twenty-first-century mogul. An outstanding artist, Sodi is nothing if not also a cultural entrepreneur.
The building of Casa Wabi is a perfect example of Sodi’s all- terrain ingeniousness, particularly as it translates his brawny artistic practice from elaborate studio production to even more complex ‘real life’. Named after the Japanese ideal of wabi-sabi – an aesthetic philosophy that finds special beauty in the imperfections of rusticity – Sodi’s residency complex was designed by none other than Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando. Not exactly the sort of archi- tectural proposal that the celebrated Ando
day only after years of intense outreach, lobbying and cold-calling from Sodi himself.
‘I spent three-and-a-half months in Japan and fell in love with Tadao’s work,’ Sodi told one interviewer, ‘and I found that his work and mine had a great deal in common. They are both very wabi-sabi – simple and without pretension. My dream is for the residency to be a place where artists can rest and recharge their batteries, not work all the time. If someone wants to bring their family, or two lovers at a time, they are welcome to, and have my full blessing.’
Sited directly on the Pacific Ocean, Ando’s design for the complex incorporated one of the region’s most typical construction elements: the palapa, or Mexican thatched roof hut. Starting from this basic building block, Sodi commissioned the Japanese architect to create a studio and living quarters for him and his family, in addition to six residences to be occupied year-round by invited guests – mainly artists, curators and critics. Also included with the finished group of structures are an Ando-designed sculpture garden and a 400sqm gallery, built to display the work of leading artists during three exhibitions a year.
“I want Casa Wabi to function as a contemporary version of Marfa,” Sodi told me, invoking the Valhalla of countrified Minimalism. “I want it to be a place that offers an organic relationship to nature and the environment, while also establishing connections between the residency and nearby communities.” In fact, Sodi and Casa Wabi’s director, Patricia Martín (the ex-director of the Jumex Collection), stand fully committed to making arts education for local children and their families an integral part of Casa Wabi’s remit. Funding presently exists for various kinds of public programmes and is expanding. Not surprisingly, Sodi’s vision continues to grow – it now includes a film festival, a food festival and, why not, possibly an arts school.
Of course, none of this would be possible without Sodi’s critical and financial success. A purveyor of an up-to-date combination of all-over abstraction (think Rothko’s use of colour and Pollock’s phys- icality), art brut (Dubuffet’s pumice-stone surfaces) and landscape painting (the Grand Canyon as painted by Jay DeFeo), Sodi’s rapid ascent from New York newcomer to celebrated Gotham artist took place just four years ago. His breakthrough came with a 2010 Bronx Museum exhibition, in which he installed a six-panel, lava-coloured, 4-by-12m painting as the centrepiece of his first museum solo. An accumulation of red and orange crust made from raw pigment, customarily accepts (it cost a fraction of his usual jobs), the 27-hectare site, featuring the architect’s 5,500 sqm project, saw the light of visitors while simultaneously mobilising hungry collectors and dealers all over town.
Fast-forward four years, and one finds the forty-four-year-old artist immersed in making similarly vigorous work inside a football-field-size studio in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. Spry and athletic, Sodi willingly demonstrates how several of his finished surfaces – they resemble nothing so much as the cracked earth of the mineral-rich Atacama Desert – are made using a combination of deliberate and chance elements. In every case, his paintings are the result of science-like experiments with organic and inorganic materials that, once mounted onto a single canvas, can weigh as much as 450kg. This is when the artist’s planned pileups enter their important accidental phase - a period of ‘settling’ (the metaphor is intentionally geological) in which Sodi’s materials give way to unpredictable breaks and fissures produced as much by the artist’s purposeful combinations as by the elements themselves.
One XXL-size, silver-coloured number Sodi points to inside the studio took two-and-a-half months to set during New York’s wet winter; another, an intense, modestly-scaled, vermillion painting still protected by its travel crate, dried at Casa Wabi in just 20 arid days. “I like that variation, chance,” Sodi confesses about the effects forces like heat and humidity have on his surfaces. “I don’t like total control. When it gets predictable, it gets boring. I don’t like boring.” As I look around at the differently hued and sized canvases in the studio – cobalt, fuchsia, halite and coal – I’m reminded that nature is rarely controllable or boring (unless it involves camping with artworld types). Sodi’s accidents give visuality and shape to that power like few other artworks seen anytime, anywhere. ar