The body never lies
Art is a lie; it is an interpretation of reality…
Your body is a battleground
Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1975, as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time at The Hammer, brings together artists (some known to us, some unknown) from fifteen countries, including the United States. Their work was experimental: much of it was photo-based documentation of public or private performances or actions/rituals that often feature the female body (frequently nude) and the face.
Beautifully installed, the exhibit, according to the curatorial wall text, “is organized around the following themes –the self-portrait, the body and landscape, the mapping of the body, the erotic, the performative body, resistance and fear, feminisms and social place…” At the entrance there is a larger-than-life size screen looping an excerpt from a black-and-white 1978 documentary showing choreographer, activist and composer Victoria Santa Cruz (Peruvian 1922-2014) and a chorus performing Me gritaron Negra (They shouted black at me). Santa Cruz, with a splendid Afro, melodically and passionately sing/speaks (like Beat poetry or spoken word) the poignant narrative describing what happened to her when she was seven years old and a group of children first called her “negra.” She felt ostracized and entered into a period of self-loathing before she finally emerged black and proud. Behind Santa Cruz is a Greek chorus of men and women who emphatically say “Y que?” (So what?) to answer Santa Cruz as she recounts the slurs she had to endure. As they move their arms and bodies rhythmically in unison, one cannot help but recall the magnetic call and response of church sermons. In the small space of its enclosure in the gallery, the loud and insistent drumbeat of the soundtrack that accompanies the video clip is almost confrontational — perhaps intentionally so. Compared to the scale and volume level of this piece, the rest of the exhibit is meditative and intimate.
Three American (Chicana) artists have memorable works in this self-portrait section. Sylvia Salazar Simpson shows a portfolio of eighteen witty black-and-white photographs that remind me of the Surrealist paintings of Rene Magritte. In each image, a woman is seen from behind while partially reflected in a mirror. Woven into her hair or totally obscuring it are fantastical headdresses/wigs composed of food such as chilis, pig’s feet, tortillas, vegetables, and pineapples. The model is wearing an off the shoulder garment. Light hearted and visually arresting, these pieces speak to fashion and the lengths that women must go to achieve beauty and acceptance.
Mexican-American Patssi Valdez, in a beautiful black-and-white photograph printed on poster paper taken by Harry Gamboa Jr., entitled Limitations beyond my control (1975), appears to be up against a wall being frisked by a quite charming and handsome fellow. Beautifully dressed, she is staring at the camera in a frank and assertive manner. This image could almost be a movie still as both protagonists seem very urbane and glamorous. It’s ambiguous content (she might know the man frisking her) and ironic manner belies the serious issue that it deals with — notably the profiling of people of color by police. The print has faded into an almost sepia tone adding a layer of nostalgia to this image.
Judith F. Baca, who is better know for her mural work The Great Wall of Los Angeles, is represented here by Las Tres Marias (The Three Marias) (1976, Colored pencil on paper with upholstery backing and mirror). this is a triptych with two stereotypical Mexican or Chicana women portrayed. The young woman on the left wears the “uniform” of baggy slacks and a black sweater with shaved eyebrows. The figure on the right looks like a classic B-movie bad girl with her tight belted skirt, tight shirt, scarf, blue eye shadow and cigarette. Each is drawn so that they look down on the viewer — perhaps a clever reversal of how society looks down on them. In the middle is a mirror and the viewer becomes the third Maria. Realistically rendered in life size, this is a work which invites the viewer to examine their preconceptions and prejudices.
One of the earliest pieces in the show and an outlier in its construction as well as its Pop origins is the 1961-2 mixed media sculpture entitled Self-Portrait by the well know French born Venezuelan artist Marisol. Constructed of primarily wood with plaster, marker, paint, human teeth, gold and plastic, this is a rectangular block of wood with seven diverse heads, one set of breasts, five straight legs, one bent leg, one arm drawn in contour and one painted hand. The faces range from feminine to masculine to androgynous – all pieced together. Noses are realistic, clumsy, missing and mouths are closed, open, yawning, singing. The hand, drawn on a flat painted surface, suggests the cave paintings found in France. Most notable is the consistent fragmentation of each figure. Clay or plastic mouths or toes are affixed to wooden parts – perhaps a physical representation of how fragmented a woman’s world is. With references to African, Oceanic, and Folk art, this is a unique and mysterious work, unlike any other in the show.
The artists in the next room are linked together in the section “Body Landscape,” and the wall text states “these artists were often re-enacting almost mythic circumstances with an emphasis on the feminine as divine, and a reverence towards Mother Earth.” One of the most beautiful and elegant works is a series of 21 projected black and white photographs of Celeida Tostes (Brazilian 1929-1995) (perhaps because of their age, they have an otherworldly blue cast) by Henry Stahl, titled Passagem (Passage) (1979). The artist covered her nude body with slick liquid clay, and with the help of two female assistants was put into a large, unbaked clay vessel, which was then enclosed. The artist stayed there for some time (not for the faint of heart) before knocking out a wall to be “born.” Apparently, according to the wall text in Tostes’ own commentary, she was trying to return to the womb of the mother she never knew. The action takes place in what seems like a sacred almost myth-like space narrow enough to suggest a birth canal with two white clad assistants in a room with white fabric walls. The large earthen vessel Tostes enters is on a mat on a dirt floor. The entire piece paradoxically evokes both birth and death and has religious overtones. It is a powerful silent film and each cropped still in the series is a stand-alone glorious image.
Celeida Tostes, Passagem, 1979 . Raquel Silva/Projecto Celeida Tostes.
A poignant Ana Medieta video – from her Siluetas series of 1973 — shows her embedding her nude body, face down in the wet grass near the edge of an ocean, and creating a silhouette. She then solemnly puts something squishy, perhaps a chicken part, into the empty space and pours what appears to be bright red blood over it, referencing the Afro-Cuban religion Santaria and its blood rituals. Mendieta said “my art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy which runs through everything.” Curator Howard Oransky has said “[Mendieta] wanted to leave her mark on everything, and she used her body to merge with the history of a place.” It is nearly impossible not to feel that these images are still chilling even decades after her untimely, mysterious death in which she fell or was pushed from a great height. These works, though not intended to, always seem to eerily portend her demise and make her the most controversial and martyred artist displayed here.
Another compelling piece is the color video by Venezuelan artists Jennifer Hackshaw, (b.1948) and Maria Luisa Gonzalez (b. 1956) entitled Yeni y Nan (1977-86), Transfiguracion element tierra:Nan (transfiguration element earth:Nan) and Transfiguracion element tierra:Yeni (Transfiguration element earth:Yeni) (1983 Two-channel U-matic VHS transferred to digital video, color). The two artists — against a glaring white background — stare unblinking at the camera for over 8 minutes as the mud that is smeared on both of their faces slowly dries and changes color. The images are on two screens side by side, encouraging the viewer to look from one to the other continuously. It is mesmerizing to watch, and it takes a second or two to realize that the artists are not blinking. Apparently they trained in a form of meditation called “Tratak” and were taught to stare at a focal point, which they do. For the artists, the mud connects them to the earth and to origin stories and birth. For me, I couldn’t help but think of mud facials and the meditative aspect of watching water boil. However, it was nearly impossible to look away from the intense gaze of the artists, and their otherworldly visages.
Vera Chaves Barcellos, Epidermic Scapes, 1977/1982 . Fundação Vera Chaves Barcellos.
A few feet away there is the photography of Vera Chaves Barcellos who focuses only on the outer layer of skin and creates striking images of sections of the epidermis magnified into total abstraction. Done in 1977, this work is displayed in a grid formation on the ground, and is a literal mapping of the skin of the body. Entitled Epedermic Scapes, these coolly elegant and conceptual pictures look mostly like sumi ink line drawings, stunning in their diversity. No two are alike. In this exhibition, Barcellos’ work is notable for its dispassionate quality and scientific inquiry.
It is fascinating to see the parallel track that the Latin American artists share with American black, white and brown feminists in the late sixties and early seventies, with the emphasis on the body, identity politics, performance and the need for photo documentation. All of these works were born out of frustration with the status quo, a desire to rebel against repression, to break free of constraints, to revolt against limitations and exclusion, to take down barriers. The battles against misogyny, exclusion from art history books, important exhibitions, and museum shows still exists fifty years later. Pacific Standard Time and the Hammer are instrumental in acknowledging these often overlooked pioneers and honors them with this excellent exhibition.