Mira Schendel: Portrait of a Brazilian Artist

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, November 2013)

Myrra Dagmar Dub, known as Mira Schendel (1919-1988), was a Brazilian artist. Born in Zurich, to parents of Jewish heritage, Schendel was raised in Italy as a catholic and studied philosophy at the Catholic University in Milan. In 1938, she was displaced of her Italian nationality and forced to end her study. After traveling across many countries in 1949, she arrived in Brazil where she began her career as an artist.

She said of her arrival there, “I started painting in Brazil. Life was very hard, there was no money for paints, but I used to buy cheap materials and paint like crazy. It was a matter of life or death for me.”

In fact, in order to make a living, she worked as a graphic designer producing posters, illustrations, and book covers. She drew inspiration from artists such as Giorgio Morandi, Giorgio de Chirico, and Paul Klee. Her work constitutes an experimental investigation into profound philosophical questions relating to human existence and belief, addressing the distinction between faith and certainty, being and nothingness, and the “void.”The painting of the 1960s are characterized by a move towards geometry. Schendel remarked, “No matter how much I use geometric shapes, the sensory element of the brushstroke, the texture, is always there; for me this is very important. I would never make a completely smooth painting.”Interestingly, spiral motifs recur in all her oeuvre. Often compared to Archimedean spirals which describe, in mathematical terms, the unending spiral recession of a point in time and space, away from fixed point. Schendel also started a series of works using semi-transparent rice paper in 1964, investigating themes of transparency and language by the use of letters as graphic elements.Her most enigmatic works are The Return of Achilles (1964) and Apologia pro vita sua (1974), both with reference to the Homer’s epic poem the Iliad.

 Although little-known outside Brazil, Mira Schendel remains a unique and influential figure in twentieth-century art.
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Ana Mendieta: Traces of Life

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, October 2013)

Whoever is familiar with Hermann Hesse’s book Pictor’s Metamorphoses will see immediately the relationship between the human being and the earth, and will quickly relate it to the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta (1948–1985), the creator of “earth-body.”

Although her short career  – she died at the early age of 37 by falling from the window of the 34th floor-apartment in New York where she was living with her husband the artist Carl Andre – Mendieta left a prolific amount of work.

By joining human features like blood and primary elements such as fire, water, and earth, she creates a unique language which is provocative, impacting, and at the same time intimate and engaging.

Mendieta was born into a politically active Catholic family in Havana under Fidel Castro’s regime. Immediately before her thirteenth birthday, she was sent with her sister to America, where  she studied art in Iowa.

The pain and the separation from her country created a cultural displacement and exile inside her that she used and developed in her creative process, which she named “earth-body.” She perceived this separation from the family (she rejoined her family in Havana after 18 years) as a sort of orphanhood and used this suffering as a driving force for her art — opening a dialogue between the landscape and her own body. This dialogue was the main component of her work and is present in all her oeuvre.

Her performances and sculptures are a combination of the Afro-Cuban ritual santería and a metaphor of death, life, rebirth, and spiritual transformation. Always interested in themes such as identity, female violence, displacement, and physical transformation, Mendieta created work such as Rape Scene (1973), a documentation with slides of violent crime, using her own body and her own apartment. Inspired by santería, a Yoruban-Christian religion practiced in Cuba, as well as by her Roman Catholic education, Mendieta used ox blood in her actions and performances to create stains of her body, to trace the contour of her body or create an image of her body, as in the work Untitled (Self-portrait with Blood) (1973). She stated that the blood was not a negative force.

 

Alongside her interest for the Afro-Cuban spiritual ritual, Mendieta was interested in ancient and indigenous cultures. Witnesses of these interests are works such as Bird Transformation (1972), a performance concerning transmutation in which she is naked and her body is completely covered with feathers.

As an exile from Cuba, Mendieta found solace in Mexico, where she spent a lot of time during the 1970s. The parallelism between Mexico with her native Cuba was an inspiration for her. There she created body-works rooted in the ritual Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead celebration.

Her most famous work was Siluetas, a series of one hundred works that she created between 1973 and 1981, and that become the center of all her practice.

A special significance for Mendieta was the work Arbol de la Vida (1970) a work that embodies both wisdom and knowledge, a binomial that is encountered in any culture and religion.

All her oeuvre refers to the universal process of life, because Mendieta believed that you cannot separate life from death. As she said: “All my work is about those two things – it’s about eros, and death and life.”

Although Mendieta works were mainly sculptural, she recorded everything in photographs and video. The process and the documentation of the same was essential for the artist.

Mendieta’s relation with the earth was unique and singular; her relation with nature was the source of inspiration for her creativity. Likely, this attachment for the earth derived from her sense of displacement and for her search to find her place in this world. She left us numerous works that are currently being exhibited at Hayward Gallery in London.

Mendieta is only another great sample of a woman, of an artist, of a daughter that dedicated her life to what was most significant for her: earth and body; earth as synonyms of house and body as synonyms of life and death.

AxME: Ellen Gallagher at Tate Modern

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, July 2013)

Walking into the first room of the exhibition AxME at Tate Modern in London, one cannot remain indifferent when viewing a photo that immortalizes the figure of Freud sketching a model. With a closer and knowledgeable gaze, one can recognize the face of the model as the artist herself posing in an evident Orientalist style.

 

With this short introduction, we are carried into the world of Ellen Gallagher (b. 1965) who is an American artist that deals with sex, femininity, white male artists, couch trips, models, and the male gaze.

The huge exhibition is organized in eleven rooms and presents a number of works from different periods. The following rooms are adorned with her big paintings of women in which plasticine forms their hair and caricatures of big lips and bug-eyes create their features. They are signs; they are signifiers of Gallagher’s own visual vocabulary.

 

Ellen Gallagher has worked with diverse techniques and materials. Her work embraces painting, drawing, sculpture, collage and film — often combining multiple media in a single piece. She became known for her minimalist works, alluding also — with her caricature of lips, hair, and eyes — to the vision and representation of black people in the “others” imagery.

 

The sensibility of her re-appropriation of society’s imagery makes these works more than just aesthetically appealing. They acknowledge the anger and the sense of revenge against a label.

Curated by Juliet Bingham, the entire exhibition is a brilliant combination of politics, social classification, and identity.

Saloua Raouda Choucair at Tate Modern

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, July 2013)

 

For the first time in its history, Tate Modern has dedicated the world’s first major museum exhibition to Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair.

Choucair (born in Lebanon, 1916) is a pioneer of abstract art in the Middle East. Through painting and drawing, architecture, textiles and jewelry, as well as her abundant sculptures, one can understand how Choucair worked in different media following her interests in science, mathematics, Islamic art, and poetry.

The exhibition focuses on Choucair’s sculptures from the 1950s to the 1980s, created in wood, metal, stone, and fibreglass, as well as extensive examples of her early abstract paintings.

The show opens, with a youthful Self-portrait from 1943, a stylized rendering of a serious young woman. This painting was made shortly after Choucair began painting under the tutelage of leading Lebanese artists Mustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi. Contrary to the tastes of her teachers, Choucair developed a passion for Islamic art and architecture during a trip to Egypt in 1943. Choucair’s work combines elements of western abstraction with Islamic aesthetics.

The domestic scene explored in the three versions of Les Peintres Celebres was most likely based on Leger’s Le Grand Déjeuner, (she studied in the studio of Fernand Léger in Paris) a large painting depicting a harem of three naked women having tea around a small table. But rather than recreate the scene a la Léger, Choucair instead conducted a deliberate, feminist ‘de-Légerisation.’

 

The major work in the opening galleries is an exquisite little painting called Paris-Beirut. An Islamic star, Cleopatra’s Needle, the colours of the desert, the Arc de Triomphe: all are reduced to their essential forms and held in perfect balance in the picture.

The exhibition’s last room has beauty in abundance, numerous sculptures: some are planetary, evoking eclipses and starbursts. Others have affinities with womankind – corkscrew curls, metal bows and gyrating curves – and the quirkiest are highly strung, shivering excitedly as one passes. Even without any knowledge of the Sufi principles apparently underlying this art, one has the sense of a free and humorous spirit perpetually at work.

Choucair’s sculptures fuse Islamic design with modernist traditions. Like her paintings they are small-scale, vibrant and cleverly balanced. One of these sculptures, carved out of wood, with joint, seems to vibrate from top to bottom with interior life – unseen human existence.

Choucair’s sculptures often resemble architectural structures, in particular those with repeated units, such as modular housing. She once said that given another life to live she would choose to be an architect.

The Artist is present

 (This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, March 2013)

The artist is present is an excellent documentary about the powerful and controversial performance by the charming, courageous and outrageous, Yugoslavian artist Marina Abramovic.

For nearly three decades Abramovic’s work redefined what art is and Marina is now considered one of the most compelling artists of our time. The use of her own body as a vehicle, embracing to the limits of pain and physical and mental endurance, confer her the title of grandmother of performance art.

The performance took place in 2010 in one of the most important art venue in the world the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. For three months, from the beginning of March through the end of May the daughter of two national heroes of General Tito’s Yugoslavia, is sat solemnly and silently for seven and half hours, every day, without food or water, in a wood chair, still, emotionless and gazing into the eyes of hundreds of visitors who sat opposite her only for the opportunity to see Ms. Abramovic face to face. This exchange of glances for some induces tears, for others, a smile.

While she performs on one floor of MoMA, on another floor utilizing both videos and photos of her old works, a group of 30 young artists, disciplinary trained for endurance and concentration, by the same Abramovic, during a rural workshop based on yoga, zen, breathing, and all this sort, recreate 5 performance pieces that characterized the artist’s career. The documentary, evidences the genesis of that work and also provides, through interviews and archival clips, a synopsis of Abramovic’s career.

In the retrospective there is a fashinating section about her love and artistic collaboration with the German performance artist Ulay, that unbeknownst to her takes part in the performance.

A powerful moment, in which the artist left the place to the woman, in which either her recognized stamina has raised the white flag.This sublime and touching moment in which her tears gently slipped down her face made this performance even more real, the artist herself stated that “performance is always a state of mind.” And, forgive me the romanticism, I would add: “the state of mind is always driven by heart”.

The whole retrospective and the performance itself revolve around the obsessive question that the artist has been covered in all the years of her career : “Why is this art?” And the answer is veiled in the events and experiences she creates with her presence – as the title itself expresses – a live self portrait, rather than paintings and sculptures we are used to recognize as art.

Performance art emerged in the 60s as a result to painting, and whatever it was, was not something you can hang on the wall. And Marina Abramovic knows pretty well how to use the human body. A medium, to make statements, to be directly provocative and sometimes violent and sharing the experience with the audience make her works unique.

The Artist is present destroys the Barthes’ statement that in his famous essay[1] supports the tendency towards the ‘desacrilization of the image of the Author’. He argues that the author is a modern figure, created by society, and that the author, in relation to the text, is a closure. He considers the work as a place where the multiplicity meets, and that place is not the author, so far as has been stated, but the reader. On the contrary Abramovich’s performance is based on her presence, even better her presence is the performance itself. Her emotional approach is a directory, a kind of dialogue with the public that receive and partecipate to it. Abramovich with her performance unifies in a single work Barthes’ thought: the unity of a text (artwork) is not in its origin but in its destination.

“Artist has to be warrior, has to have this determination and has to have the stamina to conquer not only new territory but also to conquer himself and his weaknesses. “[2]


[1] Barthes, The Death of the Author, p.144

[2] Marina Abramovich, The Artist is present, 2010.

Can Photography Seduce?

(This text was originally published on Artzine, March 2013)

The National Gallery has recently closed its doors to a discussed and controversial exhibition: Seduced by art.

For the first time in more then 150 years one of the most important and renowned Museums in the world, which hosts one of the most refined collections of classical paintings is ‘seduced’ by photography.

The show uncovers with a miserable copy of the stunning Death of Sardanapalus (1827), which conveys the figure of the last King of Assyria in an even more cowardly manner. As if that were not enough, among the best contemporary photographers works, Jeff Wall’s light-boxed, Destroyed Room (1978), and Tom Hunter’s Death of Coltelli (2009), are placed on the side.

The exhibition is grouped in a precise order, one room completely dedicated to portrait, another one is consecrating the human figure and in which Richard Learoyd’s Man with Octopus Tattoo (2011) is the master. The comparison with the Valpincon Bather (1806) by Ingres is unavoidable.

One Flesh by Helen Chadwick reinvents Madonna and Child clearly evoking an Italian altarpiece. The artist herself is the “Madonna”, with her head surmounted by the placenta and in the act of cutting her baby daughter’s umbilical cord. But far from being outrageous, it is instead a strongly and poignant representation of motherhood and femininity.

The following room is dedicated to still life, where the Ori Gersht’s Blow up: Untitled 5 (2007) ends in an explosion. Video of dead flowers and rotten fruit surround the scenario.

The last room is dedicated to landscape and could no miss references to Turner and Constable.

So what does the curator want to demonstrate with this bold exhibition? Perhaps to remark on the numerous ways in which these classic paintings might still translate into reality?

We all thank and appreciate that photography has become part of everyday. An instance can be immortalised, by anyone, all historical facts can be seen and accounted and all our personal lives can be remembered and become part of our heredity; but, as Modern critical orthodoxy would say: there is a reason if the most renowned images of the last 150 years are not photographs but paintings.

Photography is announced here as works of art of equal stature as the past masters in this exhibition, hung side by side. However the jury is still out on whether a photograph can command the same depth and the sense of touch, that a painting possesses.

Is this the end of “visual” art?

“Shall I pay my entrance with invisible money?” was my first question at the Hayward Gallery’s box office when I went the other day with a friend and my invisible boyfriend to see the “Invisible” show. Of course the answer was a clear NO, and I had to pay to see an unseen
exhibition.

White rooms, white plinths signed by Andy Warhol or Tom Friedman, white canvases, white papers and so on … even the signage is so clear that you can barely catch it.

The earliest work in the exhibition is a video dated 1957 by the French Yves-Klein, in which the artist stares at a spot on a white wall and makes faces … suddenly the artwork is not invisible any more, and the artist with his humour turns himself into the artwork.

The funniest piece is, in my opinion, the one by Maurizio Cattelan: a framed police report in which the artist describes the invisible artworks stolen from his girlfriend’s car; immediately the non-art piece of paper becomes the artwork itself.

The Air conditioning show consist of a large white room, empty, of course, but for two refrigeration units pumping out cool air; I would suggest a visit only in a warm day of this invisible British Summer.

Present in the show, are also other artists like: Art&language, Yoko Ono, Robert Burry, Chris Burder, Gianni Motti and many more.

The exhibition seems to be an evident comment on conceptual art and  the way one can perceive it. There is no limit to the potential meaning of imperceptible art. You can image everything, you can create your own work of art.

Is this artless? Is this a provocation for the definition of art?

I am wondering what a renaissance citizen would say in this regard. Is this the end of “visual” art or are we just witnessing its ultimate limit?

There are works you can see, other you can only imagine. The exhibition ends with an invisible interactive labyrinth where my friend, my invisible boyfriend (he didn’t pay the entrance!) and I had fun.

I would suggest a visit, if nothing else to see how your imagination is able to fly.

Hayward Gallery: INVISIBLE: Art about the unseen 1957 – 2012 until 5th August 2012