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Magdalena Suarez Frimkess and Ben Russell

Sebastian Perez

Ben Russell, TRYPPS #6 (Malobi), 2009. 16 mm film, 10 min., 30 sec

Magdalena Suarez Frimkess and Ben Russell
Michael Jon & Alan
June 4–July 2, 2016

In a corner space of the Michael Jon & Alan gallery stands an installation of minimal composition. A short, white pedestal with six ceramic pieces placed on top introduces the exhibition against a bold red wall positioned directly behind the delicate sculptures. From behind this emanate the obscure sounds of drumming, chanting, and feet dragging on a gravel floor. The small, recognizable figures of iconic cartoon characters emerge, painted on the surfaces of Venezuelan artist Magdalena Suarez Frimkess’s ceramic works. The unfamiliar sounds and vibrations come from the 2009 ethnographic film TRYPPS #6 (Malobi) by Ben Russell.

Both artists’ works approach similar subject matter: the consumption of Western culture by non-Western countries and those cultures’ subsequent loss––or compromise––of identity. In Suarez Frimkess’s ceramics, the aesthetic pleasure is evident. Rather than making an overt statement regarding the influences of American culture on her Venezuelan upbringing, she presents the cartoon personalities of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and Porky Pig as images of comfort. Although they appear to be recreated through the artist’s own perception, the idea of commodity still comes into play; the objects are utilitarian––small plates, a cup, and a napkin holder. The handmade, painted, and glazed ceramics dig into the psychology of possession and show how our belongings can define our identities—we are what we obtain. But in this case, Suarez Frimkess reproduces her self-portrait through objects she is initially creating; these simple and fine items become the physical manifestation of America’s globally emphatic influence onto other cultures.


Installation view: Magdalena Suarez Frimkess and Ben Russell, Michael Jon & Alan, 2016. Left to right: Magdalena Suarez Frimkess, Small plate with Goofy (2001), Mickey/Minnie Napkin Holder (blue) (1996), Small cup with Venice Canal (2013)

Russell’s single-shot film depicts a dance in a Suriname village. A young man in a red jumpsuit leads a gathering of men out of a house, each man leaning on another for support as the group drags its feet in a procession; the young men are playing the part of old men. The perspective allows the viewer to follow this group to the source of the drumming sounds. Once there, an act of celebration erupts. What makes these men distinct is their costume: plastic masks of Caucasian characters. Although the circular formation of the dance alludes to ritual, the interaction of Western culture is evident through the personalities portrayed. The Halloween-like masks alter the men’s identities so that they become not only something they are not, but also something they have consumed. While the dancers supplement their Western costumes and dance with comedic gestures that are not their own, spectators of the town stare on, dressed in traditional clothing. The onlookers avoid the camera, distracted by the strange acts of the alien, Western characters—another interaction with the unfamiliar.