Critics’ Picks

Belkis Ayón, La Cena (The Supper), 1991, collograph, 4 1/2 x 10'.

Los Angeles

Belkis Ayón

Fowler Museum at UCLA
308 Charles E Young Dr N
October 2 - February 12

If you have never seen a collagraph by the late Cuban artist Belkis Ayón, her first US retrospective will be a revelation. Created between 1984 and 1999, nearly all of the forty-three works on view are populated by mouth-less mythical characters who face outward to address us, in defiance of their inability to speak—a tension between form and composition appropriate to Ayón’s subject, the Afro-Cuban fraternal society known as Abakuá. The society’s secret rituals and beliefs consumed the artist’s too-short career, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that she was excluded from participating.

Though the exhibition overly emphasizes Abakuá iconography—a recurring white figure, we learn, often represents a sacrificial Eve-like female character in one origin story—didactics do not distract from the graphic power of Ayón’s work. Singular among print processes, collagraphy uses a board as a substrate onto which an artist can affix a variety of materials; the resulting matrix—one example of which is on view—can have a craggy surface that, when inked and printed, transfers both image and embossed texture to wet paper. Across multipaneled prints such as La Cena (The Supper), 1991, the artist tests the limits of legibility and disclosure through dense passages of grayscale patterning.

The scale of Ayón’s work grew larger over time, culminating in prints that behave more like sculpture or architecture, invading the space of the viewer. Such physically and psychically imposing work directly precedes her final print series, made just before she committed suicide at age thirty-two. These relatively small works are intimate and concentrated, both retrospective and introspective. A murky vortex, swirling like an uneasy mind, occupies the center of Hay que tener paciencia (You Have to Be Patient), 1998, while a black form rises up from the soup of puzzle pieces, fish scales, and vines to portend darkness.