Look, then look again

Times Staff Writer

THE latest work of Ernesto Caivano is what it appears to be -- and much more.

No question, the 100 ink drawings hanging in a double row at the Richard Heller Gallery depict plants. Weird ones, yes: blossoms that resemble animal faces, human genitalia or monstrous insects. Veins that open into miniature landscapes or abstract patterns. Branches that catch skulls of long-beaked birds.

Executed first in pencil and then in ink, the pristine line drawings are keys to Caivano’s “alternate universe.” They are botanical drawings for dreamers and investigators, but images of plants all the same.

“So,” says the soft-spoken artist, folding his slim, 6-foot-4-inch frame into a molded plastic chair in a corner of the gallery, “somebody comes to see the show and thinks, ‘Oh, flowers.’ But if they look closer, maybe they see details, like in Durer’s work, something with the intimacy of an illuminated manuscript, small enough to make you want to go inside it. Over time, they will discover things in the same way as rereading a text.


“My job is to make the work entertaining enough that you will want to explore,” he says. “If you don’t want to explore, I’ll just be a crazy man doing some neurotic or obsessive compulsive thing, trying to understand everything by putting it in order.”

Like most artists, Caivano wants his art to work on many levels. In his new drawings, “Floral Veins and Conduits 000-099, Volume One,” attentive viewers may find references to global warming and endangered species in what he calls “a battle between nature and technology.” Bits of dust and debris appear in ominous showers. Stems are tethered by ropes. Alien geometric objects insert themselves into organic vignettes. Journeying deeper into this strange world with the help of a magnifying glass, visitors also see dots turn into circles, lines into calibrated stripes.

But newcomers to Caivano’s work must do a bit of reading to discover that the current exhibition is part of “After the Woods,” a visual story he has been spinning for five years.

“It’s a fairy tale for adults,” he says in his most concise description of what has become an all-encompassing, enormously convoluted tale. “The project deals with the relationship between nature and humans in the past, future and present, using elements from mythology and folklore, and adopting ideas from science, fiction and technology. It has echoes of a creation myth, but without the godhead.”

Composed, so far, of hundreds of drawings, large and small, the artwork tells the story of a pair of lovers who are separated for a thousand years after conceiving a child. In the course of their adventures, the woman is transformed into a princess and then a spaceship, embodying technology; the man into a knight and then a tree, or nature. They reunite when their child is born but dissolve into an unknown realm, leaving their offspring to deal with more challenges and enigmas.

The Heller exhibition is “a very long parenthetical phrase” in the story, Caivano says. “I might do a show like this that has to do with how nature and technology are battling each other. But then there will be a show that deals with the plot of a chapter. The story is linear; it has a beginning and an end. But the way I approach is like hopscotch. Here, it’s kind of like Herman Melville in ‘Moby Dick,’ when he took a break and wrote about all the processes of the whale. This idea that you can pause in the narrative to take a more scientific view.”


“After the Woods” created a buzz at the Whitney Biennial in 2004, and drawings from the series have landed in collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show at Heller, which continues through Oct. 7, is the second installment to be presented at the gallery (

“I had no idea that the project would grow this big or that I would be working on it for five years,” he says. “I do see ‘After the Woods’ finishing, but there is a second story after this.”

The artwork is rooted in youthful experience. Born in Madrid in 1972, Caivano is the child of an Italian-Danish father who was born and raised in Argentina and an American mother of German ancestry whose family settled in the Midwest.

Caivano and his parents lived in Washington, D.C., for the first four years of his life, then moved to Buenos Aires for 10 years. They visited relatives in Ohio during summer vacations and lived in the small town of Lewisville for several months before moving to San Diego, where Caivano went to high school. After various travels, he landed in New York, his current home. He received a master of arts degree from Columbia University in 2001.

His broad view of the world, coupled with the discovery that 500-page books could encapsulate 500 years of art history, sparked his aesthetic approach. But “After the Woods” began with a 2001 trip to Europe, when he was struck by close encounters with hundreds of years of history.

As a kid, he had dreamed of becoming a “mad scientist” who could make earthbound things float, transform human bodies and change the world. As a young man, he had chosen art because it seemed to accommodate everything that interested him. In Europe, he suddenly saw a way to create a self-contained but limitless universe in an artwork.


“Instead of trying to figure out all the different interests I had and which to follow, I decided to see if I could put them all together,” he said. “I loved science, history and art. I loved the landscape, and I loved to figure out why cultures behave the way they do.

“I couldn’t let anything go.”