No Escape: Edison Peñafiel’s Land Escape Paintings
Christian Viveros-Fauné

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.

Finite Bodies in Infinite Time
Allison Klion

Rachel Wolfson smith’s immersive drawings of the renowned Dutch landscape architect, Piet Oudolf’s personal garden, Hummelo, the artist explains, reflect her interest in deconstructing complicated patterns as a way to arrive at higher truths. Working from dozens of source images taken during a visit to Hummelo last year, shortly before it closed to the public, scribbling notes and thoughts on the paper as they arrive to her, erasing selectively as she works, Wolfson smith makes no attempt to meticulously recreate a picture of the garden exactly as it was. Instead, she writes, “the thought processes becomes marked as a record of time on the page.” More than this, each one of Wolfson smith’s drawings does not reproduce a place in time, but is, to borrow from the art critic John Berger, “an autobiographical record of [her] discovery of an event—seen, remember, or imagined.” [1].

Best known as an art critic and writer— though he trained as a painter as well— Berger wrote extensively and passionately on drawing, articulating both the act and the object with the intimacy of a lifelong practitioner. “For the artist,” Berger reminds readers, “drawing is discovery.” [2] A drawn mark, more than recording what is, serves as a guide to lead the artist to see further. “Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it that were, inside of it: the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become.” [3] The act of drawing quite literally merges artist and drawn image together—a shared subjectivity. 

Standing before these immense graphite drawings, I become acutely aware of my body in space. I have two distinct sensations either in rapid succession or simultaneously, it’s difficult to say for sure. First—an acute awareness of perceiving a drawing and its construction. I recognize the formal techniques used to create an illusionistic space, as well as gestures that disrupt the coherence of that illusion. To put it less pretentiously, I could see that the artist had drawn that I could recognize, erased parts of the drawing, and scribbled notes on the paper’s surface at random. Second—something akin to deja vu, a sense that I had seen this place before, knew its sun-warmed smell, had once asked myself if I should push aside wide leaves and explore more deeply. But the drawing, for all its illusory facility, could not quite transport me to edge of this wildly overgrown land- scape exactly, but rather to a memory of it, or a place like it. There, inside of an erased void, I can stand and see this landscape as Rachel Wolfson smith did, and bear perpetual witness to its potential as a drawing. 

If, for Rachel Wolfson smith, human movement and presence in the landscape manifests itself through the restless effort to pin down a sense of the place, Edison Peñafiel is more interested in the literal movement of bodies through space. His complex installation of video projections and collaged sound references recurrent patterns of human migrations. Looped in an endless procession, absurd, yet highly sympathetic characters trudge across an animated landscape. The terrain slowly shifts between grassland, ocean, desert, and mountain range, only for the travelers to appear back where they started again, looping back on an eternal journey to nowhere. Though Peñafiel’s masked characters continually traverse the landscapes they encounter, they leave no visible index of their passage, and as such, they seem doomed to repeat themselves again and again. At the same time, the identity of the characters remains temporally and culturally ambiguous—some seem without gender or without age. Papier-mâché masks primarily from artisans in Peñafiel’s native Ecuador, and unspecific costuming trans- form them into archetypal representatives of any diasporic population. The first wave of immigrants charts the path for the next, whose journey in reality might take a differ- ent shape, but the obstacles are largely the same. Though the characters rarely interact with each other, they seem to inherent some kind of spatial knowledge from their predecessors. There are no tentative steps—no one hesitates as solid ground transforms into water. Undoubtedly their bodies reveal their exhaustion, but each one—stooped old women and pigtailed children alike—drives onward relentlessly. 

Peñafiel’s installation occupies a room in 100W once used for secret rites and performances by the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows, including reenactments of Old Testament stories and the Royal Purple Degree—a highly theatrical ritual designed to gently shepherd blindfolded initiates through an elaborate mock pilgrimage to a High Priest, metaphorically representing their triumphant passage through the “journey of life.” [4] Great pains are taken by the Order, to assure that their candidates appear triumphant and remain safe during the en- tire ritual, despite loaded warnings of dire troubles ahead. [5] The pilgrims in in the Roy- al Purple Degree, however, always complete their journey, victorious over vice and conveniently protected from the perils natural world. Peñafiel’s travelers have no oak tree of hospitality or “bright rainbow of promise” to remind them of their “covenant-keeping Father.”6 Though there are no provisions against rough roads or annoyingly suspended rushes on their journey, Peñafiel’s travel- ers appear to walk on water. 

[1] John Berger, “The Basis of All Painting and Sculpture Is Drawing,” in Landscapes: John Berger on Art (London: Verso, 2016), 39-40.

[2] Ibid., 39.

[3] Ibid..

[4] Independent Order of Odd Fellows.,Revised Odd-fellowship Illustrated. The Complete Revised Ritual of the Lodge, Encampment and Rebekah

Degrees, with the Secret “work” Added; Profusely Illustrated, by a past Grand Patriarch. With an Historical Sketch of the Order, and an Introduction and Critical Analysis of the Character of Each Degree by President J. Blanchard of Wheaton College., 47th ed. (Chicago, IL: E.A. Cook, 1930), 248.

[5] Odd Fellows, 254-6.

[6] Odd Fellows, 259.