NORTH ADAMS, MASS. — Colombian-born, Miami-based artist Federico Uribe just wants to make people happy. Anything beyond that is their own choice.
"I'm more interested in making people smile, rather than telling them what to think," Uribe said.
His new show at Kidspace at Mass MoCA, "Here Comes the Sun," gathers together a number of his animal sculptures. The idea is that his penchant for using unusual material and refashioning them in the form of his favorite creatures helps transform not only the way we look at things, but also pare down some of the source material from its initial importance into something brand new.
One of his chosen materials that has gotten a lot of attention is bullets, which he uses to create various animals, most notably a lion that hangs near the front of the Kidspace gallery. This is what Kidspace Director of Exhibitions and Education Laura Thompson first saw that compelled her to fashion a complete show of Uribe's work. She had already been looking for art created from bullets and felt his was perfect for this show conceived to focus on optimism.
"In terms of the materiality, the lion piece really spoke to me," she said. "It represents everything — in terms of optimism. Optimism is not rose-colored glasses. It's seeing the reality that life can be hard and difficult, but it's not always staying in that mindset. A pessimist is always dark and down, and that's the way you see life. An optimist is more willing to see that there's the potential for making changes."
Bullets aren't the only material Uribe uses. He created a pig made out of tape measures, a tree from books, a horse from various cases, turtles from construction helmets, among many other variations. In context of all these materials together with the bullets included, Uribe has created a presentation that does not highlight the bullets, does not make them more important than any other materials. He's putting them on an equal level with any other man-made object and stating that we control their use, we control their perception.
"We don't want to hit people over the head either, which is why I didn't want the whole show to be his bullet pieces, because then that becomes redundant or its hitting that message too hard," Thompson said. "We wanted to get at it through these other ways that we can compare and talk about the material choices, while getting engaged in that conversation, because it is surprising to see a monkey made out of bullet shells next to a piano key cactus. I think those two pieces will speak to each other."
Uribe began sculpting with unusual materials while living in Guadalajara, Mexico, looking for something creatively new.
"I got bored of painting, so I started roaming the streets, buying objects arbitrarily," he said. "Baby bottle nipples, plastic cutlery, colored pencils, etc. I had no idea what I was going to do with them until I started working. I grew comfortable with working with objects very quickly. It came naturally to me. In many ways, that has been my formula for the past 17 years. Find objects and make them into something beautiful."
Uribe says this is a preoccupation that informs all aspects of his life. He is always looking at any object he sees as a potential medium, and he is always pushing himself to creature more and more sculptures to celebrate the beauty he sees in the world. He says that once he becomes too familiar with an object, he moves along to find another one to work with.
"I have a sense of urgency in my life," said Uribe. "I feel as if I'll never have enough time to make all of the creations I see in my head."
Uribe grew up during a period of Colombian history that was marked by conflict, but his early love of animals has only blossomed through his life and informed his world view, which now manifests strongly in his sculpture.
"He didn't have a safe childhood growing up in Colombia," Thompson said. "The animals to him are solace. Even though I am growing up with all this tragedy around me, I can find some peace. There is hope for a better future for him."
It might be this childhood connection with the imagery he chooses that builds the connections between his work and children. Though bullets are obviously dark material to use in art, Uribe doesn't feel it necessary to focus on them to make an emotional connection with the work, and often, adults do so at the cost of disconnecting from the possibilities the work presents.
"It is not my intention to spread a dark subliminal message," Uribe said. "There are many ways to read into my work, and I invite everyone to make their own assessment. Sometimes, children interpret the work more closely to my intention than adults."
"Ultimately, he's more interested in the use of the materials in representing his ideas, these animals that he has in his head," Uribe's gallerist Adam Adelson said. "For him, it's really enjoyable to see his imagination come to life."
For Uribe, part of the appeal of his sculptures is exactly what Adelson says, while the other part is the way in which his imagination captures the joy he sees in real life, manifested through some of his own favorite works, which, as Uribe repeatedly points out, exist only to create happiness.
"I love the Horse," Uribe said. "It was a tremendous effort to make. It seems to embody the vitality that I see in the horses on my farm in Colombia."
ON VIEW ...
What: Federico Uribe's 'Here Comes the Sun,' at Mass MoCA's Kidspace
When: Currently on view
Where: Mass MoCA, 1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, Mass.
Cost: Adults $18, seniors/veterans $16, students with ID $12, kids (6–16) $8, kids 5 and younger, free, museum members, free
Information: 413-662-2111, massmoca.org