With His First Career Retrospective, Pedro Lasch Is Learning to Play Again
Pedro Lasch (center) speaks to an audience at “Entre líneas / Between the Lines” at Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Mexico City. (Photo courtesy of Lasch)

With His First Career Retrospective, Pedro Lasch Is Learning to Play Again

In November 2023, Mexico's Ministry of Culture and the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature opened “Pedro Lasch: Entre líneas / Between the Lines” at Mexico City’s Laboratorio Arte Alameda.

The exhibit is a significant event for Lasch — a research professor of Art, Art History & Visual Studies — and the first retrospective of his career.

Lasch has been teaching at Duke since 2002 and a practicing artist for over 30 years, producing both studio art and immersive community projects. “Entre líneas / Between the Lines” brings all of them together, including over 100 works of painting, drawing, sculpture, public art proposals, photography and video installations.

The exhibit will close on May 19, but a bilingual catalog with essays from critics, curators and collaborators will soon be released by Temblores publishing house and Mexico's National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature, with launch events for the catalog scheduled in Latin America, Europe, and United States this fall.

Trinity Communications sat down with Lasch to discuss the exhibit, what he learned from looking back and what comes next for him. This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about the process of planning this exhibit.

I started working on it in late 2019 with the curator, Lucía Sanromán. She's a fantastic curator, a very collaborative curator.

She was going to come to my studio to select work in March 2020, so you can imagine what happened. I like to say that it's the only good thing that came out of the pandemic for me, because instead of putting it all together very quickly, we had a year and a half of planning. We committed to speaking every Friday on Zoom for at least an hour, maybe two hours.

As part of that process, I erased everything on my Instagram account — I had basically 30 years of physical work piled up in the studio, none of it organized — and started this thing called “One Year Per Week,” which ended up being one of the projects in the exhibition.

I started in 1993, and I would post works from that year. As I was doing that, I automatically created a searchable database of my work. Fast forward a year and a half, and we went over 1,800 artworks from 30 years.

The title of the exhibit seems like a good place to start to understand the result. Where did it come from?

We landed on it because it works in English and in Spanish. It can relate to borders and migration, but also formalism, the relationship between text and image, having to look more closely to find deeper meanings — “between the lines” as some kind of disobedience and a certain rebelliousness, not staying within the box. We liked all the different things it was able to say.

That being said, it worked as a title, but actually neither the curator nor I feel like it's a title that can speak for the whole show. For that, I think it's better to pay attention to the curatorial concepts. Sometimes titles are just the title.

Those concepts are the four themes used to organize the show: art as a tool, games, fiction and displacement. How did you settle on those?

I paint, draw, make sculptures and do all kinds of object work — most of which have never been put in exhibitions because people tend to prioritize my socially engaged work. Sanromán was very interested in that. As soon as that decision came for her, she had to create curatorial concepts that were both interesting in relation to my socially engaged art, but also made sense with the objects.

They weren't surprising to me, because they're certainly methods and themes that I've very consciously worked with. But I felt very lucky to work with a curator who was able to distill things into this structure that is comprehensible to viewers of the exhibition and also legible to readers of the catalog.

Are you still thinking about those themes as you’re researching and working on new projects? Or are you trying to not stick within those lines either?

I’ve become a bit of a pragmatist when it comes to dealing with expectations of the professional art world.

With art, it's an expectation of a signature style or it's a set of methods or something that people can immediately identify. That's how collectors find you, how galleries promote you and so on. All of that stuff, I find it mostly a drag. It's very frustrating, just like any pop musician probably hates the fact that they have to always play the same song. I'm sure they talk about it in therapy a lot.

I feel like I've developed healthy mechanisms to just accept that and deal with it. These curatorial concepts are incredibly helpful to understand my past work. But I don't want to pick them out and say: Okay, for the rest of my life now, I'm going to do only displacement. That would be sad, you know?

If you look at that database of my work, there are dozens of themes, and I think many of them are as important as these four themes. I will continue working on them. But as a practice, I will also certainly rely on some of them to create an accessible first layer to works that otherwise would be difficult to approach — both for me and for the viewer.

5 black artworks in a gallery
Indigenous Spectrum (2014), Black Mirror series (2007-ongoing), installation view at LAA (2023-2024). (Photo courtesy of Lasch)

What was it like to go back through your career in this comprehensive way?

Through this process of organization, I became much more conscious of how each one of my series evolves. I work a lot in series I've developed over many years, and because I had to find the specific date in which everything happened, it certainly helped me understand how I think and how I make work.

I knew that I painted and I drew, but I actually had no idea that it was almost 70% of my practice. I have an actual quantitative way to demonstrate that through that database. Technically, that makes me a painter, even though I don't teach painting classes anymore. It's kind of fascinating.

For me, it was more like a desire. Part of my logic before we did the retrospective was: I want to be a painter, but I'm not. This whole process has made clear to me that I have been making work, it just hasn't been in the institutions of display.

Has looking back on your work changed how you're looking forward? Has it changed your approach to ongoing work?

Yeah, certainly. It's really making me feel like I can move on.

The exhibit includes 18 series that have been developed over many years. Of those 18, only like five or six had been exhibited thoroughly. I felt like the others were completed as artworks, but they were not out there. It's kind of like your children: It's not until they get a job or something that you feel like you’re done. You don't want them to be precarious and vulnerable. Now that I feel that they are out there in public view, I can really make works in a different way.

Ironically, even though I’ve had to obsessively think about the past for two years, now, I'm liberated from it.

Were there any things that you've been working on now that you recognized as you went back through your career — things that made you go, Oh, I've actually done this before?

I definitely am one of those artists that works a lot with continuity. Sometimes it's very obvious, like the Black Mirror series. Every time I make a new installation, there's common threads and common methods.

Series of cards and cubes on a table
Square Inch Box Set (2002), Hexagonal Investigations series (2000-2004). (Photo courtesy of Lasch)

But my quasi-obsession with numbers and abstraction only became clear through this process. Throughout the pandemic, I was making a work called “2022,” and one of the works in the retrospective is this project called “Hexagonal Investigations” that I stopped around 20 years ago. For three or four years, I was obsessively working with a number of six. It really did let me see how nothing is new in a certain way. You just come at it from a very different perspective.

One thing that it also made very clear is that as you get more and more professional over the years — and this is going to sound a little bit sad — you get less time to play. The beauty of becoming a more established artist is that as you come up with an idea, you can actually execute it relatively fast, whereas in your first 10 or 20 years, you can sit on it because nobody has ever shown it or it takes you a decade to secure the funding for it.

While it's challenging in those first few years, the beauty of it is that you play a lot more.

You were born in Mexico, but you’ve lived in the United States for a long time. How does it feel to have your first retrospective exhibit taking place in Mexico?

Four or five years ago, I would have said it's going to take a decade or two longer for me to have a major show in Mexico. It was a very happy surprise to be doing the show not just in Mexico but through what effectively is the equivalent of the Smithsonian.

I've been kind of surprised what a Mexican show it is, having lived abroad for so many years. I don't think of myself as someone who makes artwork that only resonates in one place or another. But now that I'm seeing the catalog really come together, I realize the content makes a lot of sense in Mexico, so maybe it makes sense that the show was there.

There are works about the Mexican oil industry, which was nationalized decades ago and then privatized again. Stuff like that, I don't expect audiences abroad to really get the full meaning of the works, right?

What comes next for you?

I would say the main two things that came out of the pandemic and this period of extreme isolation were the retrospective and this body of work called “2022,” which was included in this major international exhibition called “Documenta 15” in collaboration with artists from Haiti that I've worked with since 2009. It has been postponed, so once I'm done with this retrospective, I’ll be freed to finish that.

In terms of new work, I was just invited to this major conference in Saudi Arabia called Future Culture Summit with all these really established museum directors, curators, fellow artists and thinkers. I'm really excited about just having this white space now before me to explore future collaborations. A few years ago, I would have felt like: No, that's going to be a distraction. Now I think I'm actually excited about not knowing exactly what I'm going to do in the next few years.

I'm also in the early stages of several projects I am producing in my role as director of the FHI Social Practice Lab and founder of Duke's Artistic Research Initiative. The generous support we received from the Mellon Foundation is allowing for new large-scale collaborations with great people like Sherrill Roland, Leonid Tsvetkov, Rashida Bumbray, Wanda Nanibush and Nicholas Mirzoeff, as well as a group of soon to be announced First Nations, Native American, indigenous contemporary artists, historians and thinkers.