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University Gallery

Accumulate, classify, preserve, exhibit: the Obregón method

By Jesús Fuenmayor

Fig. 1 View of the exhibition Accumulate, Classify, Preserve, Display: Roberto Obregón Archive from the Carolina and Fernando Eseverri Collection, University Gallery, University of Florida, Gainesville, 2018

University Gallery Aro186301.jpg

This exhibition, the first of Roberto Obregón's work in a North American art institution, is part of a story that began on October 27, 2003, the day of the artist's death in the outskirts of the small rural town of Tarma, in the Vargas State, a couple of hours on the road from Caracas, Venezuela's capital. After Obregón's death, some of his closest friends went to his house to collect all the belongings that the artist had accumulated during his life. This legacy, guarded for almost eight years by his excellent friend Dennys Montoto, became part of the Carolina and Fernando Eseverri Collection in 2011. They decided to acquire it entirely motivated by the idea of safeguarding the memory of a unique contemporary artist in Venezuela, Latin America, and worldwide. In Fernando Eseverri's own words, assuming the responsibility of preserving Obregón's legacy "is a commitment to art history, to those who study and analyze aesthetic phenomena and, on a larger scale, to the memory of an entire country." As of that moment when the artist's legacy became the Roberto Obregón Archive (from now on abbreviated ARO or Obregón Archive), we began to glimpse the possibility of exhibiting it to attempt to understand the complexities and mechanisms of the artist's language from within, considering that he was someone who remained attentive and at the same time distant—not to say skeptical—and always critical towards the scope of contemporary art and, above all, of the system that puts it in circulation to the public.

Fig. 2 View of the exhibition Accumulate, Classify, Preserve, Display: Works by Roberto Obregón from the Carolina and Fernando Eseverri Collection, Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville, 2018


The exhibition is a sample of a representative but not exhaustive part of the Roberto Obregón Archive, (as the Eseverri chose to baptize it) and never before exhibited as such. [1] Maybe someday I will be able to contemplate the fulfillment of a personal fantasy that is still very remote, and perhaps a little wayward, to publicly show the Archive in its entirely. Despite it being an impracticable idea today, this chimera was the trigger that led to a suitable curatorial solution that adapted to the circumstances of this particular moment. A discovery made by Israel Ortega and Leonor Solá, who are in charge of inventorying and recording Obregón's legacy, made us think that Obregón's fictional encyclopedism, so Borgesian and typical of his work, could be translated into an exhibition format. More than five years ago, Ortega and Solá found with this revelation: of the hundreds of works that Obregón made from 1974 to the day of his death related to the rose petal—the currency of his artistic production—the vast majority of them came from a minimal set of real roses. [2] This discovery served as the perfect excuse to believe that the illusion of totality that runs through all the archives could be faithfully, and with a certain degree of plausibility, transferred and to an exhibition.

Fig 3 C&FE. 0248 Untitled / Curitiba Dissection [Sin título / Disección de Curitiba], 1974-1992 Silkscreen prints. Ink on paper; eight-piece polyptych. [Serigrafía. Tinta sobre papel; políptico de ocho piezas.] 4 4/5 x 37 in. each [12.1 x 94 cm cada uno]


Fig. 4 View of the exhibition Accumulate, Classify, Preserve, Display: Roberto Obregón Archive from the Carolina and Fernando Eseverri Collection, University Gallery, University of Florida, Gainesville, 2018


Carried out initially in the spaces of the University Gallery with a satellite exhibition in the Harn Museum of Art, both of which belong to the University of Florida in Gainesville, before its presentation in the Frost Art Museum in Miami, the structure of the exhibition centers on idea of displaying the Obregón Archive by dividing it into cabinets, each of which presents works related to one of the real, unique and specific roses used by the artist, which we decided to show; it works for our purposes as a sort of mirror of his strategies. Accumulating, classifying, preserving, and exhibiting are, in fact, actions that characterize his program and show his obsession in creating a language and a system so entirely his own that it would only make sense if read within its own logic. In this set of works, we can appreciate the systematic repetition of the same procedure that consisted in collecting the roses, dissecting each one of them into its constituent parts, meticulously ordering them while preserving them with the zeal of a conservator to, finally, leave them arranged to be exhibited in an innumerable diversity of formats and techniques, including drawings, paintings, sketches, collages, photographs, manipulated photocopies, notebooks, books, and other unclassifiable objects.

Accumulate, Classify, Preserve, and Exhibit are also the actions that an art institution (read: museum) inevitably resorts to in dealing with treasured objects. This is how the exhibition, curated jointly by Kaira M. Cabañas and myself, aspires to preserve the symbolic integrity and unity of the items that make up the archive, but at the same time to dissect it, recognizing that collecting and curating are analytical tools that inevitably alter their object of study. We thus set about the task of organizing the archive based on the exhibition structured around the discovery mentioned above, which allowed us to establish a series of curatorial criteria with resonance and affinity to Obregon's thought and research—embodied in his legacy—to show how it opens up various avenues for aesthetic reflection and critical thinking, from the relationship with nature to systems of representation.

With this approach, we want to highlight the complexities of a work that challenges both artistic and aesthetic notions through its formal refinement—in opposition to a language inflected by the aridity of taxonomy—and through the way it deconstructs the sentimental charge of the rose and transfigures it into a mortuary symbol. In this text, we will also stress how Obregón's practice is a convincing instance of how the visual arts contribute in a subtle but categorical way to the fabric of divergent stories.

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