Expressions of a woman, an artist on display

Works of Ana Mendieta at Hirshhorn Museum

ArtReview

October 20, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Ana Mendieta left her mark on the art world of the 1970s and '80s by pressing her naked body into the earth, by covering it with feathers and mud and filming it, by carving its imprint into trees and rocks and setting them afire.

Her art was a continual exploration of the most primal means of mark-making possible using the most primal materials imaginable - earth, water, fire; flesh, blood and bone - to record her oh-so-brief but prolific passage through this world as a woman and as an artist.

Now Mendieta, who died in 1985 at age 36, is the subject of a major retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington.

The show, which brings together drawings, photographs, sculptures and films from every stage of the artist's career, examines how Mendieta incorporated the most advanced art practices of her era - from conceptual art, land art and body art to process and performance art - to create wholly original statements of personal identity and femininity.

Mendieta's tragic death after falling from a New York apartment building inevitably spawned an aura of mystery and intrigue around her life (her husband, sculptor Carl Andre, was acquitted of murder).

But the sensational aspects of her death have also tended to obscure her art. The Hirshhorn show aims to bring the art back front and center by focusing on the seminal decade and a half between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s when Mendieta produced her signature works.

Born in Cuba, Mendieta fled the island without her parents in 1961 after Castro's revolution and lived in a succession of foster homes. Throughout her career she would refer back to the experience of exile (though she eventually was able to return to Cuba in 1980).

The show opens with works from the early 1970s, when Mendieta was a graduate student at the University of Iowa's experimental Intermedia Program, which brought together visual and performing artists from a variety of disciplines.

She had developed a method of imprinting her body on its surroundings by dipping her arms and hands into a mixture of blood and paint and then drawing them across sheets of white watercolor paper. The resulting marks, which resembled both a human body and a tree trunk, are at once striking visual images and documents of a performance as well as records of the process used to make them.

Mendieta documented the making of these drawings in still photos or by filming herself with a Super 8 movie camera, and the Hirshhorn show includes dozens of the photos as well as several of the artist's films transferred to DVD. She also used photos and films to document her performance art, in which she imprinted her body's image onto the earth, immersed it in water or nestled it in the carved-out hollow of a tree.

Sometimes the outline of her body is barely distinguishable from its natural surroundings, and the image itself becomes a kind of metaphor for the unity between nature and humanity.

In other images, the body is merely implied by the shape of an empty cavity scraped into the soft mud beside a stream or scratched on the side of a hill like some ancient, runic graffito.

Mendieta developed her ideas into a series of signature works she called Siluetas, or silhouettes, which could involve the merest abstract contours of the naked female body imprinted on the landscape.

Many of these later Silueta forms have the primitive power of hieroglyphics, invoking the worlds of myth and magic from the pre-Columbian, African and Asian cultures that Mendieta often looked to for inspiration.

This show represents a long-overdue examination of Mendieta's achievements, which straddled all the important artistic currents of her time but which don't fit neatly into any one of them because of the originality of her vision, which was ultimately so deeply rooted in her personal experience as an artist and a woman.

Exhibit

What: Ana Mendieta

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street S.W., Washington

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily (through Jan. 2)

Admission: Free

Call: 202-633-1000

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