In The Noguchi Museum garden, Jorge Palacios’s Weightless Movement (2018) hung from a large Japanese katsura tree—integrated with earth, sky, and Noguchi’s stone and clay sculptures. “The title is a joke,” Palacios explained, “because it’s impossible to have gravity without weight. Weightless Movement dances with the trees but does not change; it’s like choreography, and…choreography was an important theme for Noguchi’s work with Martha Graham. One specific perforated Noguchi piece in the garden (Core, 1978) dialogued well with Weightless Movement.”1 A subtle addition to the composed garden, Palacios’s sculpture, with its off-center opening, invited viewers to peer inside from every direction.
Palacios, a master artist under 40 based in Spain, spent three years preparing for his 2018–19 solo show at The Noguchi Museum while simultaneously creating Link (2018), a large-scale wood sculpture inspired by Noguchi’s public works, which was installed at Flatiron Plaza North in Manhattan last year. “Jorge Palacios at The Noguchi Museum” emphasized many points of comparison with Noguchi. In an essay for the exhibition catalogue, Ana Maria Torres notes how the two artists share a distinct formal rigor, “As in Noguchi’s work, clarity and conceptual wholeness are key visual qualities in Palacios’s art.”2 This emphasis, among other things, sometimes made Noguchi an “outlier,” not always in sync with his times. Palacios’s work, too, can seem worlds apart from much of today’s contemporary art, which often has little use for his interest in abstract universal concepts such as air and water flow, weightless movement, and theoretical curves.
Nobel Laureate Eric R. Kandel, in his 2016 book Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, theorizes that by addressing one idea at a time, scientists and artists/humanists can bridge their differences and learn from each other’s achievements. Palacios’s Link illustrates Kandel’s core idea about reducing complex phenomena to form connections by abstracting and combining halves of two images—a chain link and a human body. The resulting compound is neither figure nor object, but both. At the same time, it represents and brings together science, art, and nature. The body-link reaches into the earth, represents all genders, and “has a nice bum,” as Dakin Hart, senior curator at The Noguchi Museum, informally noted. In his catalogue essay, he more seriously observes, “What is fascinating about Link as public art—and what connects it so compellingly to Noguchi—is that while its intent is specifically civic, and somewhat sacred, it is also quite abstract…Here we are, all in this together, and everything is connected. There is nothing more Noguchi than that.”3 Link shows off its stacked and shaped construction inside a smooth-as-silk surface. At about 13 feet tall, its modest scale mediates between humans and the urban fabric.
Palacios is precise about everything, starting with the word he uses to describe himself: he is a sculptor, not a wood sculptor. He chooses to work in wood because it is a living form. He has spent 20 years mastering the science of cutting and aging this material in order to construct sculptures that will last for centuries. He discusses his elaborate selection, cutting, and construction techniques in Los diálogos de la curva, a 2011 book published in conjunction with a citywide indoor and outdoor exhibition of his work in Toledo, Spain.
In the same book, Spanish critic Anatxu Zabalbeascoa unpacks why Palacios’s work is not biomorphic, but driven by its curves: “It is indeed the curve which decides the movement in its three dimensions…Its monolithic forms are abstract…Rosalind E. Krauss spoke of a ‘deviation from an ideal geometry’ to describe Brancusi’s work. It is a matter of slight deformations that do not disturb the geometric volume as a whole but that speak as they divert…Palacios’s woods are smooth as mirrors, polished to a stone-like extent…his woods turn into pieces of art after an odyssey of transformation processes that prepare them for the wide open, for the world, to establish a dialogue with the places they will be placed in.”4 These points are important. Palacios starts with a concept—for example, the flow of a water droplet—and then he engineers a curve that, for him, represents that flow. He grew up playing in the agronomic engineering studios of his parents, an experience that continues to contribute to his precision-oriented approach. As Flowing Drop (2017) trails down the wall, wood grain imitates flow, a drop suspended in its fall. The near-black ebony against the white wall reverses transparency, becoming its own shadow. At the same time, Flowing Drop is not based on geometry or nature but on the impression of moving water and the magnification of a tiny liquid particle.
Palacios magnifies flow, balance, and other, more difficult concepts from physics. The Singularity of the Curve (2017) tackles the Higgins curve, which refers to a gravitational singularity or a location in space-time where the gravitational field of a celestial body becomes infinite in a way that does not depend on the coordinate system. Palacios calls it “a tension between two parallel fields,” yet he’s open to all interpretations. The primary elongated, central curve has a theoretical attenuation that suggests infinity; concave circles inside its two square bookends create further patterns. Though the green bamboo used to create this work was not as important to Palacios as the overall shape, it resulted in a profusion of multi-directional patterns, which emerged during the carving process.
The Singularity of the Curve, like each of Palacios’s sculptures at The Noguchi Museum, was sited to “speak to” Noguchi’s adjacent work and offer multiple dialogues. Positioned to accentuate relationships between indoor and outdoor light and space (and to highlight the notion of infinity), The Singularity of the Curve complemented Noguchi’s nearby Mitosis (1962), a bronze abstraction about cell division. Palacios told me that Mitosis illustrates how nature’s laws simplify and reduce in order to find the most efficient ways to create cells—that nature teaches us how to build. This observation echoes Kandel’s theory about reductionism.
Balance and Inertia (2011), a rounded teak form with a low, off-center opening, appears to be moving. “It explores whether a static work can convey movement and sensation,” Palacios remarked. “It challenges physics because of the way it has been built.” The teak cubes of different hues are slightly darker on one side. This, plus double shadows on the floor and wall, adds to a sense of motion. Palacios continues to explore fluids and movement in other works: “Blue Cell does not represent one blood cell but conveys the sensation of blood moving. Continuous Vortex is a reflection on how air moves in a tornado. Trajectory studies the movement of one element crossed by another element. Physics can predict the movements of fluids and air.” Depending on speed, surface tension, and density, air and liquids move in similar ways. “Geologists see liquid-like movements in mountains,” Palacios adds, “but this is very slow. Even glass is considered a hyper-slow liquid: the stained glass in windows becomes thinner at the top than at the bottom. Origin of the Ray Fish validates the theory that surface tension and curves are natural elements created in the same simplified ways. A scientist could ‘see’ the ray fish. Each viewer will see different things. Some people see Edvard Munch’s The Scream.”
As Palacios transforms wood into aesthetic objects, he uses synesthesia or sensory looping so solids mimic liquid and air forms. We can see concepts that we might only intuit or take for granted or miss altogether. For instance, Okiagari-Koboshi (2018) is a touchable, playful toy that rocks without rolling over. “I sometimes try to represent abstract things,” Palacios notes. “What is the shape of perseverance? For me, Okiagari-Koboshi embodies perseverance; you push it, and it comes back. It’s movement related to inertia and gravity. Physics is interactive.” Okiagari-Koboshi reinforces the notion that we may roll with the punches and bounce back.
Transforming wood into a red blood cell or a drop of water is a challenge. Palacios’s aim is not likeness but a union of physical, aesthetic, and philosophical values. In his 4,500-square-foot studio, he conducts experiments, studies growth rings, and learns how and where to cut inside each type of tree. As a result, the cut sculptural forms weather wood’s natural cycles of expansion and shrinkage. Palacios chooses wood that is resistant to rot and insects, and when he has a commission, he selects wood suited for that climate. The works in his Noguchi Museum exhibition were made of African padauk and iroko, ebony, teak, maple, green bamboo, and Accoya, a patented acetylated (processed) wood. The surface of the work is as important as the raw material; each shape has a silky finish. After construction, each sculpture displays a unique merger of growth rings and variously curving construction lines.
Palacios’s work includes a few ironies. It feels and looks smooth, yet wood in its natural state is rarely smooth. It looks effortless, but it involves time and labor, both in the making and on the part of the viewer. Just as Kandel’s writings attempt to open dialogues across physics, chemistry, biology, and the arts by addressing how different parts of our brains and bodies respond to color, light, sensation, and perception, Palacios’s sculptures create connections across the arts and sciences. In its own way, each work is reduced, as Kandel proposes, into an essential concept. In another way, it’s like going back to the beginning of time to consider how life begins, how a blood cell moves, how a drop of water flows, and how a theoretical curve could stretch to infinity.
1 All quotations and paraphrases are from conversations with Palacios at The Noguchi Museum on September 9, 2018, translated from the Spanish by project manager Lucia Roldan.
2 Ana Maria Torres, “Noguchi, Sculpture, Palacios,” in Jorge Palacios at The Noguchi Museum, (Long Island City: The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, 2018). Torres, an architect, is the author of Isamu Noguchi: A Study of Space. She and Palacios embarked on a multi-country tour of key Noguchi sculptures and spoke with Noguchi’s principal colleagues, starting at UNESCO headquarters in Paris and ending at his studio in remote Mure, Japan.
3 See Dakin Hart, “The Structure of Things,” in Jorge Palacios at The Noguchi Museum.
4 Anatxu Zabalbeascoa, Los diálogos de la curva, (Toledo: Consejería de Educación, 2011), p. 82.