Something within Nothing


The buzz surrounding New York-based artist Fernando Mastrangelo’s previous work focused primarily on its politically charged and often controversial content. His cocaine-based sculpture of a coca farmworker titled Felix once caught the D.E.A.’s attention, and his white corn and cornmeal modernization of the Aztec calendar in Avarice raised questions concerning the production of corn-related products in Mexico and its economic relationship to the United States. Now, while these decidedly socially grand gestures are not present in Mastrangelo’s first solo exhibition at Mike Weiss Gallery (which opened last week in New York), something can be found in “NOTHING.”

Mastrangelo’s strict attention to his chosen materials—a quality that crosses over into the widely coveted, elegant sculptural furniture he creates with Samuel Amoia for AMMA Studio—is exemplified through his treatment of mundane materials in “NOTHING.” Mastrangelo engineered an exhibition constructed almost entirely of salt and sand, with some cement included for good measure. In exploring the uncanny nature of these materials, Mastrangelo invites an existential questioning of their recontextualization. Moving beyond the existential, the pieces he created are meditative and in balance with themselves. Sculptures of significant scale seem light and poised; the contents of each work can be inspected down to individual grains of salt and sand, or largely observed as the abstract amalgams they form.

In discovering his own “language of abstraction,” Mastrangelo has entered a new phase of his artistic career. “I had to learn that these grand gestures don’t really go very far in the art world,” Mastrangelo said of his shift away from political content. “I’m not jaded by making [political] statements, but I certainly am more cautious about the way people read or react to a statement.”

We visited the artist in his Flushing, Queens studio while he made final preparations for “NOTHING.”

FERNANDO MASTRANGELO: I signed on in November to work with Mike [Weiss] and now we’re here, so it happened very quickly. For the show, I really wanted it to be very reduced, very reductive—so, the sand pieces are just the simple gesture of taking the sand and [pauses], you know, I feel like it’s a painting stroke. It’s done very quickly with these rakes, and then there’s a moment when the piece is done and you step back and say, “That’s it.”

HALEY WEISS: I was thinking that these sand pieces look like rays of light, with the way that the planes intersect.

MASTRANGELO: You’re absolutely right. I went to Miami in December for [Art] Basel and I was trying to think about what I wanted to do for the show and where I felt like I was as an artist. So [these pieces] were a way to return back to the simple imagery of using elements from the beach, and horizons, and things that I’m resonating with right now.

WEISS: Where did you get all of the sand?

MASTRANGELO: I buy it online. Believe it or not, this stuff is called silica sand. Actually, I’m doing a couple of pieces for Miami, for a hotel down there, and they’re shipping me the sand from Miami, which I think I would have almost like to have done for this project.

WEISS: I know that with some of your other work, the materials are from a specific place, like the cornmeal in Avarice was from Mexico.

MASTRANGELO: I’ve loosened up over the years about that. I started off working for Matthew Barney, and that’s what his mentality is. Even while we were making pieces, like a mold, the mold would make sense conceptually with the piece. That’s how deep his symbology goes. I’ve loosened up over the years because I very much had that mentality.

WEISS: I suppose it’s different when it’s a bit more political, too—when every material needs to be tied to an understanding of what you’re trying to portray.

MASTRANGELO: Right, or else it’s like you haven’t done your homework. But with this work, it’s a little more freeing. And that’s part of it for me, too, just letting go a little bit. In other words, just allowing the material to be what it is and not transforming it into imagery or a calendar.

WEISS: And instead letting it call attention to itself as a surface.

MASTRANGELO: Exactly. It took me a very long time to realize that inherently the materials have this beautiful quality without me having to impose meaning onto them.

WEISS: Everyone will bring different meanings to the materials anyway. Especially salt, as a symbol and historically sought-after material that now seems ever-present.

MASTRANGELO: Right, it has it’s own rich history. Not to be too didactic about this, but a lot of it is sea salt, and this imagery revolves around beach horizons. I have this photo that I took that ended up sort of becoming this piece. [standing in front of a 84 x 120″ salt and sand piece that is laid on a table] This is the big boy. It’s going to be hung vertically. I love this piece. Something really special happened. Do you make art?

WEISS: Yeah, I do.

MASTRANGELO: Have you ever had a moment where you finish a piece, and then all of a sudden the piece sort of takes on it’s own life beyond you?

WEISS: Definitely.

MASTRANGELO: It doesn’t happen every time, but there are some pieces where that happens, and I love that. I feel like that’s what I’m seeking nowadays, that moment of transcendence with a piece. Where this thing becomes larger than me as a person. It becomes otherworldly, and then I get separated as maker from it, and then it has it’s own life. I love that.

WEISS: Especially when you don’t necessarily anticipate that and it happens.

MASTRANGELO: I think that you’re always hoping, and then something emerges and you think, “Fuck, this is it.” That’s that moment. When people ask me now about why I make art, I think that’s what I’m seeking. I didn’t know that so clearly [before]. Because otherwise you’re just in the hustle, you’re trying to pay your bills, to do this and that, and then there’s that unique moment, when you’re not thinking about the market, or if it’s going to sell, and all of that bullshit.

WEISS: Is everything in the show made of sand and salt?

MASTRANGELO: Everything is sand and salt, and this is also cement. [walks toward a sculpture of two intersecting triangles] This is the big, epic, tall sculpture for the exhibition. What happened with this piece was I was going to line the interior with salt—the whole thing—and then I thought, “Is there any way that we could make [the salt] part of the structure?”

WEISS: It’s like the drum stools that you make for AMMA.

MASTRANGELO: Yeah, it’s that transition. You see the way that the salt corrodes the cement a little. I love that. That’s stuff that you can’t control.

WEISS: I read that part of what you like about [salt] is that it destroys and preserves, right?

MASTRANGELO: Exactly, I love that aspect of it conceptually. It’s totally true, and we notice that in here when we’re making things. It has its own life.

This design [of this piece] was actually inspired by my friends getting married recently. They’ve been together 11 years and she’s a graphic designer. She came up with this design of two triangles coming together, and it was on the invitation for their wedding. I said, “Guys, not only do I want to make a piece for you, but I also want to articulate it in this language.” It’s the only piece that’s a little bit further out of the simple language. It’s simple, but it’s a little aggressive, and I like that.

WEISS: The striations in the cement make it look very natural.

MASTRANGELO: That’s the idea. Taking cement, which we’re used to thinking of as a mundane material, and reinvigorating it.

These pieces also give me a feeling of calm, and a feeling of meditation. I feel like I can just be with them. They do something that I don’t have to. They do the work, and I can just sit back and think, “How am I feeling?” It’s such a departure from my old work. I’m 36 now, I feel like I’m changing as a human being, and I think that the work needed to be in line with where I’m at. When I was younger and I was making political work, I was trying to figure out where my work fit in because when you’re young you’re like, “I don’t know.” I’m Latino, I grew up in Mexico, and so I thought that maybe I had to talk about those things. Then finally I didn’t need my identity to rely on anymore. So now the work is becoming about more esoteric things, I guess—my own sort of language.

WEISS: Does your design work with AMMA inform your artistic practice? Do they merge frequently?

MASTRANGELO: Absolutely. AMMA skyrocketed so quickly, so now I feel like we have to live up to that. There’s a little bit of expectations, but I don’t look at a lot of design. I try to stay focused on making sculptural art pieces and somehow translating them into design.

WEISS: That’s why people are reacting to them so well. It’s like having an art piece, not just furniture.

MASTRANGELO: I agree. I think there was a necessity for it.

WEISS: I saw that you have a “nothing” tattoo on your arm. Does that predate the choice for the exhibition title?

MASTRANGELO: Yeah. This is the personal side of things. When I started going through some of those transitions in my mind, just as a human being versus as an artist, I tried to… Essentially, I did this thing called Landmark Forum. It’s three days of mind-expanding, existential philosophy, like Jean-Paul Sartre for everyday living. In existential philosophy they talk about “Being and Nothingness,” this idea of not putting meaning onto things, and that in that way you live more purely. In other words, we form reality from these stories that we make up about our lives. So, I’m thinking, “Oh, this and this happened. It means that I’m not a good artist, or that I’m this or that.” You just make up shit in your mind when the reality is completely different. I started to realize that I was out of whack in terms of reality and I was living in these ideas that I was making up. Like, “If I don’t have a gallery by the time I’m out of college then that means something.” So I took this thing [at Landmark Forum] and I had all of these realizations and that’s when I got this tattoo to remind me to live into nothing, just don’t make up meaning. [laughs] Today I had a weird email that I had to deal with, and I thought, “Okay, what’s reality and what are you telling yourself?” I try to distinguish between those two.

When I was speaking to Mike [Weiss] about the exhibition, I was telling him about where I was and he saw the tattoo and said, “That’s the title! Let’s do that!” I thought it was a little aggressive. I don’t want to come off as, “This is nothing.” [both laugh] I was wondering how people would take it, but then I embraced it and it does connect to my personal philosophy.

WEISS: It makes conceptual sense, too. Speaking of “Being and Nothingness,” there is something uncanny in removing your materials from their original contexts, and calling attention to them as materials and not to their associated meanings or uses.

MASTRANGELO: Exactly. That’s perfect. [pauses] It all made good conceptual sense. A few years ago I would have been more hardcore about that stuff, but sometimes I think you just have to trust that the things you’re doing make sense, instead of sitting down and analyzing this and that and, “Well, I read Foucault saying…” [both laugh] The world and the universe have a way of resolving themselves eloquently, I think, if you’re doing the right things.

WEISS: Foucault is like the F-word in academia; you just wait for someone to mention it and think, “Here it comes…” [both laugh]

MASTRANGELO: And they always do! When I was in college, it was Derrida. Everyone was dropping quotes. [laughs] I remember thinking that was important—and I don’t say that it’s not now—but we’re just living our lives. I don’t have time to think about that.

WEISS: Yeah, and that relates to everything you were just talking about with “nothing,” and not making up all of these other stories and narratives.

MASTRANGELO: Right. It’s so much more freeing. I wonder [what it would be like] if everyone lived that way. [pauses] It’d be such a cool world.