El Mar Dulce (The Sweet Sea) is one of the many works by Guillermo Kuitca on display through Jan. 16 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
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.