Adriana Martínez Barón
May 22, 2024–June 28, 2024

Julieta Gonzalez  

"The transition from the commodity form to the money representation of value is a passage fraught with danger.”
- David Harvey, Marx, Capitalism, and the Madness of Economic Reason (2017)

Adriana Martínez Barón’s work navigates a precarious path between commodity and value. The circulation of money, in both its material and functional forms, serves as the medium for many pieces in this exhibition. Martínez often challenges the notion of value through works featuring currency, its fluctuating rates, and its movement across borders and economies.

In the first volume of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (1867), Karl Marx wrote that value is tied to the labor that produces a commodity. When a commodity is separated from labor or removed from circulation, its value is paused or lost. The same applies to currency, which in its form as legal tender, backed by supply and demand as well as the issuing government’s stability, loses its value when disconnected from its financial framework and circulation networks: “...while living labor creates value, the circulation of capital realizes value.” However, when transformed into art, banknotes acquire value once more and circulate within another network: the art market. The circulation of money, in and out of regimes of signification and value, is central to Martínez Barón’s practice. This positions her within a lineage of artists, starting in the mid-1980s, who explored new material, conceptual, and aesthetic avenues through the lens of currency, commodities, and their logic of circulation.

During the 1980s, many Latin American nations faced a harsh awakening from the dreams of progress and prosperity promoted by the rhetoric of development (desarrollismo) in the 1950s and 1960s. Economies across the region, from Mexico in the north to Argentina and Chile in the south, succumbed one by one to mounting foreign debt. Governments were pressured to favor exports and discourage imports, devaluing their currencies to pay off foreign debt while addressing internal obligations. However, these dependent economies lacked the necessary infrastructure they had initially indebted themselves for, causing the strategy to backfire. Hyperinflation spread like a virus throughout the region.

For many previously booming economies, devaluation and the resulting inflationary process created a vicious cycle, compelling governments to print more money and change the denomination of existing currency. In extreme cases, such as those in Argentina and Brazil in 1989 and 1990, money became almost worthless, requiring cartloads of cash to buy essential items. Banknotes had to be reprinted to reflect the decreased value of the currencies.

 This phenomenon did not go unnoticed by Brazilian artist Jac Leirner, who in the late 1980s decided to address her country’s rapidly devaluing currency (the Cruzeiro, which then became the Cruzado, and ultimately the Brazilian Real) through works that eloquently captured the crisis of modernity and its unraveling through the financial markets. Her series Os Cem (1985-87) stands out today as an index of Brazil’s hyperinflationary crisis. This crisis marked the end of the development aspirations promoted by President Juscelino Kubitschek in the 1950s—an era symbolized by the slogan "50 years of progress in five years" and the construction of the new capital, Brasília. The 100,000 Cruzeiro bill, which later became the 100 Cruzado note, featured Brasília and the face of modernist Brazilian poet Cecília Meireles. When the bill was further devalued to the 100 Novo Cruzado note, the rapid loss of value allowed Leirner to use the currency as raw material for this series’ three-dimensional and bi-dimensional works.

Martínez Barón also uses devalued currency to create her works, seemingly retracing the path laid out by Leirner. While the historical context has evolved, it remains marked by the intensification of the same difficulties and crises the region experienced in the 1980s and 1990s. However, Martínez is less interested in indexing a hyperinflationary crisis than in revealing the intricacies of money circulation across borders and economies. Like Leirner, she reshapes banknotes into formal and chromatic explorations, but her works highlight legal limits of currency circulation, addressing issues like money laundering, organized crime, and the illicit defacement of banknotes. A simple roll of bills whose colors suggest a chromatic circle, At the End of the Rainbow (2015-2023) is a work that engages several people in different dynamics circumventing these legal constraints—from requesting new notes from banks to traveling with the currency through different countries to deliver the money to the artist. The vivid colors of the piece indicate that the notes have never been used; they have been taken out of circulation, their value unrealized and dormant, yet they hold the potential to be reactivated once the bills are put back into circulation.

Other works, such as Latin Tears (2023), are made with banknotes confiscated by the police in raids against drug and organized crime cartels. Confiscated money is suspended from circulation for a time, its fate determined by law, usually returning to government coffers or its owners if found innocent. Martínez Barón removes this money from the economy by destroying it and making confetti out of the bills. A similar operation is behind La plata es una fiesta (Money Is a Party) (2023), where Martínez Barón selects notes depicting tropical birds of the Americas, cutting them out to collage onto paintings of skies. In these works, the artist’s aesthetic operations rely on the illicit defacement of currency, repurposing it into new formal configurations such as landscapes with flying birds or bags of paper money confetti. This transformation reconstitutes dirty money into festive and idyllic images.

The chromatic explorations extend beyond her currency works. The ongoing series CMYK, initiated in 2017, delves into the technique of color separation fundamental to offset printing. The initials CMYK stand for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (black or achromatic). These ink tones produce the broadest range of colors in printed media. The work consists of four supermarket carts, each filled with objects whose packaging is predominantly Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, or Black. Presented as an installation, the work also has a performative dimension as the artist wanders through supermarkets, filling each cart with objects of one color, eliciting puzzled looks and comments from customers and employees as she checks out the items. This work functions as a sort of value index. During the process, Martínez Barón discovered that the most expensive items are often packaged in black, feminine products in magenta and are more expensive than cyan-packaged items, while items in yellow packaging are usually the cheapest.

These explorations into the logic of branding have also led the artist to another item commonly found in supermarket aisles: produce stickers. These small, ubiquitous stickers go beyond mere advertisement for fruit companies; they carry codes indicating whether the produce is organically grown, genetically modified, or treated with chemicals and pesticides. For her, these seemingly innocent stickers, with their vivid colors and cartoony images, also bear a trace of the damage caused by multinational corporations, especially in Central America and Colombia. These companies have stripped entire peasant populations of their land, subjected them to labor exploitation, and compromised biodiversity by replacing forests with monocultures.

An artist like Antonio Caro has also addressed the effects of multinationals in works such as Achiote (2016) and the iconic Colombia (1977), incorporating peasant activist Manuel Quintín Lame’s signature. The United Fruit Company is one such corporation whose history is marked by political interventionism and massacres of workers and peasants. From a map of Central America with a rifle bearing the company’s name to the image of Carmen Miranda in the Chiquita Banana sticker, the United Fruit Company’s changing logo reflects its convoluted history and attempts to greenwash its actions.

In the mid-1990s, the enactment of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) led to the rise of maquilas in Northern Mexico, the intensification of monocultures, and other issues that spurred reactions from various sectors, most notably the Zapatista uprising of the indigenous rural population of Chiapas under Subcomandante Marcos. Artists such as Minerva Cuevas, Damián Ortega, Eduardo Abaroa, and Rubén Ortiz Torres responded to these upheavals by creating works that addressed the logic of consumption and circulation under the new regime of “free trade” with the United States.

Martínez Barón’s work also addresses many of the issues that informed her Mexican peers’ works in the 1990s, from the perspective of contemporary Colombia. Like them, her exploration of the iconography of produce stickers reflects the production relations behind commodities. These stickers mask a chain of expropriation and exploitation that has contributed to the financial instability of these countries, resulting in currency devaluations, inflationary processes, and mass migrations from Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Cuba, and, more recently, Venezuela.

By engaging with these issues, Martínez Barón’s work highlights the hidden costs of globalization and free trade, revealing the complex interplay between local economies and global markets. Her series of maps blotted out with black ink, reminiscent of the black screens on social media and the internet indicating that a “story is no longer available” or a site cannot be accessed, seems to address these restrictions on mobility across countries and the migrations currently disrupting the precarious balance of many nations. Interestingly, the recent influx of migrants into Colombia—a country that had traditionally experienced the opposite, with many rural populations moving towards cities and neighboring countries to escape drug and guerrilla violence—has generated unrest and spawned parallel and informal economies as these migrants attempt to eke out a living. Currency appears once again in Martínez Barón’s work in the form of origami-like handicrafts fashioned from worthless Bolívar bills from Venezuela. These bills, rendered valueless by extreme devaluation, inspire works like Yage, Peyote, and Prophecy (2023). In an uncanny twist of fate, labor is once again tied to currency that has been devalued to the point of worthlessness and taken out of circulation. Through these works, she highlights the ongoing struggles and adaptations of migrant communities. The use of devalued currency not only underscores the economic instability but also transforms these bills into symbols of resilience and creativity, reflecting the migrants' efforts to create value and meaning in the face of economic hardship.

Ultimately, Martínez’s works reflect the crises that have left their scars on the region. As David Harvey states in his book, “Every point of metamorphosis of value … is a potential site for crisis formation.” These works serve as poignant reminders of the economic and social upheavals that continue to shape Latin America, revealing the intricate and often painful connections between value, labor, and financial calamity.

Martínez Barón has exhibited widely across Latin America, the United States, and Europe, with solo and group exhibitions at prestigious venues such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; Gallery Embajada, San Juan; Hoffmann Maler Wallenberg, Nice, France; Museum of Modern Art, Bogotá; Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York; Cristina Guerra, Lisbon; Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles; Diablo Rosso, Panama City; The Jewish Museum, New York; Instituto de Vision, Bogotá; Jessica Silverman, San Francisco; Chicago Manual Style, Chicago, and others.