Dazzling and decidedly maximalist, the wide-ranging work of Cuban American artist Jorge Pardo can be tricky to process. Often populated by abstract paintings, biomorphic light fixtures, geometric tile, and even modernist-leaning furniture, the spaces he orchestrates routinely leave viewers wondering what they’re looking at. Or, indeed, why it should be considered art at all.
An unapologetic fan of the eccentric and the decorative, Pardo has a keen interest in follies—in other words, ornamental structures with no evident purpose. Long at play in his monumental outdoor sculptures, the concept of folly has informed everything from the 130-foot redwood Pier he built on a manmade lake in Münster, Germany in 2007 to Tecoh, a series of 19 fanciful structures he erected on a 12-acre jungle plot in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 2012. The latest chapter in this ongoing investigation took shape in Folly itself.
Commissioned by the University of Houston System’s public art program (Public Art UHS) and situated on campus in a wooded area dubbed Wilhelmina’s Grove, Folly lives up to its name as a curious point of interest while showcasing several Pardo signatures: angular architecture, intricate light fixtures resembling jellyfish, and abstract paintings that bring to mind non-figurative jigsaw puzzles.
“I like follies because they’re so ridiculously open-ended,” Pardo explained via Zoom from his home in Mérida, Mexico. “I like that they’re transitional spaces. Nothing needs to happen in them other than something visual, so they free you up to do a lot of things that don’t have a clear purpose. A lot of the architecture I make, they’re follies in a way, because that’s the notion that’s centralized in them—they’re visual objects.”
Born in Havana and raised in Chicago, Pardo studied biology at the University of Illinois but his gift for painting led him to pursue a BFA from California’s ArtCenter College of Design. His first show after graduation—an exhibition of reimagined household tools held at Tom Solomon’s Garage in 1990—completely sold out. Over the course of his career, he’s landed in the collections of the Whitney, MoMA, the Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou, among others, and earned a coveted MacArthur “Genius” Grant.
“Blurring the boundaries between art, architecture, and design” is a nutshell writers and curators lean on to describe Pardo’s work. But Pardo—who chiefly identifies as a sculptor—has no formal training in architecture or design, but uses aspects of both disciplines to create work that challenges the confines of art. Further complicating easy interpretation, the artist largely eschews narratives in favor of explorations into color relationships and the interplay of materials.
When describing his creative process, he speaks about inserting himself in a “problem”—one that’s eventually solved by what he creates. Regardless of the form that takes, his distinct use of color is a common thread. He’s developed extensive palettes he considers “bulletproof” and strives to use them in ways that can be appreciated by both seasoned experts and the uninitiated.
“I think of color almost like a lure for fish,” Pardo said. “It just needs to draw you in, kind of unequivocally.”
That use of color as lure is exemplified in his 2018 project L’Arlatan—a historic hotel he redesigned in Arles, France, at the bequest of Swiss collector Maja Hoffmann. Pardo tackled that problem from the ground up, employing the 64,000-square-foot floor as a canvas for geometric tile that shifts in color and pattern as it snakes through the hotel. In keeping with his more-is-more ethos, he took L’Arlatan over the top by outfitting it with more than 400 paintings and what he admits is “an insane amount of lamps.”
The joyous, maximalist spirit that enlivened L’Arlatan is also on full display in Folly. Housed in a 40-foot long structure fabricated in Italy, it’s almost completely covered in paintings. Reminiscent of paint-by-numbers on acid, his abstractions are rendered with hundreds of images—from famous paintings he likes, to photographs pulled from the archives of Miami’s Freedom Tower, where Pardo and his family were processed as Cuban refugees in 1969.
After digitally stacking and manipulating his source material, Pardo creates vector graphics that function as maps for his paintings. While the outlines get lasered onto wooden panels, the colors are hand-painted by his team members. Although Pardo displays the original collage on a TV for reference, most of his painters snap a photo of the screen and work off their phones.
“It’s kind of interesting,” Pardo said of the process. “Because it goes from something this big to something gigantic. One of the reasons I call the palettes bulletproof is that as long as you get close to it, [it works]. I like to have people interpret the colors.”
Some of those interpretations can be seen in Folly’s wall-to-wall paintings. Uniform from a distance, the carnival of colors becomes more organic upon closer inspection as brushstrokes and varying levels of opacity emerge.
Hanging above, five of Pardo’s signature chandeliers echo the colors on the walls—seafoam green, pale yellow, and bright orange, to name a few. Two of them have an ombré effect evocative of a fiery sunset. In every corner of the space, Pardo left tall, narrow windows as reminders that Folly is essentially a public sculpture—despite having the appearance of a tiny house decorated by a mad scientist.
At dusk, when daylight stops flooding through the windows, the jellyfish chandeliers come to life and the entire space begins to feel warmer and cozier. From the outside, the glow of the colored lights through the windows almost reads as stained glass. But Pardo isn’t encouraging people to contemplate life or spirituality inside Folly. Arguably, the installation’s purpose is to inspire visitors to walk inside, slow down, and engage in the simple act of looking.
When Pardo’s Pier arrived at Münster’s Lake Aasee in 2007, it was meant to be a temporary installation. (People strolled to its end and gazed across the water, teens got high there, and the city of Münster ultimately fell in love, making it a permanent landmark.) Although created as a Grove Commission—a temporary program under Public Art UHS—and scheduled to remain on view through 2023, Folly looks anything but tentative. University folk are eagerly bouncing around ideas for activating the space: yoga, artist talks, and cocktail parties are all possibilities. During the public opening on October 19, an architecture professor promised to bring his entire class for a visit, and another guest said he couldn’t wait to return with his young kids.
When asked what he plans to do with Folly if it comes down, Pardo chuckled.
“I could put it at my house in Long Island or something like that. I mean, if the university keeps it, that would be great.”