As Atlantans know, our traffic is a particular nightmare, one that we are unwillingly subjected to anytime we venture out by car. Entering the seventh month of sheltering in place, however, I realize it’s been a while since I’ve been stranded in a sea of steel and plastic and concrete, inching forward but going nowhere. That distinctively Atlantan landscape suddenly returns to me upon entering artist Wilay Méndez Paez’s exhibition Collision at artist-run space Day & Night Projects.
Sculptures of twisted metal, plastic, and chrome are spliced together by crude cuts and bolts; a few are welded. These assemblages of roadside wreckage distill the chaos of a highway impact, its demented scraps reconfigured with formal precision. Usually left behind for unseen cleaners to collect, these scraps were instead hauled away by Paez, who recently relocated to Atlanta from his native Cuba as an artist-in-residence at the Atlanta University Center. Both site-specific and site-responsive, the sculptures and paintings in Collision emerged as the Afro-Cuban artist adjusted to Atlanta’s car-centric commuter culture.
In reimagining this harvested metal and debris, Paez has created sculptures and paintings that appear to buzz with speed and movement from their past life. Many resemble bees, birds, or woodland animals, while the paintings bear Cubist influences, refracting the anatomical structure of a cicada or a human face. Escribano, the largest sculpture in the gallery, shows a Chevrolet symbol, Sharpie outlines of where Paez has made incisions, and a gaping hole where a fog light once gleamed. Marked by real-life speed, movement, and violence, many of the sculptures recall Futurism and its obsessions. What’s most surprising about Paez’s use of such rigid, industrial materials is how organic shapes arise. In some of the works, Paez brings a delicacy to materials which were originally engineered for the assembly line. There is ferocity in Ave en Picada, daintiness in Guerrero 2. A colorful whimsicality animates his paintings, which pop from their stark black canvases.
As I drive home down I-20, I notice an intact bumper and piles of mangled debris, which suddenly sparks an urge to pull over and drag them to safety. I return my focus to the road ahead and think about Dr. Robert Vaughan, a character in J. G. Ballard’s Crash, and remember that all these works, though given new life, have a violent past: “The images of these wounds hung in the gallery of his mind, like exhibits in the museum of a slaughterhouse.”
Curated by Daricia Mia DeMarr and Lauren Jackson Harris, Wilay Méndez Paez’s solo exhibition Collision is on view at Day & Night Projects in Atlanta through September 5.