Ana Mendieta was a mid-career artist in her 30s during the 1980s, but her exhibition at Galerie Lelong (http://www.galerielelong.com/exhibition/1771) in Chelsea is called ‘Ana Mendieta Late Works: 1981-85’. The reason? In 1985, her promising career was cut short when she plummeted from the 34th floor Greenwich Village apartment of her husband Carl Andre (also an artist). Leading up to Andre’s acquittal of second degree murder, the New York art world became polarized, with feminists striving to preserve her memory in the face of the old boys’ club and to see justice served for what appeared to be an unlikely suicide.
Olga M. Viso has written that the sensationalism surrounding her death caused her work to be interpreted as a commentary on violence towards women. It wasn’t just in the media; in the courtroom, the chief defense lawyer implied that her death had been foretold with artworks featuring a lifeless female figure impacting the earth and surrounded by blood. Complicating matters is the fact that Mendieta did, on occasion, make work about the victimization of females, like recreating a rape scene from a newspaper story in which she played the role of the victim. In seeing, say, sculptures at Galerie Lelong with impressions made in a tree trunk using burnt gunpowder, it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction and equate gunpowder with violence. But in the age of SlutWalks and the movement (hopefully) away from victim blaming, how might we resist the intrigue of the biographical method and see Mendieta’s art in a more balanced way?
A good place to start is the description of her work from her first exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery as an ongoing dialogue with nature. Mendieta felt uprooted because she relocated from her native Cuba to the US with only her sister when she was 12 years old. Years later, she would reach out to her homeland through her art by making work in the waters of Key Biscayne, Florida, which ultimately flow to Cuba, and making sand floor sculptures in Italy in the shape of Arfo-Cuban ritualistic objects, possibly with grains of sand from Cuba included in the mix. It’s no small wonder that her sister, the executor of her estate, declined invitations to include Mendieta in Latin American shows until she was seen as something other than a Latin American artist. The reductive tendency can be multi-faceted.
The point is, she used her art to connect to the world—literally. Earth art is a well established genre today, with entire courses devoted to its study, but when Mendieta was in graduate school at the University of Idaho, it was revolutionary for visiting artist Scott Burton to install furniture within the wild landscape of the campus. Mendieta’s take on earth art was deeply personal in comparison. Like many female artists in the second wave of feminism, she used her body directly in her work, making what she called earth-body sculptures. In her trademark ‘siluetas’ (silhouettes), she traced her tiny frame in the landscape repeatedly, filling it with snow, flowers, leaves and other organic materials. Playing with positive and negative space, she created these goddess-type shapes as protrusions built up with mud and also as indentations dug into the earth and then exposed them to the elements.
With gallery images at your fingertips, why visit in person? Perspective is everything. When the New Museum held a much-heralded retrospective of her work, the catalogue printed a photograph of El Labertino de la Vida (The Labyrinth of Life) (1982) so that the ‘head’ of the figure points to the left. The same photograph appears in Galerie Lelong oriented upright, in the same orientation printed elsewhere, which emphasizes the clitoral/vaginal element of the design. Curiously, the lack of focus at the base of the figure, where a spiral trails off, indicates that the artist would have taken the shot from the head rather than the base. To hang it this way, however, would sacrifice an interesting visual relationship with another nearby vertical photograph that highlights their similarities.
A visit is worthwhile for the videos alone. One shows a silueta set ablaze, with a final puff of smoke emerging from the figure’s head. Another, with shimmering water surrounding the hourglass shape of a silueta, captures the magic Mendieta sought relentlessly in her work.
The exhibition closes June 15.