New York

Amalia Mesa-Bains

Whitney at Phillip Morris

For the past two decades, Amalia Mesa-Bains has examined ritual space as a site of the production and constriction of feminine identity. Venus Envy Chapter One (or the First Holy Communication Moments Before the End) (all works 1993), was a single-room installation constituting the first of a three-part series that strives to deconstruct the two “feminine identities”—either virgin or bride—that define woman’s place in the Catholic Church.

Hall of Mirrors functioned as both a literal and conceptual frame for Venus Envy. The artist lined the two side walls of the room with mirrors, some of which bore ghostlike images of women in familiar roles—doting mother, reclining Venus—as well as women who have been all but forgotten by history, such as Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun who defied the repressive dictates of the Church by continuing to pursue her studies and write poetry. Underneath the mirrors ran a succession of ink rubbings made from photocopies, traditional representations of women that referenced Mesa-Bains’ axis of virgin/ bride. Next to a few of these images appeared the artist’s handwritten commentary, surprisingly effective, paracritical texts designed to gently unravel the stereotypes presented in the images, which often served to reveal the erotic underpinnings, or the cross-cultural and pagan sources of Church doctrine.

Museum of Memory, five vitrines filled with autobiographical mementoes and kitsch figurines, created an unruly more-is-more esthetic that both grounded and humanized the more theoretical issues raised in Hall of Mirrors. One container displayed items from the artist’s First Holy Communion—photographs, a braid of hair, a document—while another commemorated her marriage. Nearby lay both Communion and wedding dresses, eerily complemented by a coffin-shaped case in which a doll in a nun’s habit lay as if in state. By reconstructing and fetishizing her own experience in these displays, the artist approximated the memory process itself, transforming it into a political tool.

Mesa-Bains’ strategy of politicizing the personal continued in the largely autobiographical Boudoir Chapel. Framed by a baroque sweep of drapery, a dramatically lit vanity table and chair—sparkling with a rosary, perfume bottles, glitter, and dried flower petals—featured personal items as well as objects with wide-ranging cultural references. An adjacent wall held a variety of votive images and objects, as well as images by contemporary Chicana artists. This ensemble honored a private, domestic, and feminine space. By surrounding this vanity-altar on one side with a bank of votive candles, and on the other with a reconstructed confessional, the artist leveled the arbitrary distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the public and the private.

Mesa-Bains’ critical/conceptual approach involves retrieving and rewriting history, not only through a textual critique but through a process of material excavation. Although based on her own experience as a Chicana and Catholic, this installation transcended specific issues to comment, through the language of mirrors and mirroring, on the formation of identity by institutional dictates. In addition to the image-bearing mirrors, some were completely blank, functioning as emblems for the possibility of alternative identities. Here the artist revitalized a tired theoretical paradigm by putting it into play in an undogmatic and unpredictable way, making her artwork into something literally fluid and constantly changing, like identity itself.

Jenifer P. Borum