By Irina Leyva-Pérez
Milton Becerra is among the most visible and active contemporary Venezuelan artists, with a successful and solid career that covers more than three decades. Along the way, his work has been exhibited at prestigious institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in Paris; the Ludwig Museum in Aachen, Germany; the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro; and the National Gallery of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art and Museum of Fine Arts in Caracas.
His rise to prominence began in 1970 with his first exhibition while he was still a student at the Cristóbal Rojas School of Visual Arts in Caracas. From the beginning, Becerra was inclined to take on societal issues. His pieces back then reflected his distress about ecological problems, and he contributed his work to an incipient movement that promoted environmental causes. He was one of the first Venezuelan artists to join the Land Art Movement by embracing its principles and reflecting its preoccupations in his works. He did this by incorporating elements from various Venezuelan indigenous groups. Becerra was overwhelmed by the destruction of these autochthonous groups and their environments, which he saw as imperative to ensure the survival of their customs and way of life. He would continue on this professional path, commenting on the disintegration of cultural groups and how traditions are lost or completely modified by modernization and mass culture.
During this period he introduced anthropologic and natural elements, which have remained essential components of his work to this day. In the 1980s, Becerra decided he wanted to experience this first-hand and lived and worked with some of the native groups, particularly in the Amazonian region, learning about their crafts and life philosophy. He employed traditional techniques of weaving and knotting in his own works inspired by his exchange with these groups. Becerra documented this process in many pieces, mostly drawings, which he made in collaboration with indigenous artists.
Another vital and easily recognizable side of his work is related to Venezuelan Geometric Abstraction. He worked with Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jesús Rafael Soto in the 1970s and early 1980s, so it is not a surprise that part of his oeuvre from the period showed the influence of this style and these artists.
Later on, Becerra’s concerns evolved within the social issues and incorporated problems from society at large, including socio-economic reflections. He started to work with the concept of money and its mirror image of power, and as a consequence decided to add real currency as another material in his pieces, using actual bills and coins. He started weaving and knotting to create a supportive structure for these monies. The end results were beautiful artworks that looked like tapestries, combining his interest in the aboriginal cultures and their traditions with the ultimate expression of contemporary society. By using actual bills and coins as components of the pieces he is questioning and testing the fetishist power of money as such.
But perhaps Becerra‘s best recognized works are his installations. These complex-looking creations seem to defy gravity. He pays special attention to the spatial organization, achieving a luminous effect with his trademark white “thread rays,” which look like giant spider webs that are trapping stones. He creates a visual and physical tension that induces wonder and causes anxiety at the same time. There is something almost magical in the way the artist manages to position the central elements as if they are virtually floating, giving equal relevance to the emptiness that surrounds them and making that part of the concept.
In Identity II, one of his latest installations, Becerra wittingly combines themes that he has explored separately in the past. Here we see the archetypal configuration of his installations: threaded structure with anthropological elements, in this case scepters. But he also brings into the equation currency, a feature he has used for a while in his weaved pieces. In this instance he is talking about the power conferred to money and how it has become an essential part of our society. The center of the piece is dominated by the scepters, which are clear indicatives of authority. He is questioning the role of money in contemporary society and the fetishism associated with “having it.” In a way he is presenting us with the idea that money has become a sort of symbolic scepter, perceived as a source of supremacy to its owner.
Identity II is visually intriguing; there is a balance between lights and shadows created by the coins’ reflection and the illumination, thoughtfully applied to specific spots. This strategy helps to create a dramatic atmosphere that reminds us of a theatrical scene. There is a histrionic intention in this work, not only in the scale but also in the way that it is displayed, with the scepters becoming the indisputable protagonists of the story. The hidden narrative becomes more evident when we begin dissecting the piece and the visual impact gives way to the real message. Becerra is conveying power in a duality: using a longtime established symbol (the scepter), and a more mundane and recent one (the currency). He associates the act of acquiring power in different ways: spiritual and economic. Becerra is calling our attention to the fact that contemporary society is governed by financial laws, which influence the ultimate social structure. He is also criticizing the ever-growing ambition of the current social and economic order.
Irina Leyva-Pérez is an art historian and writer based in Miami. She is chief curator of Pan American Arts Projects.