Before he was punished to an eternity of rolling a rock to the top of a hill – just to have it roll back down with every attempt – Sisyphus was the clever king of Corinth who liked romping around his polis, playing tricks on his citizen-subjects and gods alike.
Hugo Montoya, a Miami native, is well known here for his flippant jocularism and for work that’s subversively tongue-in-cheek, often homoeroticized. His second solo exhibition is a furtherance of this approach, yet is also monumental in scale and ambition. The works are attention demanding first for their perilous size and weight, but then reveal themselves as richly layered metaphors for labor, local history, and the human need for potent narratives and mythologies (with comedic relief).
The first work visible is the impressively balanced Stolen Boulder, a 300-pound rock sitting atop a thin steel rod. There’s a paradoxical sensation provoked: either the boulder is actually lightweight (it is not), or the rod will snap (it probably won’t).
Hugo Montoya, Black Beach and It's so White it's Wong , 2013, mixed media; Courtesy of the artist and Guccivuitton.
As with the second major work of the show, there are traces of the problem solving process, but rather than hurting the execution it lends the work an imaginative alchemy. After “securing” the boulder and calculating the correct balance, he was at a loss for how to lift it up. Several fellow artists refused to help him considering the danger, and Montoya says that he felt desperate for a solution. Suddenly, he was struck with an epiphany; he used an engine lift he borrowed from a local mechanic.
The front of Stolen Boulder pops with tropical tones, but the back of it is left au naturel, and smoothly transitions to the second piece. Black Beach is a floor-to-ceiling edifice composed completely out of clay that was dug out of Virginia Key – the site of a historic “wade-in” protesting the area’s Whites-Only status.
The wall is solid but gradually drying out, turning white and cracking and revealing the nails and wire mesh of its skeleton, something not anticipated by Montoya but which serves poetic ends. The piece is testament to the changes in Miami’s fraught history of racial tension, but it looms bigger as a reminder of present-day barriers and structural segregation.
Hugo Montoya, Oscar's Mom, installation view; Courtesy of the artist and Guccivuitton.
The final two works in the show’s slight, yin-yang layout are farcical. The first, titled So White it’s Wong, contains two constructed rectangles that extend out of the gallery’s ceiling down to eye level. Placed on the inside so that they’re facing each other are two found photographs – one of a white family posed ridiculously against a heavenly backdrop, and the other of a monkey sitting against a zoo wall, forlorn with the look of a prisoner. Under and overtones of race, class, and species are put into direct dialogue – mockingly so – though they retain their pertinent features regarding Miami’s frayed social fabric.
The second, titled Oscar’s Mom, is a gigantic print of a painting that depicts a naked woman reigning in a centaur, a seditiously humorous poke not only at mythology, but at the notion of authorial authenticity (the painting was done by the mother of a friend of Montoya’s).
However, Stolen Boulder and Black Beach are the stand-out works. Small details of the works disclose the problem-solving parts of Montoya’s process that didn’t get resolved (the exposed innards of Black Beach and the nearly imperceptible bend of Stolen Boulder’s steel rod), but still, their slight imperfectness displays Montoya’s desire to take risks, and in the case of the cracking clay of Black Beach, the unforeseen problems act as unexpected benefits. They are remarkable, honest works of hubris that test the boundary of failure and success – and ultimately, they’re reminders that no matter how hard we push, things will just push back, and what’s important is that we just keep trying.
(Image on top: Hugo Montoya, Stolen Boulder, 2013, mixed media; Courtesy of the artist and Guccivuitton.)