There is something hypnotic about the work of Luchita Hurtado. She has mastered the art of suggestiveness, and much as dreams do, her works win our attention because of their peculiar logic.
In this show at London’s Serpentine Gallery, her most recent paintings are perhaps the most categorical in their message. Human and natural forms are shown in an uninterrupted fabric: standing figures with arms stretched become trees in forests; reproductive organs combine with flowers and fruits. These ecological paintings could pass as placards on a protest march, expressing the idea that all life shares common instincts and therefore is of equal value.
Hurtado has expressed how the first photographs of Earth from space in 1946 made a strong impression on her. “When I saw the first photographs of the world, where you saw this little planet in the darkness of space, it gave me the same feeling of tenderness that you have for family, for your own children. I feel very much that I’m part of this planet. That’s been very strong and influential all my life.”
The benefit of a retrospective exhibition is that later works can inform earlier works as well as the other way around. Looking at Hurtado’s new painting, you realise how her whole career has, in a certain sense, been all about the different ways that the human body is woven into the fabric of worldly textures.
“I am part tree,” Hurtado has said. “And I’m part of anything that’s on this planet.” Her underlying assertion seems to be that the synthetic and the organic are equally meaningful, and equally replete with signs and symbols that may reveal that meaning. Forms of life are interconnected and overlapping, and in that primordial dialogue, unusual things are bound to occur. And Hurtado has a keen intuition of where to find the cracks in the structure.
“When I was a child,” she said, “I had a great sense of smell. I could smell a butterfly when it was breaking the cocoon. I watched the whole procedure, and I think that was a great influence, to see this magic.”
I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn is Hurtado’s first solo exhibition in a public institution. The exhibition follows the main themes of her extraordinarily long career from the 1930s to the present. Currently at the age of 98, she is just two years away from her own centenary. As such, her career might be thought of as existing in retrospect, but that’s not the impression you get. For here, the halls of paintings pulse with an energy that persists through 70 years until the present day.
Born in Venezuela in 1920, Hurtado emigrated to New York eight years later with her mother, travelling by boat via Puerto Rico. As they arrived at the customs on a pier in Brooklyn, she was fascinated to see snow for the first time. She later travelled extensively in Mexico, before settling permanently in Santa Monica, California, in 1951.
Since that time, she rarely exhibited her work. Yet she remained deeply embedded in the North American artistic scene, an aristocrat of long-lasting relationships with many of famous names of the last century, from Isamu Noguchi to Frida Kahlo, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Judy Chicago. Man Ray took her portrait. Marcel Duchamp rubbed her feet. And that’s just the beginning. Her marriage to the artist Wolfgang Paalen placed her at the centre of the Surrealist scene in Mexico City. ”It was very strange,” she said. “My trip to Mexico. We went there and got married and then I realised that it was a kind of group. I’d married a group.”
Later, with her new husband, the painter Lee Mullican, she was involved with the progressive Dynaton movement in California, a utopian collective who asserted that Western artcould provide a new-world equivalent for Eastern meditation.
Hurtado’s early paintings appear to belong to the post-cubist search for a deeper resonance between figuration and abstraction. These paintings are filled with colourful, angular geometries, like rocks split open with a hammer to reveal the crystallised minerals inside. Her forays into pure abstraction draw upon the interlocking patterns of woven fabrics, such as the diamond patterns you find in Mexican rugs or the granular motifs of South American textiles.
The arc of Hurtado’s output took a meaningful shift at the beginning of the 1970s when she entered a more surrealist mode representation. The most memorable visions are those that take an artist’s-eye-view of her own body. Known as the ‘I Am’ works, these paintings include portions of body parts – hands, wrists, toes, feet and breasts – that break in through the edges of the picture frame. Whilst the images take a first-person vantage point, there can be no doubt that we are in the realm of private consciousness rather than the literal field of the eyewitness. For one, the gaze here often records two hands, thereby immediately breaking the traditional logic of the self-portrait, where the artist is seen holding the paintbrush with which the image has been made. This private view downward is inward, containing no definite protagonists and few spatial clues. Her figures stand above floors and rugs crisscrossed with zigzags, diamonds, stripes, and chevrons of Latin weavings. These are images of invented snapshots, vignettes of an impossible reality.
“This is a landscape, this is the world, this is all you have,” Hurtado has said of her immediate environment, “this is your home, this is where you live. You are what you feel, what you hear, what you know.”
You have the sense that Hurtado lives surrounded by organic matter, those items which appear throughout her work, from feathers to pot-plants, strawberries and apples, objects which seem to populate her paintings like benign totems of grace and auspiciousness.
The exact meanings of these items are left undisclosed. But if there is a sense of concealment in Hurtado’s work, then it doesn’t mean they are obscure. Her paintings are affable, and have a gentle, coaxing quality to them. They take you with them, moving at the pace of a prayer or incantation. Self-effacement might be the right word. Here is an artist who paints with an honest appetite for discovery, and may have yet more to discover in the years to come.
Christopher P Jones is London Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Jones speculates on art, history, fiction and fact, and the meeting place of all four. He is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.