JEFRË: Points of Connection
October 3, 2020 through January 3, 2021
By VITTORIA BENZINE, December 2020
JEFRË: Points of Connection is now on view at the Orlando Museum of Art. The exhibition scales down this world-renowned public artist’s typical fare, noted for its awe-inspiring size and intuitive attention to detail, distilling this latter quality into saturated, bite-sized portions. Sprawling over six galleries, Points of Connection welcomes viewers into the artist’s inner world, sharing his full story in this setting for the first time. Where the new normal often fails to deliver the authenticity it aspires to, Points of Connection actually succeeds at affecting viewers from a safe social distance.
JEFRË was born Jefre Figueras Manuel, the first-generation son of Filipino-American immigrants. He grew up in Chicago during the 80s. “I didn’t come from a traditional route,” JEFRË noted during our virtual tour. “My background is in urban design and planning.” Cultured Mag writes that JEFRË “got his start at the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the most storied architecture and design firms in the world.”
The position presented him with opportunities to create work for iconic brands like Tiffany & Co. and Lexus. These experiences sharpened his technical talent, his ability to devise innovative design concepts that still speak to a brand’s cultural legacy. This practice came to a screeching halt in 2008, when JEFRË suffered a massive heart attack, underwent triple bypass surgery, and learned to live alongside heart disease.
He found an opportunity in his illness, using the dramatic shift to pivot. As an urban designer, he found the most fascination while wondering “where the moments would go” — the sweet science of crafting icons like New York’s Lady Liberty or the Bean in Chicago. JEFRË turned his focus more towards working for himself and exercising his own creative impulses. He applied for projects through a burgeoning ‘percent for art’ program which required 1% of public buildings be made available to showcase public art. His first year, he was a finalist for twelve projects and ultimately won eight, relying solely on the merit of his concepts in the absence of established artistic clout.
Consider, briefly, the headspace of creating on a scale as large as JEFRË does — his most recent project was a 24-story public sculpture in the Philippines, slated to become one of the largest art installations in the world. Imagine the potential god complex such work entails, at once intoxicating and isolating. “This whole issue with heart disease is maybe why I do large things,” he mused. While he doesn’t think his architectural ego is out of hand, he does hope to “make the most impact with each sculptural landmark.”
JEFRË pointed out that transitioning from the design sphere into the creative sphere meant he was making work about himself for the first time, really. Points of Connection abandons gaping crowds and brings the artist’s distinct voice into conversation with the individual.
Accompanied throughout by poems of the artist’s own composition, Points of Connection maintains a loosely narrative structure. Its first room is filled with 10,000 pounds of white and brown rice (expired, to prevent wastefulness.) JEFRË tells me you can smell it in the air and I believe him — it’s a scent I first came to love in Kindergarten, playing at the rice table, and I could never forget it. The medium nods to his cultural heritage, the effort his parents put in to establish a life in America.
An elevated platform hosts the bulk of this rice and occupies half the room’s square footage. “It’s organized in a series of thirteen stripes,” JEFRË explained. “The thirteen stripes represent the American flag, this idea of coming from Asia to the US and trying to find the American dream.” He originally envisioned attendees walking through this Rice Field, finding their own paths like his parents once did, but he’s settled for scent in the coronavirus era.
Next, we entered a more orthodox gallery space. JEFRË paused in front of one wall-mounted work so I could watch it change — it wasn't a painting, but a light installation in direct allusion to his heart surgery. These are his actual vitals at the time of his operation, flashing across the screen with intermittent hospital beeps. Flowers with stents for stamen are arranged in glass cases, a testament to his hope amongst turmoil.
JEFRË’s glittering, chromed-out sculptures followed, figures illustrating the lessons cities have taught him about human behavior. Each sculpture embodies a single idea ranging from peace to faith to patience and passion. “The boxes on the heads are representative of architectural buildings,” he continued. “My idea of a great city is all of these emotions put together. When you put the heads all together, they create a skyline.” Some resemble polygons with many planes, others are simpler, and only one is completely fluid. This hidden symbolism lends the room another dimension of depth while presenting attendees with an array of selfie effects.
“This one talks about how I manage my heart disease,” JEFRË segued, strolling into the next room and reassuming the more minute lens of his inner life. “I take twelve pills a day. I literally open each bottle every day, one by one.” He’s saved every pill bottle acquired since 2008 and put them on display for this exhibition, full labels in tact with his government (rather than studio) name. “I’m not trying to be Damien Hirst,” he noted. “These are actually my real life bottles.” Nearby, he’s piled 56,345 gel capsules to represent every ounce of medicine he’s ingested in coexistence with the disease.
The exhibit’s last room, titled Collective Consciousness, contemplates all that JEFRË has picked up across his journey, encapsulating the insights into the aura of an airport. Identical, transparent, hollow acrylic heads hang from the ceiling at responsible intervals. Neon words in a variety of languages and characters illuminate each head from within, writing out affirmations like “I am kind.” When viewers stand underneath and aim their phones at the QR code on the ground, that head says its word in its language. A chorus like this sets the sonic stage of an international terminal.
As JEFRË and I traipsed about testing some of the different talking heads, a couple entered the space. I watched them do the same thing as us and wondered where they came from, where they’re at in life, how they ended up under an identical, transparent, hollow acrylic head in the same virtual space as me. I will literally never know. But for one moment, we intersected at that very specific point of connection.
“Points of Connection, for me, is about creating a series of experiences that remind us that we’re all human,” the artist explained. “We’re all still very connected in some way — mentally, physically, and emotionally.” In this exhibition though, JEFRË’s own story is the central hub each passing spoke orbits. It’s the story of one logically-minded man of immense talent reaching out across heart disease and coronavirus in an attempt to establish a more authentic dialogue through his art. Points of Connection is perhaps his first real contact with the public, and JEFRË bolsters the leap with his greatest proficiencies — ingenuity, wit, and craftsmanship. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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