Recycled doors are the base for most of the pieces in the exhibition. / SALVADOR SALAS

The CAC finds the key to Phil Frost's labyrinthine world

The doors that open on to the ancestral and to human contradictions are featured in the American artist's first individual display in a European gallery


The saying that an exhibition is a doorway into an artist's world becomes literal when we are talking about Phil Frost, because this American, with his background in urban art, always (re)uses whatever he has to hand in his works. Anything from a toy to his paintbrushes. But if there is one element repeated in his most recent creations, it is his characteristic wooden doors which, used as a canvas, express his concern about the present world by reworking the ancestral totem poles of the indigenous American Indians.

More than 20 of these pieces are now on display at the CAC Malaga, which has found the keys to the labyrinthine world of an artist who is holding his first individual exhibition in a European gallery.

You can see the exhibition, which is called Plotting Upon the Passage of Time, in the central room of the Contemporary Arts Centre until 22 May, and you will find all types of things that would normally be in a junkyard, but with a very different sense.

Comics, newspapers, coins, car registration plates, nails, numbers, tin cans, spools, bottles, brushes, plastic bottles, petrol cans, paint tins, shovels, stepladders, baseball bats and, of course, all types of doorways and doors. Some still have a handle, inviting you to turn them in the way that Frost himself turns his elaborate works which seem to leap out of the wood or canvas, almost as if they want to reach the spectator. Like that religious art that speaks out to those of faith, this American converts his works into a horror vacui full of colour, textures and layers that invite unpleasant readings of the human condition.

At the opening of the exhibition its curator, Fernando Francés, compared this "special" world of Frost with that of tormented artists such as Munch and Van Gogh. An inner world expressed through these masks and totemic figures which come out of one work after another to travel through 25 years of this artist's production and which "are rarely smiling or kind and show a certain weariness" after the crises experienced in recent decades, he explained.

Francés referred to the artist as "a complex mind of labyrinthine relations" who expresses himself through powerful works which he compared with the Baroque altarpieces "because they are arranged in the form of a great pantocrator, with a central feature surrounded by other people and symbols all around".

Amid this crowded universe of Phil Frost, the curator of the exhibition pointed out the unusual way he uses tippex to erase anything he doesn't like or wants to change. All the white spaces in his works actually hide an idea or a previous concept that no longer convinces him. Sometimes, more than once. It is a peculiarity which connects the artist with the tradition of 'pentimento' in the paintings of the 15th century artists who didn't like the result of what they had done and drew over it, hiding the original work.

"This manner of painting and correcting reflects the contradictions that pass through the mind of this artist and they are the reflection of a conceptual battle in his thinking that to me is fascinating," said Francés.

Very close to where he was speaking is the piece called Divergence of Opinion, where the white areas covering several parts create new figures which just seem right, as soon as you look at them.

A baseball bat as a weapon

This latent tension in Phil Frost's large-scale pieces takes on a force and passion through the extensive symbology of his doors/altarpieces which incorporate everyday elements that become allegories. Like the coins that form a necktie to warn of economic power in Untitled (D13) or the crushed soft drink cans that point us to the artist's feelings about multinational companies.

The double meaning can also be identified in sports equipment, with the frequent appearance of something very often repeated in his personal catalogue, the baseball bat, which does not allude to the sport but to the world of gangs from which this artist, who began by painting walls in New York, came. Streets in which a bat ceased to be a toy and turned into a dangerous weapon.

That aggressiveness also ends up shaking us as we look at the work called Collapse of Fleeting Experience, with boxing gloves hanging on one end of a work which has not been created on a door but on a mattress, transferring the violence of those objects to the domestic sphere.

This exhibition will not leave you feeling complacent, but on occasions it is illuminated by more positive pieces which are filled with colour, that seem to talk to us about the invasion of Ukraine, with the message War is Over. If only.