From Buenos Aires to Bush-ville, Esteban Pastorino Diaz's photos riff and play on the so-close-yet-so-far, Charissan N. Terranova.
originally published: Dallas Observer, September 23, 2004
A little bit of Argentina has come to Texas--a taste of Buenos Aires is livening up the fair but jaunty mix of Dallas. Yet in the photographs of Argentinean artist Esteban Pastorino Diaz, now showing at Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery, visual piquancy is the result of a much more significant play on space, time and distance. In an odd turn of optical events, Diaz makes the faraway lands of Argentina seem almost next-door. His photos have all but collapsed the linear space-time continuum, turning a distant geography of what is well-nigh another world into a neighbor of the Southern hemisphere. Even outdoing the idea of physical adjacency, though, is that of mirroring. Squint your mind's eyes in just the right way and Texas engages Argentina in more a game of reflection than contiguity. The similarities are endless. Like Texas with its broad prairies, Rocky Mountain fringe and Gulf Coast, Argentina boasts a diverse landscape that brings together flatlands, mountains and beach--the Pampas, Patagonia and the Atlantic shoreline. Another point of shared heritage is the gaucho. No, I'm not referring to the lovely ladies of Highland Park Village and their penchant for pastel-colored flair-legged short pants. Here I refer to the tough hombres of the West--free-ranging, free-roaming cowboys who, in Argentina as in Texas long ago, manage the frontier, reining in prodigal calves and tumbleweed alike. For their tango we have our two-step. For their Evita we have our Ann Richards. For their Che Guevara we have our George W. Thanks to globalization, everything's the same. Amen.
Wait a minute.
With respect to Diaz's photography, I would like to proffer another, indeed more accurate paradigm of seeing. Rather than offering to us a visual economy based on a gleaming self-reflection, Diaz gives us an image at once double, opposite and inverted. Instead of mimicking and imitating, the photographic images of Diaz are based on a retinal geography that, in operating something like the retina of the human eye, depicts a world upside down. Instead of suburban tract housing, those neat rows of houses are government housing--either an alternative to or soon-to-be favela barrio--awaiting inhabitation. That bright yellow airplane and Tonka truck in the dirt are not toys. That's a real plane and a real bulldozer. That's not New Deal-inspired or art deco design similar to our own Fair Park in Dallas. That's fascist Argentine architecture from the 1930s.
In keeping with this playful game of distance and measurement, Diaz approaches photography as though an alchemist of the machine, always inventing new ways of capturing images and setting them alight. Each of the three genres of picture-making on view in the house-cum-exhibition space of the gallery--panoramicas, aerial views and night views--reveals the artist's combined fascination with inventing new apparatuses for his camera and the physics of the image in motion. Trained first as an engineer and later as a photographer, the 31-year-old artist is a Leonardo-like impresario of the photographic image, devising a careful space-time-distance formula for each shot. While examples of artistic image-making at its best, Diaz's photographs intimate above all else an apotheosis of the engineer as generator of delectable form.
The panoramicas are small, linear, often urban vignettes showing combinations of residential street frontage and pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Cars and buses become seamless lines of red, yellow and blue interspersed with clear, seemingly straight-shot shop fronts. In "Florida y Cerrito" the blur of moving cars gives way momentarily to the snapshot-like stillness of a corner store. With their stripy and rhythmic play of form and movement, the images bring to mind the photographs and paintings of the Italian Futurists active in the early 20th century. In making these photographs, as with the others on view, Diaz is more interested in process than setup. He is more of a Lucas Samaras, say, than a Jeff Wall. For these long, lithe panoramic views, Diaz built a "strip camera," attached it to his car and adjusted the speed of the film, exposure and the car. Adding yet another layer of effect, Diaz further keeps in mind the distance of surrounding objects, at times tweaking the location of car and camera vis-à-vis street-front objects in order to reap new perspectives. Sometimes the exposure is timed along with the car and the images are shot head-on; other times the exposure runs slower or faster than the car and the images are shot at a 45-degree angle. The result is an array of small visual essays focusing on the fast, roving eye, the common thesis of which is anamorphosis. Anamorphosis--the intentional distortion of objects that implies movement--is an age-old trick in painting, the most readily accessible example of which is Hans Holbein's skewed and melting skull in The Ambassadors (1533). Diaz ratchets up the stakes of anamorphosis for a 21st-century world, making the moving eye the rule of seeing rather than the exception.
Behind the vaguely distorted aerial views of "Aeroclub" and "Barrio" lies yet another far-out and lyrical contraption built by Diaz. In order to make these dream-like images, Diaz attached his camera to a Japanese kite, a Rokkaku. As part of the process, Diaz combines fixedness with movement, establishing the camera's focus and tilted lens in a stationary mode while the machine nevertheless floats above and aloft, every breeze a cause for whim. He releases the shutter from below, by radio transmission. Here, as with the panoramicas, we find the centrality of yet another element in his process, namely chance. While Diaz is a scientist of the apparatus, constantly adjusting and fine-tuning the mathematics of image-making, ultimately his artwork depends on the unforeseen. As with the Surrealist exquisite corpse and John Cage's musical compositions, chance is the deciding force of this work. Odd, however, are the results--that chance could make imagery that is so precise yet ambiguous. "Aeroclub" shows a sharply delineated toy-like yellow plane that pops forth energetically from the green field on which it sits. Similarly, with its deranged yet cutesy duplexes in the guise of Levittown, "Barrio" looks more like an architectural model than a true neighborhood.
The third series of images by Diaz, the night views, shows several tumbledown architectural wonders designed in the 1930s by the Argentine modern architect-engineer Francisco Salamone. They are midsized prints, the process (gum bichromate) of which yields a stippled and painterly chiaroscuro of form. Taken at night, the photographs seem eerily old, as though, following the short life of celluloid, they are disintegrating back into the darkness of night before your eyes. The architectural form that Diaz chooses to shoot is fanciful but highly inventive, the deco-like finial of "Matadero Cahrue" looking more like the antenna of a space ship than a modern campanile. While the buildings he has shot are truly out of this world, the process here verges on being sappy and nostalgic.
There is more than fun and scientific high jinks to the work of Diaz. Because he chooses to focus his image-making on urban subject matter, his work tends to take on a much more global air. The familiarity of their subject matter tells us something about the status of economic and urban development in Argentina, that it, like our own, follows from technologies of decentralized manufacturing that give rise to various cultures of sprawl. Pundits of culture will tell you that this familiarity and shared visual vocabulary are evidence of the ever-increasing homogenization of the world--that everything is fast becoming the same. But take heart, I say. Ann was no Eva, and W. will never be Che.