Washington, DC

Ana Mendieta

At the conclusion of “Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972–1985” was a small 1981 drawing in acrylic, Silueta de entrañas (La voladora) (Silhouette of Entrails [The Flyer]). At first glance, the work was far from the most engaging or important in the show; indeed, here it seemed small and insignificant relative to many of Mendieta’s other pieces, especially the massive, tree-trunk-like, untitled wooden sculptures from her “Totem Grove” series of a few years later, featured in an adjacent gallery. But the drawing’s morbid title and jagged-edged figure, limned by a curvilinear outline that evokes ghosts or mummies, provided a smart rhetorical device, a purposeful grammatical slip, an ellipsis at the end of the exhibition instead of the period one expected. By apparently shunning proper curatorial grammar, curator Olga M. Viso made clear the subtle premises of Mendieta’s work: No piece is an end in itself; each is part of a larger whole; the larger whole is incomplete; this incompletion is not the result of death (Mendieta’s untimely demise in 1985 too often shadows any discussion of her oeuvre) but the condition of the work’s being; and this ontology is synonymous with the morphology of the artist’s body.

During the thirteen years spanned by this exhibition of more than one hundred and fifty works (including photographs, drawings, films, slides, and sculptures), Mendieta’s art always directed attention back to her body, whether she was physically present in the final image or not. In the former category is the artist’s self-pronounced “first” entry in her signature “Silueta” (Silhouette) series, Imagen de Yagul (Image from Yagul), 1973, a color photograph in which she lies naked in a pre-Hispanic tomb at the Mesoamerican site of Yagul in Mexico, her face and most of her supine body shrouded by strategically placed sprigs of delicate white flowers. In the latter category are the hundreds of works in which a silhouette-like imprint of her body has been “inserted” (Viso’s term for Mendieta’s physical interactions with the earth) into a variety of natural settings or materials—pressed into grass in an Iowa field, etched into a tiny leaf, or carved into rock in her native Cuba (Esculturas rupestres [Rupestrian Sculptures], 1981). This exhibition’s wall texts and catalogue essays reiterated the commonly heard mantra, one initiated by the artist herself, summarizing the inspiration for this work: that her bodily “interventions in the landscape,” to use Viso’s phrase, were metaphorical attempts to reunite with the land from which she had been displaced. The biographical facts are that Mendieta and her older sister were sent by their parents to the United States from Cuba in a 1961 Operation Pedro Pan airlift. She was allowed to return only after nineteen years in exile, the first five of which were spent in Iowa foster homes (her mother and younger brother came to America in 1966; her father, imprisoned in Cuba for his political activities, arrived only in 1979).

In featuring many of Mendieta’s “silhouettes,” of course, the exhibition also suggested a number of ties to other themes, including feminism (goddess culture in particular) and non-Anglo-Saxon cultural traditions (including Afro-Cuban), as well as to art-historical movements such as Conceptual, Land, and performance art. But the real surprise in the show was the curatorial emphasis on Mendieta’s graduate years at the University of Iowa in the 1970s, particularly the period between her first master’s degree (in painting, 1972) and her second (in mixed media, 1977). During nearly half of the period covered by the exhibition, in other words, Mendieta was officially a graduate student, and roughly a third of the items on view were produced during this time. Once one reaches the end of the show, however, the significance ascribed to these student years makes perfect sense, since it was during that innovative phase that she laid the foundation of her work, in terms of media (body, blood, gunpowder, in addition to film, paint, and traditional drawing materials), approach (live performance), and concept (the insertion and/or intervention of her body in the landscape).

Significantly, the “backbone” of the mixed-media graduate curriculum at the University of Iowa was Hans Breder’s famed Intermedia Program, where Mendieta was exposed to the Viennese Actionists (Breder had brought photo documentation of their work from Germany) as well as to a stream of visiting artists and writers, including Willoughby Sharp, Vito Acconci, Lucy Lippard, Lynda Benglis, Luis Camnitzer, Mary Beth Edelson, and Liliana Porter. Additionally, and just as important, Breder taught his students to follow a tripartite process when working: formulate a proposal, execute it, and document it. Through both aspects of the program, Mendieta was introduced to work foregrounding the notion of incompleteness, which she achieved in her own practice mainly by documenting performances in photographs and films. While a commonplace today, in the mid-’70s the idea that material documentation was as important as live performance was relatively new and just beginning to overturn the myth that performed works were only “about the moment.” It had been artists during the 1960s who first recognized that from the moment they stepped in front of an audience—even if that audience consisted only of a camera—their actions did not represent discrete works but rather carried equal weight, albeit distributed differently, with their representation and circulation in the photography, film, or video that carried the actions into the future. These documents were part and parcel of the enacted work, both assuring that their story stayed open to interpretation and largely preserving the tactile or haptic quality of the originating actions.

Mendieta adopted this premise with vigor, making thousands of slides, close to eighty Super-8 films, and seemingly countless photographs of her performances. Sometimes the slides and negatives were printed; often they were not. Either way, their very existence insists that Mendieta’s work, in all its apparent ephemerality, was then, is now, and forevermore will be incomplete and, therefore, tactile in sensibility. If the tactility of the objects on display in the exhibition did not immediately register with viewers (for its apprehension takes time), reading Chrissie Iles’s excellent catalogue essay on Mendieta’s films should prompt subsequent reflection on he importance of this sensation. Iles points out the intensely textured quality of the films, going so far as to liken them to “celluloid cast[s] of Mendieta’s presence.” The exhibition’s installation also supported this reading, as many of Mendieta’s films (eleven were featured) were shown continuously, each one placed strategically in a room alongside related yet static works. On one wall, for example, one could watch Sweating Blood, 1973, in which Mendieta stares ahead, unflinching, as blood that had been applied to her hairline begins slowly to drip down her brow. Nearby was a series of photographs, Untitled (Facial Cosmetic Variations), 1972, in which Mendieta seems to presage Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, 1977–80, distorting her face with heavy makeup, wigs, and torn nylons pulled over her head. Documents displayed in a nearby vitrine established ties to other artists such as Robert Smithson, whose 1969 Artforum article on his Yucatán mirror displacements lay open, featuring a claim Mendieta easily could have made about her own work: “The displacement was in the ground, not on it.”

The overwhelming moments I ultimately experienced with the “Silueta” series here, however, led me to a disheartening conclusion regarding her later work: By the time Mendieta’s life ended, she was drawing on a personal image bank that was just about dry. The permutations of anthropomorphic shapes began to blur in my mind, despite, or perhaps because of, the variation of materials used. Those tree trunks from the “Totem Grove” series, for example, stood out as decorative, if not unchar- acteristically zany. The sculptures, each standing between five and seven feet high with generic, bodylike images burned into them with gunpowder, seem to have come out of nowhere—or, rather, they emerged upright out of the customary horizontal orientation of Mendieta’s previous work. (Even after the ninety-degree shift from floor to gallery wall, most of her early work implied an “originally” horizontal position). This unexpected and inexplicable verticality, along with the stylized, graphic quality of the images, exuded an almost cartoonish quality here. And so the exhibition’s pulselike power gave way to a flatline in this viewer’s brain. More than one critic has remarked on the contrived appearance of Mendieta’s later work, and Viso notes that the plethora of small drawings produced after 1981 represented the artist’s attempt to make marketable works and secure gallery representation. Of course, economic issues are not always the cause of an artist’s work turning stale, but they can certainly confuse direction and obfuscate new paths to pursue. However this personal observation is a negligible footnote in so many ways, not the least of which is that Mendieta continues to be an important beacon for emerging artists. Her work teaches artists to “fly” with their ideas, engage with their materials physically, and hold fast to the documentation that will evoke its tactile quality well after the performance—or the life—ends. This continuing influence provides one more sense in which Mendieta’s work is incomplete, making Viso’s risky choice of an “ending” for a retrospective that is indeed crucial for the artist’s legacy all the more brilliant.

Kathy O’Dell is Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.