New York

Ana Mendietta

Ana Mendieta never made big art. She preferred ephemeral means, using her own body as the basis of her work, or turning literally to the ground itself as a medium into which she carved or burned womblike holes or left tracings of her silhouette. Her career spanned just more than a decade, but before her tragic death in 1985 she stood at the epicenter of a movement of women artists who fused their political interests with metaphysical beliefs in an omnipresent female force.

The residue of her practice, the photographs and video segments that were her chief means of presentation, offers highly exotic imagery, but these documents were never intended to do more than point in the direction of her art, which existed in performance. Over too pieces were featured in “Body Imprints and Transformations 1972–74,” an exhibition that focused on early work produced while Mendieta was a graduate student in Iowa. While the low-tech quality of the prints, some of them snapshot-size and mounted on Masonite, lent a vintage ’70s air to the show, the imagery itself couldn’t have been more decidedly and unexpectedly contemporary.

Working with an assortment of prosthetic devices, Mendieta produced several series of photographs in 1972—not as performance documents, but as an end in themselves—that are almost self-portraits, except that in them the artist disappears in transformations that ricochet between monstrosity and androgyny. In one series of closeup head shots, “Untitled (Facial Cosmetic Variations),” 1972, Mendieta is done up as a psychotic fashion victim; with a short synthetic wig and pancake makeup smeared all over her face, she’s tragicomic—she hasn’t got her face on right, and from the looks of it never will. In another series with the same title, in which she poses with a stocking stretched over both the wig and her cosmetic disaster, the pictures display femininity as threatening. In the series “Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints),” 1972, we can hardly make out Mendieta’s image in the gory spectacle of facial features flattened into a hideous ooze and breasts that have aged into pools of sagging flesh. Precisely because they are so repulsive, these specimens of deformity, their identities obliterated, possess a Medusa-like capacity to transform viewers into voyeurs.

As a counterweight to these abject female subjects, Mendieta experimented that same year with androgynous forms. Sculpting her hair into shampoo ’dos that morph and become bubbly beards, she conjures a foam-coiffed Duchamp in Obligations pour la Roulette de Monte Carlo (Monte Carlo Bond, 1924). Bending gender in the series “Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants),” 1972, she is as comely an androgyne as the Mona Lisa in L.H.O.O.Q., 1919. If Duchamp’s sexually ambiguous characters hover in proximity to Mendieta’s she-he hybrids, it’s Cindy Sherman’s menacingly deranged femmes from the mid- to late ’80s who are the progeny of these cosmetically and prosthetically assisted spooks.

Beyond their manipulations of gender, a not uncommon aspect of early feminist performance and body art, Mendieta’s newly discovered photographs are an important addition to a group of works that foreshadow ’90s obsessions with hybridized identity. What sets her 1972 photographs apart is their preoccupation with monstrosity, a precursor to contemporary images of freaks, hybrids, and other life forms that parade in place of the self, for example in the work of Moriko Mori or Matthew Barney. Over the course of three decades, such imagery has simultaneously hosted Goddess-acolyte artists who asked, What lies beneath the veneer of appearances and projections we mistake for truth?, and another school of post-modernists who became fascinated with the veneer. It’s important to acknowledge that, almost as quickly as Mendieta discovered deformity, she abandoned it as a conceit. Her search was for an authentic and original self, one she identified as the maternal source. No wonder that by 1973 and 1974 she had turned from wigs and cosmetics to blood and other organic materials, recognizing the power of these substances to evoke “the real.”

Jan Avgikos