Archaeology of Memory, Berkeley Art Museum
Emblems of the Decade: Borders, Rena Bransten Gallery
The Trumpian Confederacy may be censoring actual, factual history (AKA Biden-Marxist fake news), but the socially liberal art world has embraced the populist, multiracial history of the United States.
One of the pre-eminent artists involved in this paradigm shift is the Bay Area’s Amalia Mesa-Bains, who has championed Mexican identity and culture since the 1970s. and is the subject of a major retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum and a related show—an installation and a set of digital collages on canvas— at San Francisco’s Rena Bransten Gallery. These shows follow a suite of recent museum retrospectives by a quintet of distinguished artists of color: all with ties to the Bay Area: Ruth Asawa, Bernice Bing, Dewey Crumpler, Carlos Villa, and Carrie Mae Weems.
Mesa-Bains, an author, educator, and curator as well as an artist, works in a variety of forms, butt is best known for her multimedia installations. These theatrical assemblage environments conjoin old glamor photographs, postcards, toys, figurines, vintage furniture, shells, ceramic fragments, candles, crystals, mirrors, pearls, broken glass, draperies, gold leaf, dried leaves, rocks, sand, dried flower petals, branches and soil. ‘Voice-over’ quotations are inscribed over the imagery in collages, and in her installations, on the wall, or handwritten in the scattered materials on the floor.
These bricolage shrines to the dead—which commemorate strong-willed culture heroines like the seventeenth -century scholar-nun Sor Inès de la Cruz and the actress Dolores Del Rio—draw on the Mexican tradition of the ofrenda, a home altar created during the Day of the Dead to welcome the visiting souls of deceased family members. Photos of the dead honoree are displayed on the wall surrounded by crucifixes and images of the saints and the Virgin Mary; below, the ancestors’ favorite foods and drinks, along with candles, mirrors and yellow marigolds (cempazuchitl, a flower the Aztecs associated with death) complete the offerings. The Berkeley retrospective features almost sixty works from Mesa-Bains’ long career, including ofrenda along with shrines, altars, codices, and digital-collage prints. The wealth of information may seem daunting, but the artist’s homages are poetic and associational rather than literal and historic. I was particularly taken with the ghostly imagery that seems buried within the antique mirrors; the effect is achieved by abrading the silvering behind the glass surface and fixing the image of the saint or scholar in question so as to appear floating within the vaporous aperture: historical memory confronts the viewer like an apparition.
Mesa-Bains’ profusely decorated shrine installations center on items of antique furniture reflecting the artist’s studies of history, religion, culture, identity, and myth, which merge and collide, illuminating the conditions of the present.
A woman’s vanity or dressing table is the central focus of the anti-Freudian Venus Envy, Chapter I: First Holy Communion, Moments Before the End. In this examination of the virginal role model traditionally inculcated in adolescent Latinas. Surmounted by boudoir cloud of white satin ruching, the white table supports a clutter of artificial pearls, frame photos of young women, perfume bottles and Madonnas, with a suggestive seashell on the floor, but intimations of mortality intrude: a gold and silver skull peep from the half-opened drawers, and revealed in the mirror is the fearsome Aztec goddess Coatlicue, one of whose aspects, Cihuacōātl, "snake woman,” is associated with deaths in childbirth.
Sexual purity is again the subject in The Virgin’s Garden, featuring a hand-painted, moss-bedecked armoire or wardrobe, its half-open door revealing clothing and books inside. Inspired by a fifteenth-century German Renaissance painting, a copy of which is displayed nearby, the piece examines the hortus conclusus, or closed garden, the traditional emblem of female chastity—and especially of the Immaculate Conception— dating from the Song of Solomon: Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus. A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up…. Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.
The liberating education of the female mind during eras of male repression is the subject of The Library of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The seventeenth-century colonial-era Mexican nun and intellectual, who had educated herself in her own library, which came to include four thousand books, hosted a salon in her nunnery of for other learned women; wrote poetry and prose in Latin and Nahuatl on religion, love, feminism and the misogyny and hypocrisy of the dominant male order in a “philosophical satire” entitled Hombres Necios, Foolish Men; and was punished, predictably, for her transgressions by being forced to sell her beloved library and return to traditional duties, dying in 1695 at the age of forty-seven, of plague while tending to her Hieronymite Order sisters. (Octavio Paz postulates that entering a nunnery was the best option available for ambitious, independent women at that time.) Sor Inés’ imagined work table, adorned with books, lamps, musical scores, and manuscripts, is flanked by a small stand being an Aztec figurine, an oil painting of a bespectacled inquisitorial grandee; and a heavy leather-upholstered chair lighted by large candlesticks, all painted gold. Stands of hair lie on the seat of the chair, suggesting the punitive shearing of tresses, or even the pulling out of hair in despair. (A twin of this chair appears, in silver, in the artist’s show on the US-Mexico border at Rena Bransten.) In the mirror above the desk Sor Inés appear, among her books, beneath a radiating pattern of fracture lines in the glass. These cracks were due to an art mishandling error, but the artist, perhaps remembering Duchamp’s embrace of accident in the Large Glass, liked them for their suggestion of a radiant intelligence, albeit one silenced by social duress.
This short article provides only a small sample of Mesa-Bains’ work, which also includes codices and digital collages addressing, among other things, the friction at the US-Mexico border (also in the San Francisco gallery show) and the artist’s recovery from a serious car accident through traditional curandera treatments. Two large sculptures, however, require mention. Cihuateotl with Mirror in Private Landscapes and Public Territories depicts Mother Earth as a voluptuously curvy woman, perhaps a sister to those zaftig Neolithic Venuses, but here covered in moss inscribed with Aztec glyphs for fertility, reclining on a carpet of verdure, admiring herself in a large, ornate hand mirror. It’s an environmentalist/feminist take, of course, with perhaps a poke at property-as-theft rights, of traditional love goddesses inspecting themselves, with the pre-eminent version being Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus. A specific landscape, that of the Rio Grande, is the impetus behind What the River Gave to Me, the title of which must surely allude to Frida Kahlo’s elegiac 1939 painting, What the Water Gave Me. Mesa-Bains’s large sculpture reconstructs the river demarcating the border between the United States and Mexico as a luminous channel cutting through mountainous terrain carrying irregularly blue glass globes or bubbles, each bearing the name of a person who completed the perilous crossing, an illegal or undocumented alien now, but perhaps someday one of the “job creators” that we so fervently revere.