Los Angeles

View of “Anna Maria Maiolino,” 2017, MoCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. Foreground: Entrevidas (Between Lives), 1981. Photo: Brian Forest.

View of “Anna Maria Maiolino,” 2017, MoCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. Foreground: Entrevidas (Between Lives), 1981. Photo: Brian Forest.

Anna Maria Maiolino

View of “Anna Maria Maiolino,” 2017, MoCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. Foreground: Entrevidas (Between Lives), 1981. Photo: Brian Forest.

FOR THOSE FAMILIAR WITH THE HISTORY of feminist exhibitions in the United States, the blown-up photograph at the entrance to this retrospective of the work of Anna Maria Maiolino was a familiar sight: a shot of three dozen eggs randomly placed on a cobblestone street, with a human walking across the scene. Captured midstride, with all but calves, ankles, and feet cropped from the frame, the figure delicately navigates the fragile shells filled with life matter. Taken from the Brazilian artist’s series “Fotopoemação” (Photopoemaction), 1973–, this picture is part of a triptych, another image from which formed the cover of the catalogue accompanying the pioneering 1996 show “Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art in, of, and from the Feminine.” It encapsulates a constellation of themes that characterize Maiolino’s multifaceted oeuvre: the body and geometry, reproduction and food, care and physical threat.

Anna Maria Maiolino, Glu Glu Glu . . ., 1967, woodcut, 26 × 19".

The retrospective, organized by Bryan Barcena and Helen Molesworth at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, on Grand Avenue, charts the artist’s practice from the 1960s to the present across painting, photography, film, performance, and installation. What is perhaps most compellingly shown in the exhibition is the artist’s work with paper and clay. Like other Brazilian artists of her generation, Maiolino made transfer prints, initially using paper exclusively as the support for an image. Among these, in the “Mapas Mentais” (Mental Maps) works, 1971–76, Maiolino often uses the classical grid, infusing that abstract, homogeneous structure with linguistic references at once personal and political. In the minimalist Eu (I), 1971, for example, seventeen repetitions of the Portuguese first-person pronoun are scattered across a checkerboard outline in a manner that evokes Concrete poetry of the ’50s and ’60s, while Capitulo II (Chapter II), 1976/1999, features a grid inscribed with English nouns and adjectives that refer to political events (dictatorship) as well as emotions(fear, pain, despair). Yet a body of work involving layered paper mounted in boxlike frames, the “Desenhos Objetos” (Drawing Objects), 1973–76, is Maiolino’s greatest contribution with this material. For two 1975 constructions from this series titled Linha Solta (Loose Line), Maiolino tore ovoid holes from several sheets of monochrome paper, then stacked these sheets one atop the other, creating a roughly five-inch-deep crater. At the bottom, a carefully placed piece of thread suggests a horizon line, while a second strand dangles loosely from the same bottom layer. In other works from this group, Maiolino manipulates her support in additional ways—cutting, folding, or sewing it—as if reveling in paper’s various material states. Across these pieces, one witnesses how paper edges turn into openings (rather than boundaries) and how surfaces conjure (rather than occlude) the hidden insides of things.

Throughout her practice, Maiolino has explored the reciprocal relations between interiority and exteriority—of the subject and of matter.

Throughout her practice, Maiolino has explored the reciprocal relations between interiority and exteriority—of the subject and of matter—including in works that explicitly engage the body and language. In her film In-Out (Antropofagia) (In-Out [Anthropophagy]),1973, we find a sequence of close-up images of lipstick-covered female and male mouths in a range of expressive appearances—smiling, grimacing, exhaling smoke. Accompanied by a soundtrack of distorted vocals,the mouths also engage with props, such as tape, tangled thread, and an egg. As its title suggests, the work refers to “anthropophagy,” the cannibalist ethos so key to modernist debates in Brazil in the ’20s and recovered by artists in the ’60s. But its insistence on the bodily basis of speech also suggests the influence of Antonin Artaud, who developed a model of speech that emphasizes its corporeality. Indeed, by the ’70s, Artaud’s ideas had been circulating in Brazil for some time: The French avant-gardist’s Brazilian reception can be traced to the late ’40s, in the work of psychiatrist Nise da Silveira, as well as that of Neo-Concrete poet and theorist Ferreira Gullar, though it wasn’t until filmmaker Glauber Rocha’s conceptualization of an “Aesthetics of Hunger”—a theoretical framework evoked both in the MoCA exhibition and in its attendant catalogue—that Artaud’s ideas gained more visibility. (It is likely here that Maiolino encountered his thought.) Crucial for Artaud, as for Rocha, was an understanding of hunger not as a literal condition or societal symptom, but as a transformative force for culture. In 1938 Artaud urged his readers “to extract, from what is called culture, ideas whose compelling force is identical with that of hunger”—a set of concepts that emerge throughout Maiolino’s work.

Anna Maria Maiolino, Linha Solta (Loose Line), 1975, thread on paper, 21 1/2 × 14 3/4 × 5 3/8".

To that end, Maiolino’s early work frequently engages with food and, more specifically, its transformation. Two works from 1967, each titled Glu Glu Glu . . .—one a three-dimensional relief, the other a woodcut—portray a featureless figure with a gaping mouth and white teeth. Whereas the relief includes colorful three-dimensional shapes that represent digestive organs beneath the figure’s torso, the print displays a tabletop with food and a pipe leading to a toilet in the composition’s lower half. This blunt reference to food’s alimentary mutation into feces introduces a theme of physical transformation also present in Maiolino’s later work with clay, in which she explores materiality’s impingement on the meaning of form. Estão na Mesa (They Are on the Table), 2017, for example, is a gridlike array of variously shaped lumps of unfired brown clay that simultaneously recall bread rolls and pasta—again drawing attention to food as life’s sustenance—as well as evoke excrement. Maiolino further complicates the oscillating associations between consumption and excretion by emphasizing her work’s material vitality. Her excessive, quasi-taxonomic tabletop display reads as an affirmation of the various things that clay can do: It coils; it creates loops and lines; it rolls, clusters, and cracks. The installation demonstrates “how matter comes to matter,” to evoke feminist theorist Karen Barad, as well as the visible slippages between a serial form and the individual ways in which it is realized in Maiolino’s hands.

Anna Maria Maiolino, In-Out (Antropofagia) (In-Out [Anthropophagy]), 1973, Super 8 transferred to video, color, sound, 8 minutes 14 seconds.

MAIOLINO’S WORK draws on her personal experiences as an emigrant and a mother, often imaging or alluding to her physical person and biography, as in Por um Fio (By a Thread), 1976, which pictures the artist sitting between her mother and daughter, all three generations united by a thread that extends from mouth to mouth. Molesworth highlights these themes in her catalogue essay, writing, “Maiolino was acutely sensitive to these displacements of language, food, and culture.” The artist, who was born in Italy, emigrated in the aftermath of World War II to South America, first to Venezuela and then to Brazil; she also lived in New York between 1968 and 1971. Each displacement entailed shifts in language and culture, just as her roles as artist and mother establish different types of productive time. Of course, this biographical information helps us gain a deeper understanding of Maiolino’s practice. Take, for example, Monumento à Fome (Monument to Hunger), 1978/2017, which displays sacks of rice and beans. Not only does this work highlight the association between food and hunger present throughout her work, it is also culturally specific: Rice and beans are staples of the Brazilian diet.

View of “Anna Maria Maiolino,” 2017, MoCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forest.

But too often in the catalogue, biography takes precedent over art-historical method. Molesworth asks: “What knowledge does [Maiolino’s] careful combining of the subject positions of mother and artist make possible?” The question is an important one, and we know that Maiolino produced the drawings of Entre Pausas (Between Pauses), 1968, during the in-between moments of childcare, offering everyday depictions that wryly comment on gender relations. In her essay, Molesworth also describes Maiolino’s status as a single mother who found time to create art while working at a textile factory in the ’70s. Yet Molesworth’s framing risks implying an essential connection among all mothers: At times, she seems to suggest the possibility of a universal cross-cultural maternal knowledge (Molesworth even invokes her own mother, as well as her mother-in-law, who, like Maiolino, is from Italy, thus assimilating Maiolino to her own biography). If one is going to follow Maiolino’s lead and think “binary without hierarchy,” as Molesworth puts it, one should more carefully engage with cultural determinations and class distinctions. (With regard to the latter, in Molesworth’s description of a recent visit to Maiolino’s São Paulo home, the curator mentions the artist’s “lovely cook.” Such a disclosure—that Maiolino employs someone to prepare meals—stands out, yet its implication is different in American and Brazilian contexts.)

Across Los Angeles, at the Hammer Museum, Maiolino’s work also appeared in “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985,” where she was represented by two photographs from the “Fotopoemação” series, three “Mapas Mentais” works, and “É o que Sobra” (What Is Left Over), 1974, a trio of photographs showing Maiolino pretending to cut off her nose and tongue, a work also on display at MoCA. This record of a performance draws attention to the Brazilian military dictatorship by mirroring its violence against the body, an artistic strategy likewise deployed by contemporaries such as Sonia Andrade and Artur Barrio. As the MoCA retrospective makes clear, for Maiolino, the female body is more than a mere receptacle passively accepting the societal violence waged against it. It is, rather, mutable and materially complex, to be explored and affirmed. Hence one of Maiolino’s singular achievements: Her work with abstraction and figuration, with the body and with speech, and thus her implicit refusal of a unified visual language, exceeds any attempt to frame it, demonstrating another kind of radicality in art.

Kaira M. Cabañas is associate professor of global modern and contemporary art at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and the author of Learning From Madness: Brazilian Modernism and Global Contemporary Art (University of Chicago Press), forthcoming in October.