Getting Lost in ‘Everything’ at the Hirshhorn

Artist’s Works Reflect a Lonely, Endless Journey

The baggage claim is completely deserted. The metal carousel that snakes through the airport is at a standstill. Unclaimed parcels are dotted across the conveyor belt, looking like prime candidates for the “unattended luggage” announcement that’s often blasted through the loudspeakers.

No, it’s not a scene from Reagan National Airport at 4 a.m. It’s the subject of Argentinean painter Guillermo Kuitca’s most famous works — “Terminal,” “Trauerspiel” and “The Flying Dutchman” — all representing a lonely, endless journey. Some of the carousels hold luggage, while others lay completely empty, forming abstract curves and lines that resemble the inside of a deserted airport.

The paintings are on display at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s latest exhibit, “Guillermo Kuitca: Everything, Paintings and Works on Paper, 1980-2008.” The show, which runs until Jan. 16, is the last stop on the national tour.

Although the 70-piece exhibit is rampant with allusions to maps and traveling, don’t expect to find your way easily through the gallery if you’re depending on Kuitca’s paintings as a point of reference; his works are famous for skewing space, dimension and geography.

In the larger-than-life painting “Everything” — from which the exhibit derives its name — Kuitca displays an irrational matrix of combined and recombined fragments of roadmaps. From far away, the painting looks abstract. But upon closer look, the names of specific towns, rivers and cities are visible, although Kansas City, Charleston and Philadelphia appear unusually close to one another.

The middle of the exhibit highlights three-dimensional maps sprawled across painted mattresses and bed frames. Again, the unrealistic geography challenges a viewer’s sense of space. But the striking paintings are so large that they require an observer to walk around in a giant circle to view them entirely, thus getting lost in the artwork. In essence, Kuitca doesn’t paint maps as guidance; he constructs them to get viewers lost.

Another motif that commonly manifests in Kuitca’s work is the theme of abandonment. In several of his early canvases, a baby carriage sits at the top of a staircase, ready to fall. The eerie image was adapted from Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film “The Battleship Potemkin,” in which a carriage slowly begins to roll down a flight of stairs following mass street shootings. But it also carries a meaning closer to Kuitca.

“It also represents his father’s sister, who passed away as an infant from negligence. It’s something Kuitca carries with him,” said Christiana Schmidt, an interpretive guide for the exhibit. “It’s best summed up by the painting ‘Nadie Olvida Nada,’ which means ‘nobody forgets nothing.’ He’s saying you can try to forget, but no one ever really forgets a tragedy.”

Other paintings throughout the exhibit, such as “El Mar Dulce (The Sweet Sea),” illustrate a recently abandoned scene; beds and chairs are turned over, a microphone stand lays empty in the spotlight and again the baby carriage is perched above a staircase in the distance. The scene almost looks like a stage in a play after the actors have left, which further emphasizes the influence of theater on Kuitca’s early works.

What is unique about this exhibit, as the name implies, is that it is supposed to be a complete display of everything by Kuitca; paintings, drawings, digital shorts and three-dimensional works.

“This is the first comprehensive survey of the artist’s work in more than 10 years,” said Erin Baysden, communications and marketing specialist for Hirshhorn. “And it’s the first exhibit to explore his drawing, which is integral to the show and really informs his paintings.”

But the small drawings and digital shorts feel underwhelming compared to the painted canvases that stretch up to 10 feet wide. Although there are some similar motifs among the works — beds, roughly sketched maps and baby carriages all appear in the drawings — the links to his paintings are less obvious and thus pale in comparison.

One thing that is clear is that the exhibit begins and ends with two of his baggage carousel paintings for a reason. Not only does it convey the motif of the never-ending journey, since the carousels seem to loop forever, but they also serve as an abstract form of a roadmap. For Kuitca, however, it appears that the destination is nowhere.