New York

Ana Mendieta

In earth and wood sculptures, rock carvings, drawings, photographs, and performances, Ana Mendieta focused on the condition of being a woman. Woman’s body is conceived as vital flesh throughout her work, whether she created images out of ancient rock or used her own body as the medium. Woman is both life-giver and life-symbolizer, but Mendieta’s brilliance lies in the way her work brings out the inseparability of life and death. For the earth is the place of burial as well as the source of sustenance, and Mendieta’s silhouetting of her body in the earth and her creation of body images from natural materials found in the living body of the earth showed that her work was as much an acknowledgment of death as it was a celebration of life. It is this knowledge of the wholeness of existence that prevents her work from becoming naively vitalistic and, especially since her own death in 1985, gives it a special poignancy.

Nearly every work by Mendieta is a virgin birth and a pietà in one——her parthenogenic emergence from mothering earth and her return to its bosom. That bosom is at once nourishing and withered, as an untitled 1977 work in the “Tree of Life” series suggests. A dead tree trunk, fallen to earth, which will in time reabsorb it, is partially overlaid with a white cloth in the form of a female figure, as though the figure’s shape was the vital force itself, symbolically rejuvenating the tree. Similarly, an untitled 1976 work in the same series shows a dead tree trunk overlaid with flowers, a romantically simple resurrecting gesture. The issue addressed here and in many other works is the vivification of the flesh (which is the title of a painting on tree-bark paper from 1981–82 and a clay-and-earth sculpture from 1982). Sometimes the flesh is shown abjectly mortified, sometimes flourishing; this is especially clear in the “Fetish” series, 1977. Mendieta’s art often takes the form of a peculiar violation of Mother Earth, who has abandoned her, and with whom she is perpetually trying to remerge. Mendieta is a new Persephone remedying Demeter’s abandonment in the very act of acknowledging it. The ultimate, literal reunion with Mother Earth is of course death.

Mendieta’s early works were mostly ephemeral site-specific works or performance art, which now exist only in photographs. In 1976–77, while she was studying at the University of Iowa, she was strongly influenced by the work of Hans Breder, her teacher there. At the time, Breder was creating his body/mirror sculptures, arrangements of one or more female bodies usually partially and provocatively reflected in one or more mirrors at odd angles to them. Mendieta’s work combined the metaphor of the mirror and her own body’s “reflection” in a single sculptural body of earth. Although she began experimenting with drawing in 1981, it was in 1983 that she first “objectified” her earth works as autonomous objects—actual sculptural objects divorced from her own body. These were flat, archetypal figures of mud, on wood bases, floor works that she made for an indoor exhibition. Just before and after, she put such figures on bark or tree trunks, sometimes blasting out their silhouettes—with gunpowder, again suggesting the violence of death lurking in their vital shapes. These figures tend to be more anonymous than specifically female, or abstractly symbolic, free of the heaviness and density of the body and earth, as though it were a soul that was presented. Indeed, they resemble the silhouettes of her earth—body work Anima (Soul, 1976).

Out of the cliché of woman’s earthiness Mendieta has made an art that is simultaneously terrestrial and cosmic, abstract and primitive, personal and universal. It is perhaps overly narcissistic and reductive, hitting the one note of the bodily self over and over again, and abruptly simple. It is in just such unrelenting directness, though, that its power finally lies, a power that articulates the issue of woman’s relation to her mother and that connects with forces greater than either man or woman. This beautifully installed retrospective was a true homage to Mendieta’s memory.

Donald Kuspit