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Miguel Palma: Bridging Communication

Miguel Palma, “Synapse” installation view, 2015, courtesy of Coastline Art Gallery | Photo: David Michael Lee

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.”

Miguel Palma, “Synapse” in process, 2014, courtesy of 18th Street Arts Center | Photo: Alex Drost

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.

Miguel Palma, “Synapse” drawing installation detail, 2015, courtesy of Coastline Art Gallery, photo by David Michael Lee

Miguel Palma, “Synapse” in process, 2014, courtesy of 18th Street Arts Center, | Photo: Alex Drost

Born and raised in Lisbon, Palma has been exhibiting his work consistently since the late 1980s, quickly establishing himself as one of Portugal’s most innovative artists. With a strong grounding in sculpture, Palma’s work often consists of multimedia installations using non-traditional methods of production, for which he collaborates regularly within a team of carpenters, mechanics, engineers, and biologists.

As a child Palma imagined he would become an architect, seeking the pure pleasure of construction in the act of art making itself. Upon narrowing his interests in high school, Palma decided to direct his craft towards art rather than architecture and soon after set out to study art. With a BFA in hand, Palma dove into the world of professional art to pursue an agenda of discovery and to stimulate his need to design and construct. In his practice, Palma is influenced by the everyday world rather than by other artists, confronting reality with a plan to transform what he sees and understands in his own personal way.

Miguel Palma’s work is often hybrid in nature, linking itself to the industrial production of the 20th century and the influence of technology on the life of modern man, his relationship with the environment, and the idea of human comfort as a power dynamic. Parallel to the construction of large-scale installations, he incorporates drawings and miniature constructions of his projects. These works are simultaneously a record of the intuitive work process of the artist, and fully realized artworks in their own right. “Synapse” offers communication and connection between physical places as well as individuals. Water circulates through the bridges, constantly sending and receiving a dialogue on its course. With the circuit connected, Palma invites Los Angeles to join him in a discussion of the world and human connections, to engage in thinking like an artist, and to build as an engineer.

Miguel Palma, “Synapse” installation detail, 2015, courtesy of Coastline Art Gallery | Photo: David Michael Lee
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