By Brian T. Leahy
“Woman’s head wearing jewellry, preserved as excavated . . .” So begins the description of item No. 122294—a grouping of skull fragments and precious objects, including a comb made of silver and a coronet with gold leaves, taken from the Royal Cemetery at Ur in southern Iraq and dated 2600 BCE—which sits in the permanent collection of London’s British Museum. Tania Pérez Córdova, who referenced that object in a 2017 interview, makes sculpture that could be described with a similar rhetorical touch. In exhibitions she has had in Mexico City, Chicago, and Vienna, among other places, the artist has presented a body of work that imbues the mundane with subtle intimations of the marvelous.
In “Short Sight Box,” the artist’s first solo show in New York, Pérez Córdova’s expansive sense of time manifested itself across a range of sculptures. In the first of two rooms were a pair of sand-cast architectural bronzes, Contour #1 and Contour #4, both 2020, which played at being a door and a window, respectively, while a slab of dirt, Sunning, 2017, clung to another wall like a freshly painted canvas. Discarded reminders of daily life—cigarette ash, makeup—commingled with the mottled earth of Sunning. Yet this work of compacted soil, hardened under a hot sun and reoriented as a vertical panel, also evokes the mysteries surrounding the kinds of things humans have sealed—ostensibly, for eternity—inside earthen tombs like those at Ur. Large swaths of peach and teal eye shadow, loosely brushed on the surface of the piece—which called to mind midcentury abstraction—distill the tension between the immediate affairs of the cosmetic and the eternal concerns of the ancient.
Of all the pieces here, Portrait of an Unknown Woman Passing By, 2019, resonated most strongly with the forensic poetry of the British Museum object. The work is a three-foot-tall ceramic vessel bearing a delicate pattern of cascading light-orange blossoms against a dark ground. However, the image of the sculpture printed on the checklist also shows a woman—a visitor to the gallery—walking past it, wearing a dress with a floral design nearly identical to the sculpture’s. The moment of staged serendipity adds an eerie layer to Portrait, situating the ceramic’s staid silhouette against the blur of a human presence.
In the second room, Panorama, 2020, an earth-toned canvas painted with a spray-tanning gun, resonated with the arid body of Sunning and offered a subtle comment on the close connections between mark-making and subjectivity in the more conventional histories of abstraction. Three more Contour bronzes lined the walls, but an assembly of seven concave plaster casts sprawled across the floor at the center of the room: the exhibition’s namesake, Short Sight Box, 2020. Each cast was taken from a hole in the ground, and dirt still clung to the outsides of the works. Inside each hollow are found materials the artist relocated to the gallery: volcanic ash, rainwater in a plastic sandwich bag, a long chain of single peso coins, and a pair of pearls, one real, one fake.
Pérez Córdova calls the performative gestures that accompany the making of her artworks “events.” Take To wink, to cry, 2020, another sculpture in the front room, which featured a single colored contact lens suspended in a solution called “artificial tears” at the top of a short, slender pillar made of marble. The corresponding contact lens, one was told, was worn by someone who occasionally visited the gallery. The contact’s hue did not match the natural color of the wearer’s other eye, so spotting it should have been easy for anyone willing to pay close attention. Subtleties of this nature are typically made apparent in what artist and writer Joseph Grigely calls an exhibition’s “prosthetics”: the checklists, installation images, and other items that accompany the art objects on display. Pérez Córdova borrows and expands on the approaches of many Conceptual artists before her, but by orchestrating moments such as those evoked by To wink, to cry or Portrait of an Unknown Woman Passing By, she insists on the lyrical, anecdotal magic that can occur when possibility infuses the world around us.