New York

View of “Liliana Porter,” 2018–19. Foreground: Tejedora (The Weaver), 2017. Background: Sin título (Autorretrato con cuadrado) (Untitled [Self-Portrait with Square]), 1973.

View of “Liliana Porter,” 2018–19. Foreground: Tejedora (The Weaver), 2017. Background: Sin título (Autorretrato con cuadrado) (Untitled [Self-Portrait with Square]), 1973.

Liliana Porter

Following a yearlong renovation, El Museo del Barrio reopened its doors this past September. Its return felt like a rebirth uncommon in New York as of late: Rather than allowing itself to be seized and yuppified by financialized capitalism, this essential institution had instead seized and rethought its possibilities, community, and overall scope. Signaling this renewal is a survey of Liliana Porter’s oeuvre (on view until January 27), featuring thirty-five works from nearly fifty years, skillfully curated by Humberto Moro. By forgoing chronological order to focus instead on narrative themes, Moro has avoided a staid retrospective and put forward a strong case for the ongoing vitality of Porter’s art, which was underscored by a newly commissioned theater piece she performed a month later at the Kitchen in New York.

After landing in the city from Argentina in 1964, Porter cofounded the influential New York Graphic Workshop with fellow artists Luis Camnitzer, whom she married in 1965, and José Guillermo Castillo. Throughout the ’60s, she considered herself primarily a “cutting-edge printmaker.” But she shifted gears in 1969 with Sin título (Sombras) (Untitled [Shadows]), a wall of painted, illusionistic silhouettes. By the early ’70s, Porter’s art had turned toward feminist themes, though the dominant, pre-intersectional stance of the movement being promoted in the US didn’t feel inclusionary to her. As Daniel Quiles noted in these pages, the black-and-white photograph Sin título (Autorretrato con cuadrado) (Untitled [Self-Portrait with Square]), 1973, which was prominently exhibited in last year’s “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985” at the Brooklyn Museum, is a crucial “antiessentialist emblem”: a strike at the idea that there’s a fundamental, shared core to womanhood. The stare Porter throws back to the viewer in that piece has always reminded me of Ana Mendieta’s gazes in Untitled (Self-Portrait with Blood), also from 1973. Both artists were taking on the social construction of femininity and of Latin American art through clichés associated with each: blood and geometry.

To now catch Porter’s youthful glare surrounded by her long-running oeuvre is thrilling and feels overdue. It’s also a bit of a roller-coaster ride—a fun one. In a room near the wall of shadows is Tejedora (The Weaver), 2017, a tiny statuette of a hunched woman sitting on a wooden base, contemplating a sewing project she seems to have finally finished: a large swath of rose-colored fabric. The two works couldn’t be more different, but placed in conversation they have volumes to say about how an artist should always be able to change her path, her mind, and her medium whenever she wants. On most of my visits to the show, I found myself crouching down to get a closer look at that diminutive figurine, among others in Porter’s animistic and Lilliputian installations: a man laboring on top of a decaying alarm clock; a woman sweeping a long ribbon of cobalt-blue sand; another man holding a pickax, while yet another paints. What connects all these tiny people? An answer could be found in Matiné (Matinee), 2009, a nearly twenty-minute video of short, comical vignettes made with old-fashioned toys, dolls, tchotchkes, and other fabulous thrift-store finds, which Porter directed with her partner, the artist Ana Tiscornia. In the tragicomic eight-second clip Chicken Salad, for instance, a small wind-up toy bird toddles along and then—wham!—a bunch of lettuce is violently chucked at it. That’s all that happens, and it’s a great lesson on existentialism.

Play, and indeed playing—with humor, norms, and values—has long been central to Porter’s art. Testing time scales has also been part of that, too: Porter has dabbled in prints, photographs, installations, video, and now, finally, live theater. Her genius throughout has been her analytical eye and eschewal of nostalgia. The 2011 color photograph Joan of Arc, Elvis, Che, which is given pride of place near the entrance to this show, features a piece of Brie (a product branded after the martyr) and small busts of the musician and the revolutionary. This acerbic comment on the banality of celebrity, best exemplified by the ultimate tchotchke of our era, Donald Trump, hits the mark in the most unexpected, oddball, and satisfying of ways.