No Escape: Edison Peñafiel’s Land Escape Paintings

The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.

—William Gibson

We stomp dangerously, Bertrand Russell wrote in praise of Joseph Conrad’s skewering of Western exceptionalism in the novels Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, “on a thin crust of barely cooked lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into its fiery depths.” Russell’s words—written more than a half century ago—echo furiously from the past while pointing an accusing finger at a much larger civilizational threat: the link between climate change and mass migration. Both are the subjects of American artist Edison Peñafiel’s latest installation. His fitting title for his ten colorful XL paintings of climate refugees penned in by barbed wire fencing arrayed around the walls of Piero Atchugarry Gallery: Land Escape

To paraphrase David Wallace-Wells’s 2019 barnburner, The Uninhabitable Earth, the vast majority of the citizen-consumers inhabiting Western countries think of refugees as a failed state problem—that is, as socioeconomic fallout the global South inflicts on the global North. But that view has been proven to be fake news by climate science and devastating new planetary weather patterns. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey produced at least 60,000 climate migrants in Texas and Hurricane Irma forced the evacuation of nearly 7 million people. By 2100, Wallace-Wells writes, “sea-level rise alone could displace 21 million Americans,” with many refugees coming “from the country’s southeast—chiefly Florida,” where 2.5 million are expected to be flooded out of the greater Miami area. Far from being a local problem for the governments of Guatemala, Venezuela, The Bahamas, or Cuba, the human cost of climate change has come due for the residents of Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, and Pinellas counties.

Rendered as canvas-backed photographic images of first-world Americans (or Britons, Germans, Spaniards, Australians, et al) having metamorphosed into the Other, the exposure of the world’s consumer class to the miseries and deprivations of the planet’s survivalist masses—generational poverty, epochal flooding, economic stagnation, pandemics, political instability, mass migration—becomes the driving metaphor behind Peñafiel’s monumentally solitary subjects. Pictured in black and white to recall, among other everyman antecedents, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, and against loudly chromatic backgrounds to broadly suggest both actual landscapes and street art, these paintings portray masked figures engaged in a timeless yet desperately urgent modern pursuit: fleeing disaster into unknown exile.

If, like Cindy Sherman, Peñafiel has chosen to employ the uncanny effects of self-portraiture to inhabit each of the ten character studies he presents, he has done so chiefly to dramatize an ongoing mass evacuation of human beings that is projected to dwarf the 20th century’s Great Migration, the movement of 6 million African-Americans across the North American continent dramatized by artist Jacob Lawrence in his 60-panel masterpiece The Migration Series (1940-41). Where Sherman uses an arsenal of wigs, costumes, makeup, and props for her various imagined characters, Peñafiel’s stripped-down impostures sport non-descript clothing (the better to avoid specific references) and traditional Latin American festive masks (which connect to both ideas of anonymity as well as ritual scapegoating). The fact that Peñafiel’s painting’s are hung on facing walls and point in a single direction—toward the gallery’s glowing “Exit” sign—recalls the last panel of Lawrence’s celebrated series. Its caption reads simply: “And the migrants kept coming.”

Large-scale compositions that make non-hierarchical use of the disciplines of painting, photography, collage, and installation art, Peñafiel’s photo-based canvases extend the polymath artist’s efforts to relay one of this century’s most urgent narratives across multiple media. Inspired in no small part by the artist’s own experience as an immigrant to the U.S. from Ecuador, his canvases simultaneously materialize and monumentalize forms, compositions, and scenarios he first displayed as large-scale video and photo installations in three separate instances in 2019. These were in Corsicana, Texas’ celebrated 100W residency; at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami; and in a street-level installation on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach organized by the Bass Museum of Art. Epic views of an evolving human tragedy of trans-historical proportions, Peñafiel’s faceless cast of global down-and-out characters also serves as a chronicle of a profoundly personal story of precarious displacement, forced travel, and epochal insecurity. 

In the words of mathematician Eli Khamarov: “Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn't commit.” That goes triple for an age that has so exacerbated global indigence that its natural byproducts—social, political, and economic insecurity, currently multiplied by climate instability and wealth disparity—have rapidly intensified what The New York Times recently termed, in a series of in-depth stories, “The Great Climate Migration.” For these articles, journalists Abraham Lustgarten and Meridith Kohut profiled an anonymous Guatemalan farming family devastated by the worsening weather pattern equivocally known as El Niño; predictably, drought, flood and bankruptcy forced them to liquidate their belongings and flee north. Peñafiel’s canvases reflect their story, as well as that of millions of other families—from Sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia to Central America—who have fallen prey to “life after warming,” but with an important caveat. Absent certain key distinguishing geographical, ethnic, national and socioeconomic backstories, the figures animating the artist’s paintings are meant to stand in for usThe Walking Dead-inspired, post-apocalyptic version. Not for nothing do Peñafiel’s raffishly costumed players carry vintage luggage and resemble stock characters out of the plays of Samuel Beckett.

Boiled down to their essential expression, Peñafiel’s canvases, like Lawrence’s panels (the African-American artist called his style “dynamic cubism”), also invoke certain generic characteristics associated with conventional landscape paintings while, alternately, frustrating others. Peñafiel’s canvases, for instance, sport an anthropomorphized orientation; that is to say, they are constructed vertically rather than horizontally with a view to underscoring the human drama of their calamitous narratives. Secondly, the artist uses geometric blocks of color to schematically describe the deracinated vistas he names in his paintings’ titles. Cerro (hill), for example, denotes a dun-colored diagonal area of flat paint with a sky-blue background; Pampa (prairie) two parallel zones of color laid horizontally one atop the other; Desierto (desert) an uninterrupted and uniform application of yellow paint; while Abyss denotes a cramped arrangement of blocks of dark color that literally crowd a dejected figure inside a tiny space. It’s not a stretch to say that that space resembles a cell. 

Like Lawrence, Peñafiel is bent on arriving at a demotic set of forms that channel the tragedy that is mass migration during the Anthropocene, the geological epoch dominated by homo sapiens. For this purpose, he has distilled what amounts to one of the biggest events in recorded history into a set of recurring figures, vignettes, colors and geometric shapes. According to the ecotheorist Timothy Morton, part of what makes the idea of climate change and its associated effects, such as the displacement of millions of human beings around the globe, so difficult to comprehend is its sheer vastness—its facts are so overwhelming and complex that they can hardly be fully comprehended by historians, economists, geographers, demographers, anthropologists, and climate scientists. 

What Peñafiel does in his Land Escape canvases is condense, concentrate and symbolically recast these imagination-defying events into paint and contemporary images. For the figures populating the artist’s Land Escape paintings there is no escape. For the rest of us, Peñafiel’s artworks constitute a rough portrait of the lifestyle class running for their lives—it should serve as a dire warning or even a call to action.

Christian Viveros-Fauné. 2020