This untitled sculpture rests in a deep-set dark wooden box frame. The front of the box is glazed, making visible an object constructed from dress-making materials within. The sculpture itself is shaped like a heraldic shield and consists of two main pieces, the larger of which is a white foam shoulder pad. Small holes reinforced with eyelets have been cut on the left and right sides of the shoulder pad, attaching it to a slightly smaller grey foam piece which completes the upper part of the shield shape. A spherical foam pad has been hand-stitched to the top half of this construction. Part of the tight felt covering has been cut away from the bottom of the foam ball revealing the slightly bulging yellow-tinged foam beneath. A series of steel pins overlap the covered and uncovered portions of the ball in a haphazard arrangement. Against the soft foam and felt the sharp steel pins look jagged and violent.
The juxtaposition of hard and soft materials and the fetishistic, reliquary display of the sculpture suggest an elegant sadomasochism. Espaliú was drawn to extremes; he particularly cited the influence of French playwright Jean Genet (1910-86), who combined transgressive subject matter with high formalism. Like Genet, Espaliú politicised his own sexual identity and was open about his homosexuality from the beginning of his career. Although known predominantly as a sculptor, in his later years Espaliú began staging performances related to the body and his experience with AIDS.
This work belongs to a series of mask-like objects constructed from sewing materials and similarly displayed in glazed wooden cases. These works, made in the artist’s native Spain in 1988, were partly inspired by Espaliú’s encounters with African sculpture at the British Museum on his trips to London. Espaliú was intrigued by the imaginative use of materials and the ritualistic quality of African masks. He was also interested in the sense of absence they conveyed. He wrote, ‘I was overwhelmed by the rooms with statues from the Congo, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, etc... can you imagine a “museum” exhibition ... showing these same fascinating African masks turned round, displayed on fantastic pedestals, but only showing their inside, their emptiness’ (quoted in Antònia M. Perelló, ‘Espaliú and the mask’, La collecció del MACBA Dossier 1: Pepe Espaliú, p.37).
In his own textile sculptures, Espaliú emulated this emptiness by creating sealed-off mask-like shapes with no eye holes. The invisible yet implied interior of the sculpture is as important as its exterior. Espaliú stated, ‘Concealment is necessary in order to attract, for attraction is based on emptiness’ (quoted in Stuart Morgan, ‘Pepe Espaliú’, Rites of Passage, p.89). The masks were gradually transformed in Espaliú’s work into tortoise shells, which became a recurring motif in the artist’s later sculpture and drawings.
Adrian Searle, Pepe Espaliú, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1994.
Antònia M. Perelló, Juan Vicente Aliaga and Glòria Picazo, La collecció del MACBA Dossier 1: Pepe Espaliú, Barcelona, 1996.
Stuart Morgan, Frances Morris, Stephen Greenblatt, Julia Kristeva and Charles Penwarden, Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 1995.