I am currently in the process of researching Ana Mendieta in relation to the exhibition Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta, that will be presented at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery September 8ththrough December 12th of 2015. The research I am doing is part of the independent study I am partaking in with the director of the gallery, Howard Oransky, who is also one of the exhibition’s curators.
When meeting with Howard last week, he prompted me to speak of my own body of work and the relation it has with the work of Ana Mendieta. I found myself unable to articulate an explanation to summarize my work at all. I realized that I don’t feel as if I have evolved in my practice to a point of consistency or adamant purpose. While I try to materialize intention in my work and create much of it based on preconceived concepts, many times my work is entirely unfounded, or often cultivated out of assignments. In attempting to draw a connection through my work and in relation with that of Mendieta, I have decided instead to illustrate the progression of influence of my work, culminating with my current investment in Ana Mendieta and her films.
As a child I was always drawn to creating. I was terribly uncoordinated and devoid of social skills as I followed in my highly athletic, and sociable older sister’s shadow. My solace was my artistic ability; it was the one area of my life in which I was consistently praised and encouraged, and it was something I enjoyed and felt comfortable doing. I focused my energy on honing my skills from a young age and exceled beyond my peers, all through grade school, in my ability to render. My conception of art stemmed entirely from classicly realist and impressionist paintings and the pottery my grandmother made. I liked art because I was good at it. I liked the attention I achieved while creating it and I liked the praise I received in producing the end product. The processes of painting and drawing provided for me a mesmeric and therapeutic pastime. I valued art for all of these reasons, and thus I didn’t question the importance of creating art within my life. Yet, I didn’t recognize or feel an innate importance or value in the palpable existence of art beyond surface aesthetics.
In high school my drawing teacher, Robert Elland, introduced us to new artists and styles almost weekly, pairing each artists work with their personal history, their significance, their prolific careers. The artists he presented to us were eclectic and diverse, yet looking back at the years I was under his instruction it is easy to detect a common thread in their work. There were similarities and patterns throughout the artworks Elland selected and they continued in his own work. The influence these artists had on him was evident not only in his practice, but also in the work of the students who passed through the high school under his instruction. It felt as if a much different kind of teaching was taking place than the routines and tricks I had trained with up until that point.
His introduction of Felix Gonzales-Torres’ work made real for me the inexorable response others spoke of in relation to art. Elland vocalized the narrative of Untitled (Ross in LA), Untitled (Perfect Lovers), Untitled (America), and Untitled (1991) and I was amazed at the way Gonzales-Torres transformed the routine and mundane into acute and fervent articulations of feeling and experience. Parallels and metaphors drawn out in his work resonated so deeply with my own experiences. Months later, seeing them executed at the Art Institute of Chicago evoked sensations of redolence and nostalgia that for a fleeting second transported my mind back in time, the way the trace of a scent or a far off sound can do. For a period of time thereafter I remained transfixed on Felix Gonzales-Torres and held onto the way he spoke of his work in an interview with Ross Bleckner, “It’s about seeing, not just looking. Seeing what’s there.”[i] Gonzales-Torres use of such basic and accessible materials and language felt raw, it felt honest and familiar and poignant. The detail expressed through such simplicity completely revolutionized my understanding of art.
Obsessed with these ideas of simplicity, concept and minimalism I became frustrated with my own work, which consisted at the time of acrylic and graphic portraits rendered from photographs. I was conflicted, torn between the comfort of realism, where I was comfortable in my abilities and operated within a clear polarity of good and bad, and the impact of postmodern conceptual art. My aspirations as an artist were again uprooted and reconfigured with Elland’s introduction of Chuck Close, who created portraits like me, who strived for photorealism, but still presented a conversation in his work. Close engaged with photographs differently than the way I had, confronting them while I embraced them. He recognized and emphasized their invariable, monotone depiction of life and played on it exploring different approaches of representation. I began to recognize the significance of intention, scale and context. These ideas appeared manifest to me when I stood beneath his acrylic portrait from 1969,Frank, in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, ironically just a wall away from Santos-Dumon – The Father of Aviation II, an oil painting of similar scale by Kehinde Wiley.
Kehinde Wiley was one of the last artists Elland presented before I graduated. Viewing Wiley’s work in connection to a conversation about his position as a young black male, it seemed to pick up where Close left off. Wiley loaded his work with rich symbolism, but juxtaposed it with a material, commercial aesthetic reminiscent of the familiarity and platitude of the objects Gonzales-Torres employed. I was intrigued with the recurring juxtaposition throughout Wiley’s work. He applied tradition and classical techniques to modern imagery. He presented men of color, who have been deemed by the socially constructed and historically manufactured dominant framework as criminal, divergent, and antithetical to civilization, and positioned them in a visual framework of prestige and glorification. His reconstruction of historical portraits in a commercialized style serve as an oppositional consciousness, recognizing the position of black men in hegemonic societal structures as inequitable, and repositioning them within a new framework. Wiley’s confrontation of socio-political history and engagement in ongoing dialogues on racism and white dominated patriarchy widened my understanding of art’s function, demonstrating yet another way to evocatively communicate through visual means.
Exploring the artwork of these artists in the setting of my high school art room and personally engaging with their work, along with the work of many other artists in the contexts of museums, reconstructed my perception art. It instilled within me a new necessity and importance of art, and expanded my appreciation for and perception of art. Through the study and dialogue on the work of Gonzales-Torres, Close, Basquiat, Wiley, Cindy Sherman, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jenny Saville, I was able to evolve my own body of work, borrowing and applying aesthetics and concepts from each of the artists I studied.
As a result, I entered into my undergraduate degree program at the University of Minnesota with a portfolio that was entirely erratic. It was an amalgamation of photorealist Prismacolor drawings, Rauschenberg-esque painted collage, large-scale oil portraits and minimalist symbolic renderings in charcoal and paint. My frustration turned from trying to fit my body of work within the framework of each artist I admired, to attempting to reduce my work to a singular, personal framework. Recently, I have been painting large-scale oil portraits, experimenting with the entropic quality of color and skin tone. My second major in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies has supplemented my work through its presence as a constant conversation challenging the systems I work within.
Ultimately, I want to embrace the qualities that have resonated for me in the work of all of these artists, and to maintain clarity and focus and embody my own style of work. I want my work to bring forth the emotional response I experience standing in front of the work of Gonzales-Torres or Jim Hodges, and to possess the simplistic, minimalist focus they embody. I want to question and confront the hegemonic framework of society and explore my own oppositional consciousness, cultivating dialogue comparable to the work of Wiley, Saville and Sherman. But I don’t want to relinquish the enjoyment or skill I find in portraiture and photorealism, effectively employed by Wiley and Close.
Studying Ana Mendieta and her work has undoubtedly continued to mold my intentions and perceptions of art. Her work is an example of the intersection between my two academic disciplines. But it is so much more than this to me. It is example of artistic success for me. In Ana’s work I experience a sensation akin to that which arose in me when I first experienced the work of Gonzales-Torres. I view her work and its engagement with the socio-politics of her life and find it stimulating and interesting the way I interact with Wiley’s paintings. Yet it is still more than checking off the qualities I want my work to embody. I think her work is beautiful in and of itself; it’s simple and evocative, but powerful and transcendent. It is universal and all encompassing, yet utterly founded in and unique to her life experiences. Exploring the context in which her art was created and tracing the symbolic mediums and images she used has revealed a layered narrative, personal involvement and intention in her work. Following the evolution of her work it seems unimaginably calculated and conscious, more than likely the polar opposite of how my body of work appears.
I am inspired by her resilience as an artist, her unwavering pursuit of art and the innovative and unconventional quality of her work. Studying her life has illustrated for me an artist I relate to, that represented many of my aspirations in her life and work. My only hope is that, in engaging with and exploring her work, I can begin to embody some of the qualities of it I so admire.
[i] Bleckner, Ross. “Bomb.” BOMB Magazine — Felix Gonzalez-Torres by Ross Bleckner. Bomb Magazine, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.