September • 5 • 2020

Clarissa Chevalier
Exhibition Review: The Surprising Intimacy of a PDF 
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Screenshot of the exhibition homepage. Image courtesy of ABRIR.

PDFan exhibition by the newly minted artist project space ABRIR, emerges out of COVID-19 pandemonium with impressive dexterity. Founded in 2020 by architect Pierina Sanchez and artist Gonzalo Hernandez, ABRIR responds to the seismic shift towards online accessibility through the creation of PDF, an astute exhibition centered around the universally shareable file format. Adobe defines the PDF as “a file format for representing documents in a manner independent of the application software, hardware or operating system used to create them and of the output device on which they are to be displayed or printed.” (1)

Echoing Adobe’s definition of a PDF as a format able to easily glide between devices, as an exhibition, PDF is viewable, scrollable, and infinitely shareable on digital screens around the world. I viewed PDF from a smartphone in Western Australia. Working with the unique constraints and limitations ushered in by the global pandemic, PDF invites 21 artists from multiple countries to create work that exists entirely within the confines of a PDF document.

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Screenshot of the exhibition homepage. Image courtesy of ABRIR.

In scrolling through the artists’ files, it becomes apparent, by contrast, how much of the in-person viewing experience is shaped (and perhaps distracted) by a wide phenomenological swath of information.

When I physically attend an exhibition, I am aware of the other visitors, lighting, atmosphere, acoustics, temperature, and the scale of the work in relation to my body. With PDF, this additional information falls away, creating an experience that feels less distracted and more intimate. There is nothing to do but look directly at the artwork on the device that already occupies most of my waking attention.

The 21 artists in PDF respond to the challenge of working within the specific format with impressive range, incorporating everything from QR codes, Google Drive links with embedded videos, photography, digital collage, and text. Yet, in my opinion, some of the most captivating works in PDF combine tangible objects with the smooth, illuminated flatness of the digital screen. Here the viewer can almost sense the artist’s hand pressing down on the other side of the objects, carefully arranging them to be scanned and digitally immortalized. These include Marisabel Arias’s scanned eggs in El huevo tautológico (2020), Viviana Balcazar’s iced cookies in cómo cocinar un portafolio (2020), Emily Stockwell’s threaded abstract figures in Tit for Tat (2020), and Christian Gutierrez’s captivating archival documents in The Healing Light (2020).

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The Healing Light consists of an eight-page document filled with scans of found archival documents carefully arranged in various collages. These include black and white photographs, handwritten signatures, book sections, post-it notes, and church donation records with visible dates ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s. The Healing Light is a wash of muted beige, black, and white, with vague allusions to small-town Christianianity that seem simultaneously familiar and foreign. These come in a snippet of text that reads “Sir, your most humble, and most obedient Servant” and in the donation forms titled “Epworth United Methodist Church.” It is the deliberate selection and combination of handwritten notes, donation cards, and photographs of unspecific events and gatherings that make The Healing Light feel so intimate. By removing these items from their original context and combining text with images, I find myself weaving together narratives and straining to read the handwritten notes to attribute legible names and adjectives to the unidentified people in the photographs. The softness and intimacy of muted tones and repurposed archival documents in The Healing Light are in line with Gutierrez’s previous work, such as devil’s backbone (2019), which frames a single found photograph around soft textures of fur and houndstooth fabric.

Detail shot of The Healing Light. Image courtesy of the artist.

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In The Healing Light, memorabilia take center stage, situating Gutierrez within a nexus of contemporary artists interested in repurposing archival material. (2) In the widely referenced 2004 essay, “The Archival Impulse,” art historian Hal Foster defines this approach, writing, “In the first instance archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present. To this end, they elaborate on the found image, object, and text, and favor the installation format as they do so.”(3) While Gutierrez must forfeit the installation format Foster mentions in light of social distancing, the artist does contrast photographs and notes written roughly half a century ago with the ultra-contemporary, pandemic-induced demand for digitization.

Christian Gutierrez, devil’s backbone (2019). Image courtesy of the artist.

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Gutierrez also delicately manages to probe and question religious subject matter in a way that feels both reverential and questioning, through open-ended, heuristic assemblages. In conversation with Gutierrez, the artist explained that these archival documents were collected from church estate sales.

Gutierrez explains that The Healing Light was created during the peak of COVID-19 social isolation. The artist felt drawn to the idea of developing a spiritual but religiously ambiguous practice to help cope with the shattering unpredictability induced by the pandemic. (4) While he had been collecting spiritual archival documents for years to use in previous work, Gutierrez set aside those that seemed too precious to glue to canvas. These were the documents used in the creation of The Healing Light.

Detail shot of The Healing Light. Image courtesy of the artist.

PDF shows that working under constraint can lead to an engaging exhibition that challenges the boundaries of a simple file format, and the sheer variety of artistic contributions made by the 21 artists involved makes for a fascinating digital exploration. (5) Gutierrez’s The Healing Light contrasts with ABRIR’s simple, brightly colored design layout so that to open Gutierrez’s document is to be transported into a beige-colored archival realm of memory. While there is undoubtedly more to unpack in The Healing Light — for instance, the ethical complexities of authorship when repurposing personal documents and the political complications bound up in American Christianity — Gutierrez’s work ultimately feels deeply humanistic, underscoring the significance of ritual, community, and human connection, more essential now than

ever before.

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Marisabel Arias — Viviana Balcazar — Rodrigo Carazas — Tibiezas Dager — Kimberly English — Diego Fernandini — Valeria Ghezzi — Christian Gutierrez — Aaron Lopez — Alison Lopez — Yone Makino — Pierina Másquez — Adriana Miyagusuku — Debrah Montoro — Todd Schroeder — Kinshiro Shimura — Sergio Suarez — Emily Stockwell — Marcos Temoche — Andre Terrel Jackson — Natalia Villanueva Linares

Curated by Gonzalo Hernandez and Pierina Sanchez

ABRIR, August 10, 2020 — September 26, 2020

• • •

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Clarissa Chevalier is an incoming art history Ph.D. student at the University of California San Diego. Chevalier received an MA in art history from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2020 and a BA in cinema studies and art history from Columbia College Chicago in 2018. Chevalier’s areas of interest include critical theory, modern, and contemporary art, with particular emphasis on environmental art created in reaction to climate change. Her current research examines the intersections of phenomenology, ecological art, and environmental ethics.


  1. Adobe Systems Incorporated, PDF Reference, 3rd edition (Adobe Systems Incorporated, 2006), accessed September 4, 2020, link. 33.

  2. This Artspace article from 2014, titled “How the Art World Caught Archive Fever,” offers a more detailed overview of the role archives in contemporary art.

  3. Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (2004). Accessed September 4, 2020., 4.

  4. Neuroscientist Sam Harris’s book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion offers a compelling rationale for the usefulness of separating spirituality from any one specific religious practice, in favor of an approach focused on broader concepts of mindfulness and meditation.

  5. Psychologist Patricia D. Stokes’s book, Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough (2005) provides an in-depth study into the importance of constraints in creative practice.