Saturday, October 2, 2021

A Grand Opening in Balboa Park: Unity and Variety at the New ICA Central

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt.  Photos by Maurice Hewitt.

A partial view of the eye-catching neon piece that ushers you into Unity and Variety.

For months, we’ve been looking forward to the opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art San Diego (ICA) —the new collaborative entity formed by Lux Art Institute in Encinitas (now ICA North) and SDAI (now ICA Central) in Balboa Park.

Chosen to create ICA’s first exhibition is Mexican artist Gabriel Rico, whose work has been shown in museums and galleries around the world and included in the 2019 Venice Biennale. Another first: this is Rico’s first solo show in California.

And it’s a great debut—a seriously engaging installation that is both spacious and loaded with interesting details. With his Unity in Variety  theme, Rico appropriately expresses the emphasis on diversity embraced by ICA, and uses a mix of organic and manmade materials like neon, TV screens, twigs, sand, steel rods…and lots of stuffed wildlife provided by the Natural History Museum (The Nat, just a short stroll down the Prado) to create a surreal environment that invites consideration of the mixed relationships we have with our natural environment—specifically, the one around San Diego.

A partial view of the exhibition, with a feather-hatted, mirror-ball-headed, neon-lit-sheet-clad sculpture in the foreground.

There are no informational labels on the mostly anthropomorphic sculptures. Andrew Utt, ICA’s founding Executive Director and the organizing force behind the exhibition, explained why: “We see this as an immersive installation, so we don’t think of them as individual pieces. It’s a complete experience on multiple levels.”

So it is. And the titles of some of the pieces—like “Fish begin to stink by the head”—might tend to lead one astray. But here are a few of our favorites from that series—and what they’re made of:

TV screen, corrugated steel rod, hand-painted ceramic, rope, seashell, volcanic rock, neon and metal.

Found objects, neon, gold leaf, concrete, popotillo grass and a bamboo stick—with a taxidermied coyote from The Nat standing nearby. 

TV screen, firefighter jacket, corrugated steel rod, hand-painted ceramic, brass, neon, mirror, coins and plastic figures. 

Closeup of the firefighter’s TV-screen head.

Besides the grand neon overhanging the gallery, the artist includes neon in more than a few of his sculptures. “Neon represents invisibility versus the tangible,” Andrew Utt told us, as he walked us through the exhibition. “It’s a gas, so when it’s turned off, you can’t see it.”

He pointed out something else we hadn’t noticed, about the hanging neon: it’s all based on fives—5 fingers, 5 senses, 5 numbers, 5 vowels.  If you’re eager for information like this about any of the pieces, just ask one of the EGs—Engagement Guides—in the gallery. That’s what they’re there for.

There are no boundaries in Unity and Variety, though it has much to do with our border, that un-natural boundary created to divide and control. That’s not how Gabriel Rico sees things. “The entire ecosystem from Baja California, Sonora, and California works together like a unity,” he says. “Fish can cross the border, so do mammals and insects.”

But there are always invisible barriers—the dead birds in one piece didn’t make it; they crashed into a glass wall. And there are things littering Rico’s sandy beaches, the detritus of our consumerist culture—an Oreo cookie-box wrapper, a discarded towel, Coca-Cola bottles. 

Taxidermy birds, Coca-Cola bottles and popotillo grass on sand.

A number of the sculptures have TV-screen faces—do take the time to watch at least portions of the videos. And check out the gold-leaf “leaves” attached to some twigs: if you wave at them, they’ll move in the breeze you create. And here’s one last piece from the “Fish” series: this powerful one has a powerful name—Tsar Bomb.

TV screen, corrugated steel rod, plastic skeleton, kimono, volcanic rock, hand-painted ceramic, tin can, plastic dice, fake banana, orange and plant. Tsar Bomb was the most powerful nuclear bomb ever created, developed in the USSR and tested in October 1961.

On a lighter note: definitely ask an EG for the coyote-led tour of Unity and Variety, a short Augmented Reality video you can access on your own smartphone or borrow a tablet from the front desk. It’s a trip letting the AR Coyote be your guide—we did it twice.

 And definitely don’t miss this exhibition. It’s a winner in all ways…and admission is free!

 Unity and Variety, on view through January 23, 2022 at ICA Central
1439 El Prado, Balboa Park
Thursday-Sunday, 12-5 p.m.

P.S. You may also want to check out Gabriel Rico’s accompanying installation to Unity and Variety at The Nat, on view in their Unshelved exhibition space through January 23. The Nat is open Friday-Tuesday, 10-4, with admission ranging from Free-$19.95.  

I’ll be writing about the Christine Howard Sandoval exhibit at ICA North in Part 2 of this ICA story, coming soon.

Lonnie Burstein Hewitt is an award-winning author/lyricist/playwright who has written about arts and lifestyle for the La Jolla Light and other local media for over a dozen years. You can reach her at

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