Carlos Vela-Prado considers his recent works of sculpture forms of "primal therapy." These objects focus our perceptual and psychic energy on physical reality, thus helping us come to terms with personal and collective traumas. Vela-Prado's work enacts a kind of psychoanalytic Kantianism: physically assertive and powerfully neutral, his objects make us conscious of both the intricacies of our perceptual apparatus the undeniable power of our unconscious memory. We sometimes talk about healing and understanding as though these are soft things. Vela-Prado’s work suggests the contrary: that healing requires stamina and rigor, that it is at times a brutal affair.
The first piece in Vela-Prado’s Yale MFA show, Basium VIII(Teeth), is a CRT television monitor that displays an extreme close-up of two mouths, each improbably trying to bite the other's teeth. The clacking of bone against bone follows the visitor out into the main section of the gallery. Each work in the exhibit reaches out beyond its borders to create physical effects in the surrounding space.
From a distance, Pasaje appears to be a flat white rectangle; it is actually formed of poured ground glass. After the viewer walks up to it, the object casts subtle rainbows out from its soft, shimmering surface. This spectral presence is no optical illusion: it is not a byproduct of the human brain. Rather, it is a fact of light, glass, and physics. It is as real as the projected image of the 16mm film installation Perforation (why fathers work), which almost appears to float in space on its etched glass screen. Both Perforation floating screen and Pasaje have 4:3 aspect ratios—the once-ubiquitous, now obsolete proportions of the film and television screen.
In both these pieces, the object of our aesthetic interest exceeds the boundaries of the tangible object. A museum catalog would list Pasaje’s materials as simply “ground glass,” not “ground glass and rainbows.” Yet the importance of this second, uncountable presence reminds us that our accounting of the world cannot be restricted to things with clear outlines. In the interstices between objects, other truths emerge; real forces knit together people and things. The work affirms the real presence of other realities that the world neglects: memory, the unconscious, the intersubjective.
The photographic work Primates seems itself to be a membranous presence, mediating between human and animal, and between past and present. The photograph is printed directly onto a white piece of paper with a wide, white border that mimics the familiar format of the matted photograph. Yet the dodged edges of the image cause the photograph to bleed into the stark white of its support, reminding the viewer that the border is not a material support, but a part of the object proper.
To create the photo at the center of Primates, Vela-Prado inserted a moving, light-sensitive rod from a scanner bed into the body of a large-format camera. The exposure is taken as the rod slowly sweeps across the picture plane. As we look from one side of the picture to the other, we are not only looking through space, but also through time. One of the apes has lost half her head to this process; vertical blurs suggest motion without appealing to the familiar photographic rhetoric of the blur. The photograph paints a physical space that we cannot imagine walking into and inhabiting. This invented third space (or third world, even) mediates between viewer and referent while remaining radically different. Yet the photograph’s ties to physical reality remind us that there are ways of encoding space, time, and matter that don’t adhere to human logic. To use Svetlana Alpers’s term, it is an image of deanthropomorphized vision. It throws our humanity into relief, while allowing us to peer just past it.