New York

Cecilia Vicuna, Leoparda de Ojitos (Leopard of Little Eyes), 1976, oil on canvas, 55 3⁄8 × 35 1⁄2".

Cecilia Vicuna, Leoparda de Ojitos (Leopard of Little Eyes), 1976, oil on canvas, 55 3⁄8 × 35 1⁄2".

Cecilia Vicuña

Lehmann Maupin | New York, W 22 Street

Entering “La India Contaminada” (The Contaminated Indian), Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña’s first survey in New York, the viewer encountered Quipu Viscera (Visceral Quipu), 2017. Numerous swaths of unspun wool—dyed various shades of pink, peach, and heliotrope—cascaded from the ceiling, amassing in a fibrous, flesh-colored forest. While the first word of the work’s title refers to the intricate system of knotted cords used by pre-Columbian Andean cultures for accounting and record keeping (a concept that has motivated much of Vicuña’s fiber-based art since the mid-1960s), the second accurately describes the work’s intestinal appearance and bodily appeal. Immersive but not overtly interactive, the long and linty filaments simultaneously provoke and frustrate the desire to touch.

Vicuña’s Quipus have been characterized as “poems in space.” In fact, she is better known as a poet in the United States, where she settled after Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed military coup overthrew Salvador Allende, Latin America’s first democratically elected Socialist leader, in 1973. Vicuña’s visual art is currently having a moment (“La India Contaminada” runs concurrently with her solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Disappeared Quipu,” which is on view through November 25), but as art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson writes in Fray: Art and Textile Politics (2017), her sculptures and installations were passed over by the art world until recently due to their resemblance to handicrafts, the practice of which is historically freighted with connotations of anti-conceptualism, essentialism, and primitivizing nostalgia. Vicuña’s Quipus, however, do not appropriate or attempt to revive indigenous craft traditions, but evoke, in Bryan-Wilson’s words, “indigenous knowledge systems . . . severed by colonial regimes.” If these works hazard a certain fantasy of prelapsarian wholeness attached to the ancient soft technologies of Andean peoples—a reparation of language and materiality, the cogito and the body—this fantasy is speculative, strategic, and bound up in Vicuña’s long-standing commitment to leftist, anti-imperialist politics.

Weaving as a metaphor connects much of the work in the show, from Caracol Azul (Blue Snail), 2017, a fuzzy floor sculpture made from a single unfurling coil of unspun blue wool; to “Los Precarios” (The Precarious Ones), 2018, anti-monumental, provisional constructions of twine and flotsam; to the three-channel video La Noche de la Especies (The Night of the Species), 2009, in which fragments of the artist’s poetry spin into silvery lattices reminiscent of spiderwebs or churning constellations. But Vicuña’s oil paintings from the 1970s really made the show. Rendered in a flat, faux-naïf style that distantly recalls sixteenth-century Latin American colonial portraiture, this body of work was not exhibited publicly until last year’s Documenta, which showcased the artist’s playful yet demonstrative portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Allende. In the marvelous Leoparda de Ojitos (Leopard of Little Eyes), 1976, the titular big cat—spotted with eyes like a feminized, feline Argus, and flanked by intertwined pink and green trees—frankly displays her vulva. In Locomotora (L’Amour Fou) (Locomotive [Mad Love]), 1970, named in part after André Breton’s 1937 novel, five nudes congregate in a blue, horizonless grove, scattered among different species of trees and a silhouetted tank engine. At the time of the painting’s making, its arcadian symbolism might have bridged the aesthetics of Woodstock-era hedonism and Surrealist poetics, recalling Breton’s passage about a “powerful locomotive . . . abandoned for years to the delirium of the virgin forest.” Today, it brings to mind paradises lost, from Chile’s bloody counterrevolution to the planetary emergency of the Anthropocene. It also brings to mind a now-destroyed painting with a similar theme, described in a 1974 journal entry Vicuña wrote while in London: “The military raided my boyfriend’s house in Santiago. They were looking for ‘subversive material.’ They found my paintings. And with a bayonet, ripped one of them, an image of a crossroads where everyone took off their clothes and made love.”