Lost ... and found, in translation

'Kissing Through A Curtain,' at Mass MoCA explores the ways we interpret and reinterpret what we see, hear and remember

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NORTH ADAMS — Up close, it's evident that the brightly colored paintings of Justin Favela's series, "After Jose Maria Velasco," are not made with oils like those that inspired them, but instead, with pieces of crepe paper intricately glued in pixel-like patterns.

From further away, the colors meld together, visually, creating "paintings" of luscious valleys, verdant countrysides and far-off mountain ranges backed by brilliant blue skies. The series is a reinterpretation of Velasco's work, which, during the late 19th century, earned him international accolades. More importantly, Velasco used his landscapes as to help the fledgling country of Mexico forge a new sense of patriotism and national identity.

"[Velasco] and a number of his compatriots around the same age, often from the same university, were looking at the Valley of Mexico as a stand-in, sort of, for the Mexican landscape and also for Mexican identity. It was a moment after the Mexican independence when there was a lot of conversation about what national identity was going to look like and how, as a nation, Mexico wanted to define itself to the outside world, especially, but also internally, and the painters were part of that sort of national project of defining an identity," curator Alexandra Foradas said as she led this reporter through the "Kissing Through a Curtain" in March, just days before all non-essential businesses in the state were closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Originally scheduled to open March 21, "Kissing Through a Curtain," debuted Saturday, July 1, with the official reopening of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

The choice to recreate the works of one of Mexico's most famous painters with paper so closely associated with the pinata might seem strange to most, but for Favela, it was the clear choice, Foradas said.

"Justin believes that there is no better way to reinterpret Jose Maria Velasco's canvases then in pinata. And, I think it's an interesting thing that both pinata and oil paint, which was the original material [of Velasco's work] have this sort of legacy of conquest behind them," she said. "Where pinata began, at least so the story goes, was in China. It was brought from there to Spain by Marco Polo. It was brought from Spain to Mexico by Catholic priests, who were looking to convert people and who would use it as sort of a way to gather community at large religious festivals. So, I think, while many people outside looking in think of pinatas as maybe, indigenously Mexican, in fact, it isn't. It comes from a similar lineage to oil painting, in that it came through Europe to the people of Mexico today."

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Favela's reproductions are done at-scale, some of which he has seen in-person.

"In many cases, Justin hasn't seen the original painting in-person; he has only seen the digital copy of it, and is reinterpreting it based on that and the dimensions that are available to someone remotely.He is sort of reenacting the same act of transmission that these seem to point to materially and individually," Foradas said. "[One of the things] I write about in the catalog is about the idea of the image as it is destroyed in transmission, but also, this sort of legacy of transmission that attests to the way in which the image is important enough for person after person to be transferring, uploading and downloading it; transmitting it from one place to another."

That transference — the uploading and downloading of the image; Favela's reinterpretation of Velasco's works, are acts of translation. And, translation, is an imperfect act in which there is a give and take, as words, images, text and ideas are transformed, reshaped and shared anew.

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"It implies an attempt to cross a border — between languages, between people who speak the same tongue, between different times, media, nations and cultures. We often say things are lost in translation, but things are gained too: each new context adheres to the text, idea or person, adding the grit of new meanings and associations ... In a moment when isolation, nationalism and even xenophobia are on the rise across the globe, what place does translation — or, indeed, any attempt to communicate — hold today?," Foradas writes in the opening paragraphs of the guide to the group show.

The exhibition, Foradas said during the tour, takes its name from an essay by the poet Kwame Dawes, about a discussion by a group of translators bemoaning what is lost during the translation of poetry, from Russian to English and the like.

"[One translator] says to the assembled group of people, 'How would you feel if you were always kissing through a curtain?' and someone says, 'Better than not kissing at all,'" Foradas said. "I was interested in the idea of mediated contact as essentially the space that translation occupies."

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The work of Jessica Vaughn, she said, exemplifies that idea of "mediated contact." Vaughn's series, "After Willis #11," uses decommissioned subway seats from the Chicago Transit Authority to connect the "strange intimacy of public transportation to impersonality and reproducibility of the seats on which people sit."

"For example, the red line — if you ride from one end to the other — starts in the very white, fairly wealthy north side of the city, goes through downtown, and then, you can watch it getting increasingly less white and increasingly more filled with people of color, as you move further south in the city," Foradas said. "And oftentimes, the train car is the only place where people [from all of those neighborhoods] might share that space, even if it's not at the same time.

"Jessica's work is really interesting. She thinks a lot about how the materials, which systems use and which inhabit the systems, are sort of a power that structure how our interactions with one another can be used to make those systems invisible."

Kim Faler's suspended sculptures in her installation, "Double Bubble," are based on chewed wads of gum. Suspended at the eye-level of an adult, the large-scale sculptures are rendered in iron, brass, glass, gypsum and wax.

"As I was thinking about the exhibition, her art came immediately to mind because she is so interested in what a shifting in material or scale or context can do to a familiar form, and the way that it can make it visible by making it strange," Foradas said of the North Adams-based artist. "She's thinking about the sort of unconscious forms that we make with our mouths as we're chewing gum. She's been very interested in manifestations of anxiety in the last few years. And in the way that we might translate that [anxiety] and make it more visible, give it space and acknowledge it consciously."

Other installations explore: how memories are transmitted from person to person; how words and phrases — with synonymous meanings — have disparate political and ideological associations; the relationships between the "master" and "slave" roles in electronics; how we translate sound and dialogue with closed captioning and more.


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