by Alex Drost
18th Street Arts Center’s visiting artist in residence Miguel Palma, from Lisbon, Portugal, turned his eye towards infrastructure and connection in an exhibition, “Synapse” at the Coastline Art Gallery in Newport Beach in January. Incorporating sculpture, drawings, and engineering, the exhibition was centered on five handmade bridges linked by a closed water circuit forming one continuous installation throughout the gallery.
Since 2007, Miguel Palma has maintained an artistic presence in the United States through participation in artist residencies, exhibitions, academic presentations, and other cultural events including Location One in New York (2007), ISCP — International Studio and Curatorial Program, New York (2008), Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, California (2009), Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, California (2010), and Desert Initiative, Phoenix, Arizona (2012). Palma believes that, “Here in Los Angeles, I trust my work will delight with the visibility and proximity to a very receptive audience, art professionals and specialized institutions in the promotion of contemporary art.”
The genesis of the “Synapse” project occurred when Palma started drawing and thinking about the concept of the bridge. “The starting point for this project was the memory I had of a road trip I did here in California a couple of years ago, where I crossed all the bridges at Big Sur. I always loved bridges. I think they are beautiful objects and coming here to California right now was the perfect opportunity to bring that to life,” he says. Palma illustrates the understanding of a bridge as a device that connects two sides, between one space and another, and thus overcomes an obstacle in the territory. By doing this, the bridge creates a line of communication that provides a dialogue between two agents initially separated. In the case of the “Synapse” installation, like the links between the pairs of cells that form the closed neural network for which the work is named, the bridges create a no-sender or receiver circuit which is a simple, endless communication loop. Palma says, “to cut a bridge is to cut communication.” Without a bridge there is an obstacle hindering the flow of connection. Palma situates his work in Los Angeles within this model of communication and construction.
Crafted and assembled in Palma’s studio during his residency at 18th Street, “Synapse” is a sculpture of lively fascination as well as an engineering accomplishment. Over the course of his three-month residency Palma searched for the perfect materials and continuously re-tested the principles of hydro-mechanics that inform his work. Through the dialogue offered by fellow residents and the 18th Street community, Palma successfully molded his concept into the final product, creating five interlocking bridges linked by various construction materials and a continuous flow of water, which form a communication loop through the gallery space in Newport Beach.
Through process drawings and paintings mounted on the walls at the entrance, the exhibition guided the viewer in a cycle of thought, asking the audience to contemplate material choices in addition to decoding meaning. Using materials that are common to children’s construction sets, “Synapse” evokes a childlike nostalgia for the accomplishment of erecting a first construction — it works! — and a questioning — how does it work? The viewer walks around the loop of bridges, inspecting the construction, scrutinizing the engineering the flow of water over the bridges, surveying the structure. Through the motion of circling and circling over again across the circuit of bridges, the question of what is “bridging” reveals itself.