Mexico City

Mónica Mayer, Lo normal (On Normality) (detail), 1978, offset and stamp-pad ink on paper, 25 1/2 × 28".

Mónica Mayer, Lo normal (On Normality) (detail), 1978, offset and stamp-pad ink on paper, 25 1/2 × 28".

Mónica Mayer

Mónica Mayer, Lo normal (On Normality) (detail), 1978, offset and stamp-pad ink on paper, 25 1/2 × 28".

“And all of this is a . . . work of art?” talk-show host Guillermo Ochoa asks artists Maris Bustamante and Mónica Mayer, the two members of Polvo de Gallina Negra (Black Hen’s Powder), on an episode of Nuestro Mundo (Our World) that originally aired August 28, 1987, on Mexican television. Madre por un día (Mother for a Day), the artists’ intervention on the program, involved the temporary transformation of Ochoa into an expectant mother: The artists adorn him with a “pregnant” apron and a crown in honor of the “queen of her house—until the baby is born.” Initially he plays along, claiming to have food cravings and yelling, “It moved!” in a high-pitched voice. Toward the end of the segment, however, he seems to grow uneasy, particularly after Mayer brings out a doll to which one can direct previously unexpressed sentiments toward one’s mother. “I told you [the audience] we were not going to understand anything,” Ochoa says hastily, reaching for his pregnant apron. “May I take it off?” It would seem he’s realized that campy humor has not wholly undermined the artists’ (temporary) reassignment of his gender. “After a break,” he reassures the audience, “the macho of this program will return.”

Polvo de Gallina Negra is one of several collaborative feminist projects featured prominently in “Si tiene dudas . . . pregunte” (When in Doubt . . . Ask), Mayer’s first retrospective. Indeed, curator Karen Cordero Reiman conceived of the exhibition as a “retrocollective,” in reference to the artist’s habit of working closely with others as well as to her insistence on participation across her entire body of work. The show alternates between jointly and solely authored works, mining a wealth of archival documentation on the artistic and political initiatives to which Mayer has been linked from the 1970s through the present. The artist’s many collages—frequently exhibited as series—have consistently returned, with complexity and ambiguity, to affective inquiries into sexuality, violence, gender roles, motherhood, aging, and intersubjectivity; the trysts alluded to in the “Collage íntimo” (Intimate Collage) series, 1977, are left mysterious, while the more conceptual register of the suite of postcards exhibited as Lo normal (On Normality), 1978, allowed viewers to designate via rubber stamp various potentially amorous partners (“my lover,” “my father,” “a full theater,” “an animal”) and then send them as mail art. Highly personal yet resisting diaristic cohesion, this approach remained intact a decade later in Su lengua tibia (His Warm Tongue), 1990, in which self-portrait and scattered texts float uncertainly on an ambiguous sea.

Yet collaboration has been Mayer’s signature authorial choice, one that has allowed her to intermingle conceptual art with the political aims of feminism. El tendedero (The Clothesline), 1978, inaugurated a series of participatory works in which female viewers were bidden to write answers to questions (“As a woman what I most detest about the city is . . .”) on pieces of paper appended to clotheslines—a conveniently democratic display technique and a reference to domestic work. One year later, Mayer contributed to a project by Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, whom she encountered as a regular at the Feminist Studio Workshop and the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. Making it Safe, 1979, polled viewers about safety for women in their neighborhoods. In group projects, Mayer has undertaken her most trenchant critiques of the construction of Mexican femininity: Polvo de Gallina Negra’s meditations on Bustamante’s and Mayer’s early motherhoods; and projects with her husband, Víctor Lerma, which include marrying him without adopting his last name, as was traditional, and obtaining a fictional divorce (Las bodas y el divorcio [The Weddings and the Divorce], 1980–2015). Mayer and Lerma also formed Pinto mi Raya (Draw My Line, 1989–), an artist-run gallery that morphed into an “applied conceptual art project” that fostered a vast archive of art writings (El archivo, 1991–2015) and a participatory installation on how to achieve utopia (Justicia y democracia, 1995/2016), among other things. Pinto mi Raya’s express intent of “lubricating” the Mexican art system sums up Mayer’s unique social practice: one part nonjudgmental sexual candor, one part cosmopolitan pragmatism.

Daniel Quiles