Radical Women at the Hammer

Burzstyn, Feliza

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, the Hammer’s extensive and momentous contribution to Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA was both a welcome and long overdue survey of an underrepresented generation of Latina and Chicana artists. As if having the foresight that 2017 would prove a turning point for women’s voices, the exhibition was at once prescient and culturally imperative. Radical Women was dedicated to an era of extraordinary social and political upheaval during which the oppression of women was actively resisted. It was also during this time many of the countries represented were subject to military dictatorship. Examining how such realities were filtered through the work of female artists in Latin America and the United States, co-curators Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta assiduously situated Radical Women at the intersection of the political and the corporeal.

Many of the subversive and conceptually-driven gestures seen here—performances, happenings, and interventions—demanded documentation; therefore, the great majority of work in Radical Women took the form of photography or video. In this respect the installation veered toward monotony—a problem the savvy exhibition design at times succeeded in mitigating. Nonetheless, Radical Women was an eruditely researched and altogether revelatory examination of the urgent desire, indeed necessity for these artists to forge a new kind of bodily representation, one that could speak on its own terms.

A compelling investigation of this was the show’s opener Me gritaron negra (they shouted black at me) (1978), a black and white video projection by Peruvian artist Victoria Santa Cruz. The artist, accompanied by a small chorus, recites a poem through which she recounts the internalization of racial slurs thrown at her during her childhood: “And I hated my hair and fleshy lips,” she orates. In cathartic, songlike cadence she reveals a narrative of self-loathing that gives way to self-realization and liberation: “I don’t step back anymore (Finally!), I move forward with confidence (Finally!),” setting the exhibition’s tone of defiance and self-possession.

The notion of the female body as physical and metaphorical terrain is explored in the adjoining gallery, most overtly in Epidermic Scapes (1977/1982) by Brazilian artist Vera Chaves Barcellos. The massive floor-level grid is comprised of 30 black and white extreme close-up photographs of skin, contrasted to the point of resembling aerial views of arid regions. If Chaves Barcellos uncannily renders the skin terrestrial, the neighboring Corazon de roca con sangre (Rock heart with blood) (1975) by Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta hypnotically fuses body and earth. The grainy Super 8 film shows a nude Mendieta kneeling beside a figure-shaped depression into which she ritualistically pours a bright red liquid to match the placement of her heart (a red-painted rock) before lying face down in it. Against the hard earth her bare, soft body reminds us of its vulnerability and inevitable finitude.

Compared to Colombian María Evelia Marmolejo, however, Mendieta’s meditations seem positively anodyne. While Radical Women clearly aims at surveying iconoclasm, Marmolejo takes her performance-based practice to an extreme. Her Anónimo 4 (Anonymous 4) (1984) is a video of a performance in which the artist tied decaying placentas from recent births to her body and wrapped herself in plastic, later ripping the materials from her body in a ritualized bereaving of the poverty and suffering she is certain the newborns will inevitably endure.

In seeming contrast to this crucible of carnal consequence, the exhibition’s final room hints at the liberating potentials of sexual pleasure. However, the takeaway from Columbian Feliza Bursztyn’s Cama (Bed) (1974), a gyrating machine draped in red satin is not sensual union but the brute mechanics of sex. Even more suggestive and not without humor is Brazilian Lygia Pape’s Eat Me (1975), a projection of a lipsticked mouth surrounded by facial hair. It is difficult to tell, perhaps intentionally so, whether it belongs to a disguised woman or a bearded man. As the glossy lips part and pucker the work oozes sexuality while upending gender roles.

Undoubtedly, Radical Women will serve as an important chronicle that deftly traced commonalities among 120 geographically and chronologically separate artists. Such extensiveness, however, resulted in an overly dense and at times fatiguing installation. Still, the unification of so many overlooked female artists from Latin America makes clear that this exhibition barely scratched the surface of the larger, worldwide exclusion of artists based on gender alone, leaving one with the sad realization that Radical Women was just a drop in an ocean of omissions. Those untold stories can’t come soon enough.

Image: Feliza Bursztyn (Colombian, 1933–1982), Cama (Bed), 1974. Assemblage with stainless steel scrap, cot, satin sheet, and motor. 43 5/16 × 70 7/8 × 27 9/16 in. (110 × 180 × 70 cm). Museo Nacional de Colombia. Artwork ©the artist. Photo ©Museo Nacional de Colombia / Andrés Mauricio López.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, Issue 9 (February 2018)

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