In Matisse’s famous phrase, an artwork should be like a comfortable armchair, allowing the viewer a moment of rest and consolation. George Cisneros’ installation Pictures at an Installation goes one step further. He has placed a set of actual armchairs in conversational arrangements in the center of his space. As a computer programmed piano plays hypnotic music, viewers are invited to let their eyes linger over the mysterious concrete reliefs which line the walls. The effect is to induce a state of meditative contemplation.
The title of this work is, of course, a play on Moussorgsky’s famous musical composition Pictures at an Exhibition. There is a twist, however. While Moussorgsky created a musical composition inspired by a set of paintings, here Cisneros started with his own musical compositions and created visual objects that relate to them. Cisneros ability to move between artistic disciplines is a function of his refusal to accept hard and fast distinctions between music, art and technology.
This is clear from his biography. Cisneros was trained as a musician and studied music composition, percussion, computer music and imaging. He currently runs a business as an Internet provider and website creator, while maintaining a multimedia production company. Meanwhile, he performs with Carnaval de San Anto, a dance and batucada ensemble and directs La Flecha de Tiempo, an electronic and traditional percussion trio. He has also taught, worked as an arts administrator and created public art works, including a huge video wall for San Antonio’s International Center.
Pictures at an Installation is a study in the reconciliation of supposed opposites. On one hand, the musical compositions here are exemplars of the most advanced audio technology. On another, the concrete reliefs on the wall employ a form of casting that is a millennia-old tradition. There is another contrast as well. The music is ethereal and immaterial, while the reliefs are massive and heavy. Yet as Cisneros points out that, on a more basic level, these distinctions are illusory. At the root of both the electronically created music and the concrete casts is a pair of crystalline materials – the computer silicon and the concrete’s feldspar. Surprisingly, given their apparently antithetical effects, these raw materials share an essential structure.
There is another parallelism in the structures of the compositions Cisneros has created in music and concrete. Both are composed of arrangements of positive and negative elements. The music is made up of units of sound and silence. And the reliefs come in two varieties. On one side of the room the concrete has been created from a mold, filling in the empty spaces to create a negative cast. On the other, the process has been reversed. Three-dimensional impressions are created by building forms on wood covered with cheesecloth and burlap. Then the concrete is sprayed over the forms – creating a positive relief.
One of Cisneros’ early inspirations was John Cage, the innovative musical rebel whose ideas about chance and randomness deeply influenced the course of postwar music and art. Cisneros was particularly taken by Cage’s insistence that art and life are one. His own work is dedicated to the idea of making art and music part of everyday life. This is clear here in the armchair arrangement which mimics a familiar living room. It is also an element in the forms which appear in the reliefs themselves.
The imagery varies greatly. The negative concrete casts include a work which Cisneros has titled A sudden and sever gash in the face of the earth. The only overtly political work here, it contains an incision which matches the outlines of the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Above these lines floats the Morse code for the words “liberty” and “justice.” Other works have more ambiguous imagery. A representation of the movements of electrons also suggests sperm and egg. One sculpture was based on an aerial view of a garden plan, another contains a relief of a wrench. Yet others are more purely abstract. Cisneros has also included a plaster relief salvaged from his past which presents an impression of the hands of the artist and his siblings made when he was three years old. Lined up on the wall, the concrete sculptures seem to send mysterious messages. This is intentional, as their shape and stylized forms make reference to Mayan glyphs, a form of communication so ancient it begins to seem futuristic.
John Cage also emphasized the important role of chance in the creation of art. While Cisneros has moved away from that in his music, which has a tight architectural structure employing both cycles and repetition, the reliefs show evidence of the productive effects of happy accidents. When casting the concrete, Cisneros mixed in a chemical additive to accelerate the drying process. But it also created unexpected effects in the finished work in the form of unplanned textures and discolorations. Cisneros has welcomed these as visible evidence of the process by which the works were created.
Taken as a whole, Pictures at an Installation offers an engaging advance in Cisneros’ ongoing effort to meld art forms, historical moments and the body and mind. He likes to quote a Tibetan description of the goal of enlightenment. It goes “In all company, happy.” This work is dedicated to furthering that elusive goal.
Eleanor Heartney is a Contributing Editor of Art in America and author of Critical Condition: American Culture at the Crossroads.