through January 22
MOCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles
in participation with Pacific Standard Time: La/LA
By Shana Nys Dambrot There is a current of low-key, abstractly conceptual, occasionally intimate, corporeal and performative energy that runs throughout MOCA’s PST LA|LA offering, the first major museum survey spanning roughly 60 years of Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino’s influential presence in the modern art of the Americas. As with many politically engaged artists whose practices take on complex issues of ethnicity, social justice, and gendered cultural agency, Maiolino deconstructs oppressive hierarchies not only on an institutional scale, but in terms of their everyday manifestations in the daily experiences of the disenfranchised.
Maiolino’s personal stylistic penchant for an abstract, reductive symbology renders much of her work both universal and inscrutable — a captivating paradox that rewards a kind of material osmosis more so than a painstaking exegesis. For example, her utilization of architectural motifs in her cut and sewn paper pieces, which resonate with everything from hints at domestic craft to the dominance of whitewashed Brutalist institutional edifices in the power structure, to Russian Constructivism (a movement born of similar circumstance), the avant-garde of mid-century abstract painting, the art history of compositional and materialist surface excavation, and her own personal affinity for cartographic schematics. In fact, map-making is another prevalent motif — one which is quite successful at merging the personal and political, as chronicling and graphing her own life story mirrors the broader social and political forces which buffeted its course.
Her considerable sculptural work in cement and clay also comprises both the architectural/industrial and the intimate/performative. Clay especially always has a certain resonance with the body, from its hand-worked nature to its fleshy contoured heft. In both suites of serial manufacture which celebrate imperfections and variations within a certain aesthetic regularity, and crowd-sourced monumental sites of unfired clay which are both unfixed and also aromatic, the passage of time is marked by evidence of human activity in a kind of animistic industry that again fuses micro and macro cultural expressions inside idioms of craft, architecture, gender, materialism, durationality, and abstraction.
Maiolino’s work is consistently about layers of things — diagramming what is hidden or simply private, what is controlled, what is dangerous political theatre, what are the pressures exerted on the body, on the mind, and how these can be reduced to their essence without becoming unfamiliar. One commonality among all Maiolino’s spheres of activity is the body — it is her site, her muse, her synecdoche, her thesaurus, and her testing ground. Her considerable work in photography, film, and especially performance art necessarily exists in this continuum, and provides a central node in considering the totality of her vision. A major performance work, 1981’s Entrevidas, for example, involved littering a cobblestone street with a field of raw eggs which the artist carefully walked among, barefoot, to describe not only the political necessity to “walk on eggshells” but also the injustice of poverty in a land of corrupt excess.
With works addressing in turn the draconian punishments for being outspoken, rebellious, revolutionary, or progressive on issues from economic to gender equality, as well as the ineffable power source that is the matrilineal heritage between generations of proto-feminists, her least abstract pieces ironically become her most universally accessible. Imagery of violently imposed silence, patience for avengement, and quiet acts of resistance abound in her practice, using both her own and others’ bodies as her touchstones. For this reason, the series of performances recreated during the MOCA exhibition featured not only the artist (now 80 years old) in a staging of Entrevidas, but also contemporary performance artist Rebeca Hernandez in a re-creation of Solitario Ou Pacienca (1976) — transcending documentation in an affecting move that honored not only the artist herself but the promise of intergenerational legacy that resides deep within her work.