Mateo López, Testing the limits of precision

Testing the limits of precision

March 2017 - Mateo López, 2012 - 2013 Visual Arts Progégé

By Amei Wallach


Mateo López considers his first solo museum exhibition in the United States both a summation and a turning point. “It completes a whole relationship with drawing,” he says of Mateo López: Undo List, at New York’s The Drawing Center, through 19 March.

López was mentored by South African artist William Kentridge in 2012–2013 through the Rolex Arts Initiative.

“My idea about drawing is creating meaning through the act of making,” says the artist, who in recent years has been building a substantial international reputation as a virtuoso of line, at the same time as he was experimenting with other forms. Mateo López: Undo List proposes his most expansive definition of what the interaction of mind and hand can mean, through video, animation, mutable objects, sculpture, installation, and live performances by the Australian dancer, choreographer and fellow Rolex Arts Initiative protégé, Lee Serle.

Although López made nearly all the work in the exhibition after moving to New York more than two years ago, it is rooted in his past. In preparation for meetings with The Drawing Center curator Claire Gilman to discuss the show, he rummaged through notebooks he had been keeping as an architectural student, and then a young artist, in Bogotá, Colombia. The discarded and uncompleted projects he extracted from those notebooks have been realized at The Drawing Center in ways that once might never have occurred to him.

As a protégé with the Rolex Arts Initiative he was admired for the exactitude of his trompe l’oeil drawings, which had won him a Projects Room exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Assistants at mentor William Kentridge’s studio in Johannesburg would marvel at how López could wield pencil and knife to draw, then cut out a diminutive ink bottle and splattered blot capable of masquerading as the real thing. At that time López saw himself as a conceptual artist for whom an idea was both beginning and object. Kentridge encouraged him to mess things up, to allow ideas to evolve into open-ended inquiries outside his comfort zone.

With his Drawing Center exhibition López tests the limits of precision and dares the unruly possibilities of chaos. These he defines as “two parallel ways of working, the known and the unknown,” as illustrated in an exercise he assigned attendees at a workshop he conducted on paper-laden tables in the midst of his exhibition. “The first thing I asked people to do was to draw their signature, and then to repeat that with the other hand. It’s important to combine those two, the comfortable and the uncontrollable, the left and right side of your head,” he explains.

A drawing by Mateo López exhibited at his first solo show at The Drawing Center in New York.

A drawing by Mateo López exhibited at his first solo show at The Drawing Center in New York.

Any number of works in the exhibit illuminate the comforts and discomforts of known and unknown, most notably Visual Score (Small World after W. Kandinsky), 2017, a book with pages of collaged scraps from notebooks, leavings from precise cutouts which López has repurposed into unpredictable new works.


In the two-channel video, Time as Activity, 2016, his hands assemble those shapes into alternative histories and evanescent combinations. He had been making books like that out of leftovers from each of his cutouts when he and Kentridge joined in a public talk in Beijing in 2015. López called these recycled investigations, “parallel projects,” which he had no intention of showing. He lumped them together with such entries in his notebooks as “lists of things, or drawings, or small projects that I’m planning to do, but never realize.”

“Since that conversation,” he says now, “I’ve felt the desire to do more with these notebooks, not to control things. To show what you are not so comfortable showing reveals what is happening inside the studio. And that is more vital than those things you control and think are finalized.”

To this end, he cut a transcribed conversation with Kentridge into scraps and heaped them into a dustpan complete with brush for the 2016 work Sobremesa. “It’s an untranslatable word for how people keep talking after a meal, a friendly conversation that produces leftovers of ideas that can be transformed into something else,” he explains.

Transformational items

The exhibition itself is conceived in these transformational terms – first as Period Rooms, 2013, a fold-out book of coloured doors, and then as a realization of those fold-out shapes as the walk-through installation of rooms that house the artist’s disparate drawings, videos, books, and objects and the doors that stand open or closed, with the visitor left to chose how where to enter and when.

In the same spirit, the most elementary studio drawing aids – ruler, compass, wooden tetrahedron – perform what amount to animated dances on the video screen as they describe invisible forms and what López has called “tridimensional” geometries. Off screen in the exhibition, those drawing aids pose as sculpture on a shelf – or, as with A-B, B-C-C-A, A-D, B-D, C-D (Tetrahedron), completed in 2015 – hang on a wall where Lopez has drawn possible permutations of its triangular volumes in graphite.

On a recent Saturday afternoon Lee Serle stood at that wall carefully erasing Lopez’s drawing. It was a gesture reminiscent of the notorious moment in1953 when Robert Rauschenberg, in a cheeky Dada gesture, requested a drawing from Willem de Kooning to erase, or of the marks that dancers Merce Cunningham or Trisha Brown have inscribed on the walls and altered as they danced.

Extension of the artwork

Trisha Brown was Serle’s mentor during the 2010–2011 Rolex Arts Initiative year. He has since moved to New York and is dancing with her company, in addition to working on his own choreography. Brown was a pioneer of site-specific dance, beginning in the 1960s, and to Serle, performing in a museum or gallery, as he does periodically in this exhibition, “broadens my path into what chorography can be,” he says. “In certain environments like this I consider myself an extension of the artwork as opposed to a dancer doing a performance.”

Earlier that afternoon he had stood tall on Spatial Construction No. 29, 2016, López’s deconstruction in oak of a standard Latin American bed. Serle was a commanding figure in bare feet, dark pants, and white tee shirt inscribed with a golden yellow disk. López designed the shirt as a reference to the sun as it moves into the objects and over the surfaces in his studio during the day.At The Drawing Center, Serle held the pose for a few moments to the ambient noises of the audience gathering and to the exhibition’s soundscape recorded as López moved about his Bogotá studio. With a fluid motion, Serle shifted upside down, dangling his head through an opening in the sculpture, then slowly shifted again, resting his torso and lifting a leg onto the sculpture, and yet again, settling himself beneath it, like a child under a table.

Both sculpture and performance were, in a sense, metaphors for the theme of the show, referring as they did to a series of photos titled Seeking Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair by the Italian artist and designer Bruno Munari, which López had fixed on his studio wall. “I have this interest in showing flux and the possibility of change, and the best way to talk about this is to make it visible through physical action,” says López.

Serle and López first worked together at the Zoukak Theatre in Beirut, where Maya Zbib, another protégée, is one of the directors. Now the three of them are collaborating on a new project, a performance/theatre piece which they plan to present in a venue in New York.

In the meantime, López is weighing his gift for drawing and the prevalence of the handmade at home in Bogotá against “the interest I have to move into more technological processes and resources here” in New York. “The 3D printers and laser cutters are not so accessible in Colombia, and that is changing the work I am doing,” he says. “The other day I saw a kid on the street listening to music on his headphones at the same time as he was playing with his smartphone and riding on top of a Hoverboard. It was very impressive. Technology is already with us and it is changing our behaviour.”

Lee Serle, who was a protégé in dance in 2010, interprets Mateo López’s exhibition "Undo List" at The Drawing Center in New York.

Lee Serle, who was a protégé in dance in 2010, interprets Mateo López’s exhibition "Undo List" at The Drawing Center in New York.

At The Drawing Center, Serle held the pose for a few moments to the ambient noises of the audience gathering and to the exhibition’s soundscape recorded as López moved about his Bogotá studio. With a fluid motion, Serle shifted upside down, dangling his head through an opening in the sculpture, then slowly shifted again, resting his torso and lifting a leg onto the sculpture, and yet again, settling himself beneath it, like a child under a table.

Both sculpture and performance were, in a sense, metaphors for the theme of the show, referring as they did to a series of photos titled
Seeking Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair by the Italian artist and designer Bruno Munari, which López had fixed on his studio wall. “I have this interest in showing flux and the possibility of change, and the best way to talk about this is to make it visible through physical action,” says López.

Serle and López first worked together at the Zoukak Theatre in Beirut, where Maya Zbib, another protégée, is one of the directors. Now the three of them are collaborating on a new project, a performance/theatre piece which they plan to present in a venue in New York.

In the meantime, López is weighing his gift for drawing and the prevalence of the handmade at home in Bogotá against “the interest I have to move into more technological processes and resources here” in New York. “The 3D printers and laser cutters are not so accessible in Colombia, and that is changing the work I am doing,” he says. “The other day I saw a kid on the street listening to music on his headphones at the same time as he was playing with his smartphone and riding on top of a Hoverboard. It was very impressive. Technology is already with us and it is changing our behaviour.”