Franky Cruz: Sistema at Spinello Projects

Franky Cruz’ solo project “Sistema” at Spinello Projects in Miami presents the viewer with a word full of wonder, beauty and poetic interventions. The space is transformed into an artistic interpretation of a laboratory, where caterpillars hatch, feed on flowers and plants and, in chrysalises attached to discarded and found objects, transform into butterflies. Surrounded by paintings, co-created by snails who have left brush-stroke like mucus trails across blue velvet, the butterflies emergence marks the birth, not just of life in a new form, but also the completion and birth of new works of art.

Each of the individual artworks on view – a chrysalis attached to a hand carved wood handle or bird bone, a canvas stretched with floral fabric juxtaposed with a live chrysalis next to a plant where viewers can observe caterpillars, or the mucus-stained velvet- presents an individual chapter within the larger narrative explored in “Sistema.” Each work contributes to an overall dialogue examining themes like transformation, empathy, the environment, poetry and art history.

Transformation is an essential part of the creation process of the art presented in “Sistema.” The artworks, as well as the exhibition as a whole, go through a process of change. The life cycle from birth through transformation and death/rebirth is intrinsic to the exhibition beyond its organic component of live caterpillars and butterflies transforming before the viewer’s eyes. Conceptually the artist explores transformation, rebirth and change, as well as life and death, via the choice of the subject matter and his poetic interventions and presentations of thought processes. In an additional layer of examination, the artist presents an exhibition which in itself has gone through a life cycle, from inception/idea via research and laboratory practices to installation and presentation within this specific space/ environment to, finally, the conceptual rebirth. As the butterfly emerges everything is complete: the natural life cycle of the insect, the artistic investigations, and the exhibition. Each artwork is completed by the birth of the butterfly. As each insect flies away, leaves the confined gallery space and disappears into the Miami sky, another chapter has been written.

In the gallery space, the cycle continues as new caterpillars hatch from eggs and thereby new life and new artworks are created. The empty chrysalises remain and become part of the final artworks. Cruz sprays the empty chrysalises to prevent disintegration and while they remain extremely fragile, the clear and now seemingly empty chrysalises signify the final stage of the artistic process.

The cycle’s starting point is empathy, which was also at the core of Franky Cruz’ performance “1/5 of an Ounce,” presented at the “Full Moon” 10th anniversary exhibition at Spinello Projects, which opened on November 25, 2015 and led to the current project “Sistema.” In “1/5 of an Ounce,” Cruz repaired monarch butterfly wings in front of an audience.

Says Cruz, “Even if you know that repairing the butterfly’s wings is not actually going to save it, it is just about that empathy. If you have that empathy, you have a connection to the surrounding environment and you are going to want to take care of it.”

Bringing nature into the gallery space also opens a dialogue on the environment, pollution and human responsibility. Cruz’ approach does not lecture the viewer about environmental concerns of the 21st century. There is no blatant agenda but a quiet appeal to each individual’s empathy and a gentle nudge to appreciate nature and the beauty we are surrounded with in everyday life if we are just willing to stop for a moment, open our eyes, and connect. Adds Cruz, “ I am not screaming ‘Save the environment!’ I am saying, take your time to care about these little things that are all around. Look at the magic that happens.”

“Sistema” is a quiet exhibition. It slows the viewer down and invites to observe, see, and think. Cruz creates poetry out of discarded objects, plants, insects and thoughts about life. The exhibition, just like written poetry, has a beautiful and graceful quality, gestures that, like words, require thought, interpretation and understanding, yet can have multiple meanings and be read in multiple contexts. “Sistema” also has its own rhythm, not iambic or dactylic but rather dictated by nature, manipulated by the artist and felt by the viewer. The stressed and unstressed syllables change as caterpillars hatch and eat plants, requiring them to be replaced, and the shiny green and gold-dotted beauty of the butterflies’ cocoons is left as a clear and broken chrysalis.

Decay, death, change and transformation have been explored throughout art history, whether via the use of degradable materials and nature as we see in contemporary art or the depiction of said themes in many Dutch still life paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries, which have been a source of inspiration for Cruz. Snails and butterflies can often be found amongst the roses and anemones painted by artists like Joris Hoefnagel, Margareta Haverman or Ambrosius Bosschaert, who all painted transitions into their still lives.

The idea for “1/5 of an Ounce” was born in 2013 on a trip Cruz took with fellow artist Sinisa Kukec to the West Coast. Recalls Cruz, “We were going to see the butterfly migration, which I knew nothing about actually. It was very exciting. Just imagine a place full of these fluttering, flying insects. So that night, I got really excited and started doing research via YouTube and we found this video of this guy who does butterfly repairs and we both wanted to share this, of course, with the art community. It felt so poetic and filled with empathy. A creature that weighs less than 1/5 of an ounce. I did not even know you could put your hands on a butterfly, let alone repair its wings.”

As Cruz started he research “on Halloween night,” as he recalls, the artist started to become more and more familiar with butterflies: biology, habitat, host plants, species. He started looking out for monarch and Gulf fritillary butterflies, both native to Florida. Cruz started to connect with professionals working in in conservation and eventually connected with the person who made and posted the YouTube video that started it all.

For ‘Sistema,” Cruz continued his research on butterflies and also included work created with a variety of snails. Following the idea, the artist created the location/ space as well as the characters/ protagonists for his works, then tried to remove his hand somewhat and let nature take over with as little manipulation as possible. “I manipulate the snails by picking them up and putting them on this velvet. I think the only decision I make right now is the decision where I place them.”

Cruz documents the performances by the snails and slugs as they create lines and curves when moving across the velvet-covered canvases, leaving a trail of organic and iridescent mucus behind. As the snails become the painters Cruz recontextualizes the natural process into a somewhat controlled and manipulated environment. Again, he decides the location (canvas) and the protagonist (snail), yet does not control the snail’s path within the set environment any further. The reflective mucus-strokes are the respective snail’s own as each decides on its own path across the soft, blue surface.

“The snails are back in the garden now. The way that it started was them eating my plants in the garden. I have used all different kinds. I treat them like brushes. They are small ones, they are my thin lines and the bigger the snail the thicker the line. I went from capturing them, not wanting to kill them, imprisoning them, feeding them, taking care of them, releasing them. So now, I put them on there and let them go their way. I do not want to play dictator or God. You are putting yourself in that position of you take care of them too well. Then they overpopulate and you have to kill some anyways. There is all these social dialogues that come about once you put yourself in that position. The position of some kind of king, which I find interesting, but I have taken myself away from this.”

As in the creative process involving the snails, there is an aspect of manipulation when working with the caterpillars and butterflies, yet Cruz restrains himself and removes his hand to a large degree. He raises the caterpillars inside to protect them from the environment, which increases their chance of survival and, when ready, he directs the caterpillar chrysalis formations onto floral textiles, harvested from discarded furniture or other objects, but if the caterpillar does not feel comfortable with the selected location, it will move on. The domestic objects the artist presents become the canvases for transformation. Like the still life painters of 17th century Holland, Cruz paints transition, but within a contemporary art context and using his own parameters, interpretations and ideas. “I am manipulating the situation but I am almost trying to bring you kind of that joy I get from finding these little guys at random.”

Cruz’ cycle continues by placing the art on view within the gallery space. The laboratory is moved in the gallery and each artwork is ready for its final transformative stage. “I think the chrysalis in themselves with the butterfly still in it – the chrysalis alive and not just a shell – that is how the object looks the most beautiful. If I could preserve that without harming the animal, I would, but I think the poetry is complete when the animal flies away. But it is more beautiful, aesthetically, before.”

Cruz highlights beauty that exists in nature by presenting it as part of his artistic practice. His considerations and interventions present what can be observed in nature within a new context and with its own aesthetic values. “Look how amazing this is. This is going on every day all around you all the time,” says Cruz.

Each artwork is completed with the birth of the butterfly. With its birth, the butterfly lets the last chapter of the narrative out of its shell. As the chrysalis remains gaping and seemingly empty and devoid of meaningful content it is actually now filled with the traces and sounds and thoughts of the poetry written by Franky Cruz with a little help by the caterpillars and butterflies. The narrative of empathy, transformation, and life cycles they created together remains an important part of the art, visually captured by the broken chrysalis.