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Nestor Zarragoitia's Sculptures at El Museo

Nestor Zarragoitia's sculptures are at El Museo on Allen Street through May 6.

Feral City

Sculptor Nestor Zarragoitia says in his artist’s statement he has given up on cities, turned them over to the animals—which is not a term of contempt for some of the more loutish denizens these days, but he means animals literally—but I don’t think he really has.

Admittedly, the urban situation is pretty grim. So much now is detritus. But saints and angels—in the form of the poor who live in the city and somehow glean a livelihood from the detritus, and artists who remake the detritus into something new—keep and protect it. Keep and protect civilization.

Zarragoitia’s artworks on the topic are currently on exhibit at El Museo Francisco Oller y Diego Rivera. The exhibit is called Feral City.

Several of the works show animals taking over. Wild and domestic. Antlered and merely horned. But more subtle and significant things are going on as well.

Namely, the gleaning and remaking. Several works feature gleaners, bent down, picking up. The dismal part is that most of what the gleaners recover is plastic. In particular, in two works, plastic bottle caps, as synecdoche for the pop and water bottles that are the most prominent litter item of the contemporary urban landscape.

The hopeful part is that somehow, inevitably, they make something of what they recover. Whereby they readily transform into artists, sculptors. Makers, remakers.

As illustrated in all of the sculptures in the exhibit, which are composed of found objects, detritus, particularly from a 100-year-old farmhouse. Ancient electrical switch apparatus, old miniature plastic toys, miniature animals, feral and non.

Amid the meditation on how animals are taking over, some of the sculptures present strategies for survival of the animal onslaught. Primitive strategies, but proven, namely towers—a little like the towers the medieval Irish monks built for refuge from the Norse marauders, the enemies of civilization. The towers worked for the monks. They saved civilization. Preserved reading and writing.

Zarragoitia’s towers are mostly of lath, old construction material, probably the next most prominent detritus material, after plastics, found in urban empty lots.

But the larger point is that the gleaning is a sacrosanct activity and function. (Blending into the artistic activity and function.) Several of the works feature guardian angels, guarding the gleaners. Slightly distraught looking, but all in all content with the assignment, which surely is not a glamour angel job, but certainly an important one.

A central piece, in a kind of religious wayside shrine box, is called Santa Consechadora, “Saint Combine,” the farm machine for harvesting grain and such crops, combining what were formerly separate operations of cutting and threshing, hence the name. But another name for a combine is a gleaner. And here the name also seems to refer to the combination of gleaner and artist.

An emblematic piece of the artwork as a whole features a central figure gleaner amid an array of nondescript chips evoking tesserae of a mosaic that has not so much been destroyed and the tesserae scattered as not yet constructed into the mosaic that it will become. The gleaner specifically as artist. Finder and maker.

In a variation on the guardian angel theme, one work consists of an old Regulator wall clock hung with some plaster cast apotropaeic figures—like gargoyles—and the clock face pasted over with a pencil drawing face of a Dilsey figure. She survived.

Cities will, too, this artwork seems to be saying ultimately. The history of civilization—one way of looking at it—is the story of a succession of empires. Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, French, British, to name a few. They’re all gone. But the cities, they’re all still there. Cairo, Baghdad, Athens, Rome, Paris, London. They’re forever.

The Nestor Zarragioitia exhibit continues through May 6.

jack foran

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