Carlos Ulloa: Body, Humor, and Other Systems

VN5, 1999. Plastic, steel, and chewing gum, 70 x 27 x 19 cm.

Carlos Ulloa was born in Philadelphia in 1967 to an American mother and a Cuban father. He has spent the most creative period of his life so far, the last eight years or so, in Germany. No stranger to New York, Florida, Spain, or California, Ulloa indeed epitomizes what used to be called a rootless cosmopolitanism, and his work reflects this condition. It seems to answer in new and startling ways the question: what insight is gained after one has shed the need to belong to a tradition or place, or even to one’s time? The technically diverse recent solo exhibition “Admissible Luz” at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art offered intriguing answers.

Caucho Gaucho, 1995. Sea shells, rubber, lemon peels, and brass, 63 x 150 cm.

From the onset of his sculpting career, Ulloa has been fascinated with the presence of materials as images. He engages this venerable attitude in the art of our times with a surprising range of techniques. A superb sculptor in wood, he embeds his carvings with found objects. He is as happy casting bronze as adhering dry chewing gum with push-pins onto plastic surfaces. His sculptures are a festival in wood and plastic strips, light bulbs and serrated blades, clamps and ducts, feathers and leather, seashells and clippings from magazines. The free-standing sculptures he exhibited at his 1998 mini-retrospective at the Miami-Dade Community College Kendall Campus Art Gallery were a riot of inventiveness. Despite their at times overly clever whimsy, as well as simplistic passé political messages (guns are bad, women’s bodies are exploited), as a whole the exhibition announced the return of a prodigious son to American soil.

Jagged Heart, 1996. Steel, wood, rivets, and lemon peels, 50 x 17 x 29 cm.

By his next solo exhibition at the Durban-Segnini Gallery in Coral Gables, Florida, in 2000, the emphasis had shifted to dazzling wall-hanging pieces, mini-theaters of pungent sexual humor, and a truly mysterious handling of collage materials. Chains of dim lights, fueled by batteries that Ulloa leaves in plain view, vein the background. Often backgrounded with pages of comic books, Ulloa’s theaters eroticize what the text and dialogue sublimate. More importantly, Ulloa deepened his awareness of juxtaposition and one of its subsets—metaphor. What he discovered was that all systems—from discourse, irony, and satire to social systems, anatomy, and culture—are sets of juxtapositions. The links between the elements are provided by those who participate in the system or discourse. In the case of the body, the links are provided by veins and other conduits, hence the importance in Ulloa’s work of the image of arteries and electricity. The strings of subtle lights become a mocking electric blood.

Money Monkey, 1997. Almond, bronze, steel, Plexiglas, and brass, 69 x 39 x 11 cm.

Lungs pair off with wings and leaves, blood with chlorophyll, and hearts become heads. Suitcases become torsos. Perhaps “become” is not exactly right, although some degree of metonymic exchange and fusion is at work in these juxtapositions. Ulloa is more interested in the metaphysics of how these elements come together in the same scene. Viewers have to do part of the work, providing the imagination’s links and thereby making the works their own. But the links are there, just under the surface. These small box theaters are not drenched in enigma, as are the works of Joseph Cornell or Maria Brito. Ulloa is a maker of puzzles waiting for shrewd, playful minds to solve them.

X2, 1998. Painted birch, 33 x 27 x 19 cm.

His newest free-standing sculptures are parodies of anatomy. They employ stools and chairs, plastic tubes, clamps, and gum. Always there is a sexual presence, aggressive and jocular. In our bodies we entertain lust and ideas, anger and love. We act on these passions, and it is the body that gives them form and language, cause and effect. But the body too is a comical machine, the product of an ornate evolution that has given felicitous, as well as absurd, characteristics. The gorgeous eye is met with the organ of elimination, which is also that of pleasure and reproduction. The sumptuous head of hair and the labyrinthine brain duel with male nipples and the appendix. What body feels armored in its tender skin? What caress would have it any other way? The body—its glories and incongruities—provides Ulloa with the central base of his juxtapositions. Like the body, language too is paradoxical—the idea and its shortcoming walk hand in hand, thought and joke, the symbol and the ridiculing gesture with which to shatter it.

Ricardo Pau-Llosa is a writer based in Florida.