New York

Ana Mendieta

This show, which documents the first seven years of Ana Mendieta’s career, supplements spotty appearances of her work in group shows during the last few years and participates in a general revisioning of her career. Not only was her reputation thwarted during her lifetime, by her position as a Cuban born female artist in a white, male dominated art world, but her work has subsequently been upstaged by the victim status imposed on her as a result of her premature and much-publicized death in 1985. Starting with works made just after Mendieta graduated from the art program at the University of Iowa in 1972, the photographs, slide projections, video, sketchbooks, and installations on view indicate how she absorbed current trends in American art—particularly body art, site specific earthworks, and performance (in one early piece she recreated the scene of a recent rape that occurred on campus) and fused them with elements of her Cuban past. Mendieta had been sent by her parents to the United States at the age of 13 to escape Cuba’s new communist regime; it was through her art, which incorporated imagery and materials associated with the Santería religion, that Mendieta reestablished ties with the culture of her homeland.

In the “Silueta” (Silhouette, 1973–80) series, executed in Mexico and Iowa, Mendieta covered herself with mud and nestled against a tree, lay under a blood-soaked sheet, or buried herself in wildflowers at the bottom of an ancient grave site. Eventually the artist substituted silhouettes of herself or a bulbous female goddess figure, rendered in gunpowder or molded in clay or sand, for her actual physical presence. Whether created in grassy meadows, on riverbanks, or at the edge of the sea, these potent yet ephemeral works, often mere manipulations of materials at hand on the site, were left to fuse with the landscape. Explorations of figure and ground, figures in the ground, and grounded figures, the “Silueta” pieces depict the dissolution of physical boundaries—literally, the contours of the human body—usually associated with death as both natural and inevitable. To come across them must have been like encountering a wood nymph or, benign natural spirit: startling at first, then deeply calming, so comfortably do they inhabit their sites.

In a sculpture entitled Burial of the Nañigo, 1976, recreated here, a woman’s silhouette traced in black voodoo candles is gradually fleshed out as the candles burn down, suggesting that a person only takes on substance as death approaches. Much has been made of Mendieta’s short, tragically aborted life, and indeed it’s hard to look at a work such as Anima (Alma/Soul), 1976, in which fireworks on a bamboo silhouette flare up first as a human form with raised arms, suggesting a cross, and then as a point of light where the heart would be, without seeing it as a metaphor for a creative talent that burned passionately for far too short a time.

Lois E. Nesbitt