The 2016 MFA Thesis Exhibition

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We end every school year at the University of Maryland Art Gallery with the annual MFA thesis exhibition. The MFA thesis exhibition features the work of the Department of Art’s graduate students, and it is the culmination of their three years in the program. The exhibition is always a thought-provoking show and an insightful look into what is going on in the other half of the building. This year’s exhibition, which opened on May 11th, reignited my interest in the artistic work produced at UMD and affirmed the importance of a graduate-level education and training in the fine arts. Spending a few more years honing your craft under the watchful and critical eye of experts in your field results in a refined and thoughtful conception and practice. This show is evidence of that.

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The front of the Gallery features Rural Decay Almanac, an exhibition by the artist Dane Winkler. Rural Decay Almanac is a series of pieces constructed from the fragments of a dismantled 100-year-old barn. Each of the constructions is an exploration and reinterpretation of the source material- its color, form, condition, and use. The work speaks to the material’s long history, as well as its contemporary transformation within the Gallery’s walls. It is this transformation that allows us to interpret and reread the works as both representational and abstract.

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No longer a barn, the piece speaks to many contemporary art trends such as the re-examinations of minimalism, found art, and earth art, as well as the desire to create an immersive artistic experience. What I find most fascinating about Winkler’s work is his play between practicality (the wheel, the medium of wood, the importance of agriculture) and ‘high’ art (an exploration into the geometric form of the circle, the importance of color and perception, the extension of his installation out into the atrium, the value of the archive and documentation of his process). The works exist in the space in between the two, and the viewer cannot help but want to reach out and touch, feel, and turn the wheels (circles) throughout the front gallery’s space.

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In the Liminal, an exhibition by Jowita Wyszomirska, is featured in the back gallery. As the viewer makes their way back, they only see a mere glimpse of the work; and, once they arrive, the impression and atmosphere is transformed as the visitor is completely surrounded by Wyszomirska’s three-dimensional drawings. These three-dimensional drawings reflect Wyszomirska’s process of marking, cutting, folding, erasing, layering, and arranging to create an immersive artistic experience, which blurs the boundaries between drawing, painting, and sculpture. The transition between the two exhibitions is a shift in perspective and experience, and Wyszomirska’s installation only further highlights that transformation.

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An understanding and reinterpretation of medium and form also underpins Wyszomirska’s work. The piece does not speak to the material’s previous life as Winkler’s, but rather Wyszomirska’s skill in manipulating and mastering the form and function of that material. Deep and heavy blacks become light and airy, and both complement and contrast the work’s large swaths of white. The experience is both overwhelming and calming, as if one is at the beach watching dark and ominous storms clouds make their way to the shore.DSC_7129.JPG

Each installation marks the completion of three years of introspective training and practice. We look forward to seeing what these two artists produce next, and we congratulate them on a wonderful exhibition and their graduation from the program.

 

Augmenting the Exhibition: Augmented Reality (AR)

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“Manhua + Manga” exhibit in the University of Maryland Art Gallery. Chinese and Japanese comics and cartoons on display. Photo by John Consoli/University of Maryland.

Augmented reality is a constantly trending hashtag on twitter. It seems that most museums are trying their hands at it these days, and if they are not, they are talking about it. Thanks to the presence of the Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at UMD, the Gallery has been able to experiment with it as well– to some amazing results.

When I began planning my show, I knew I wanted some sort of augmented reality component to accompany the exhibition. In my previous position as a Graduate Assistant in art history, I had the opportunity to experiment with various platforms and apps in the name of research and pedagogy. I have not been a graduate assistant in three years; and because technology years run roughly equivalent to dog years, I was over twenty years behind. I needed to know what was out there and what would work for my show.

After I pitched my exhibition to Quint Gregory, the director of the Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture, he helped me dream up the AR component currently available in the gallery. Guests are invited to borrow iPads from one of our attendants or download the Aurasma application on their smart phones. In the gallery, different objects are “tagged:” they trigger information and images available through the app. Hover the iPad over a cover by Chinese female cartoonist Liang Baibo to hear about her career and see other examples of her work. Interested in the Prange collection and how it came to UMD? Take the iPad over to the last viewing case in Japan. All five of the triggers are marked by small red dots.

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“Manhua + Manga,” University of Maryland Art Gallery. Photo by Thai Nguyen/University of Maryland.

Augmented reality allowed me to add a new layer of information to the exhibition, as well as provided the audience with a different avenue to explore the exhibition. A special thank you to Quint Gregory and the Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture for all their help.

Augmenting the Exhibition: Pop-up Library

One point that kept sticking in my mind throughout the curatorial and exhibition design process was the functionality of these objects. These objects now live in museum and archival collections; and during their stint at the University of Maryland Art Gallery, they are displayed in custom viewing cases. When they were originally printed, however, they were meant to be held, flipped-through, and closely read. It was important to me to acknowledge and convey that origin to the audience.

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Pop-Up Library, Manhua + Manga, Photo by Thai Nguyen/University of Maryland.

For our previous exhibition at the University of Maryland Art Gallery, Timeline: The University of Maryland Art Gallery at Fifty, we worked with the University of Maryland libraries to create a pop-up library in the Herman Maril Teaching and Research Gallery. For Manhua + Manga, we decided to switch it up just a bit. We moved that pop-up library out into the space of the Gallery, and, rather than only feature reference text, we included manga and manhua in various languages from different authors and artists. In the center of the library sits a TV streaming several episodes from the early 1980s made-for-TV cartoon, Astro Boy.

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Pop-Up Library, Manhua + Manga, Photo by Thai Nguyen/University of Maryland.

As a result, visitors to the Gallery could more fully realize the nature of the displayed material. They also could make visual and historic connections between the texts they could browse and those they could only read from afar.

Augmenting the Exhibition: Design

 

As the culmination of my two years at the Gallery, I was invited to propose, curate, and realize a month-long exhibition at the University of Maryland Art Gallery. Currently on view, the exhibition Manhua + Manga features a selection of Chinese and Japanese comics, cartoons, and caricature from the 1930s. I curated this exhibition as part of my doctoral dissertation process. My dissertation examines the covers of various journals and magazines printed in Shanghai in the 1930s in an effort to understand the visual experience and landscape of the city.

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“Manhua + Manga” exhibit in the University of Maryland Art Gallery. View of Chinese journal covers. Photo courtesy of John Consoli, Between The Columns, April 2016.

For the exhibition I wanted to explore a tangential subject matter: the connection (or lack of one) between Chinese and Japanese comics during this period. It was important to me to show that these two mediums, China’s manhua and Japan’s manga, were distinct and rooted in local conditions, as well as drawing attention to the various transcultural flows between the two countries. China and Japan have a long history of shared cultural exchange, and this continued into the 1930s even under the threat of war.

How could I make this happen in a way that was respectful to the objects and cultures involved? I proposed to my supervisor “splitting” the Gallery in two: China on one side and Japan on the other. In this sense, the visitor could make their own connections while appreciating the differences between the two. During this initial discussion, he proposed constructing a map to display the objects upon. In place of traditional podiums, we would build tables that mimicked China’s coastline and Japan’s archipelago. To make this happen, we hired artist and designer Rob Hackett, a recent graduate of UMD’s MFA program. After a few meetings, the exhibition was sketched out and viewing cases ordered.

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“Manhua + Manga” at the University of Maryland Art Gallery. Chinese and Japanese comics and cartoons on display. Photo Courtesy of John Consoli, Between The Columns, April 2016.

The design of this exhibition is my second favorite aspect of the show- second to the objects on display. (The pop-up library and the augmented reality component are a close third.) When the visitor enters the Gallery, they can either go to the left, the right, or proceed down the middle of the room between the two display tables. If he or she chooses the latter, he or she is standing in a figurative East China Sea. From there they can examine the work of each country as separate and distinct, as well as grasp the cultural proximity between the two art forms. To further reinforce the geographical context, we placed labels and dots closely approximating the artistic and publishing centers of Shanghai and Tokyo.

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“Manhua + Manga” at the University of Maryland Art Gallery. Chinese and Japanese comics and cartoons on display. Photo courtesy of John Consoli, Between The Columns, April 2016.

2015 MFA Thesis Exhibition

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UMD students viewing Hackett’s work from different angles.

The last show of the academic year, as it is every year at The Art Gallery, is the annual MFA thesis exhibition. It is always interesting to see what our neighbors in the building are up to, but it is also bittersweet. These talented artists are moving on to bigger and better things. Before they go, however, they leave us with their final statement as graduate students: The 2015 MFA Thesis Exhibition.

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Hackett and his work

This year’s exhibition features the work of artists Rob Hackett, Aydin Hamami, and Steve Williams. When visitors first enter The Art Gallery, they are greeted by Hamami’s work to the right, William’s to the left, and Hackett’s in the back gallery. For Hackett, it was important to alter the physical space of the Gallery and the experience of the viewer, and one piece consumes the entirety of the back gallery. It consists of wood blocks suspended on metal cables attached to wall brackets. The contrast of the warm wood blocks and the hard metal cables and brackets give the work both a heavy and light feeling. It reads gentle and delicate like a summer hammock swaying softly, as well as hard and heavy like the elements of a construction site ready for a build. The latter reference to urban life was influenced by the artist’s time in Pittsburgh, a city known for its numerous bridges.

Hackett invites and encourages his audience to walk in and around the work and to absorb it from differing vantage points. Visitors can be seen stepping in and around cables as they attempt to navigate the space without disturbing the piece.

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Hamami and his work

The inspiration of city life and urban space continues throughout the exhibition. In Aydin Hamami’s work, the artist utilizes various non-traditional materials to create large abstract paintings. Most notably Hamami’s use of tar plays upon viewer’s expectations and perceptions of a painting. The tar, shiny and heavy against the warm colors of the painting, is reflective. As the viewer gets close to examine the work, they unexpectedly come across their own partial and distorted image

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Hamami and his work.

The tar is but one of the many layers of materials in Hamami’s works. As a result, each piece has a depth of color and texture, but the overlay of strong materials such as the tar often disrupts this feeling. The piece once again is flat, a two-dimensional and hard-edged painting. In the Artist Round Table, Hamami noted that his work is often about the process, in particular his discovery and experimentation with new and unconventional materials. Each work reveals Hamami’s intimacy with his materials, and his hand is always evident allowing the subject of his pieces to toe the line between abstract form and artistic process.

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Williams and his work

The third artist featured in the MFA show is Steve Williams. Williams’s work is a series of large photographs of everyday miniscule objects enlarged and centered on a white background. These small objects were collected by Williams on the walk from his home in Takoma Park to UMD’s College Park campus. After Williams had collected a series of objects, he began to photograph them.

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Williams and his work

In the Gallery space the photographs take on religious and sacred connotations due to their scale, lack of context, rich color, and method of display. This aspect can most literally be seen in the works featuring religious imagery such as the Virgin of Guadalupe or the Shroud of Turin. More surprisingly, however, it is the works that lack these overt religious references that appear the most iconic. An enlarged piece of small, blue plastic becomes monumental through Williams’s process, and its simple form becomes totemic.

Each artists’s work is different from his peers, but all manage to speak to one another through their interest in space and form. If you want to see the exhibition, stop by The Art Gallery by May 22nd. The Gallery is open from 11:00 am – 4:00 pm Mondays through Fridays and select Saturdays.

-Madeline L. Gent, Graduate Assistant, The Art Gallery

Streams of Being: A First Look

The Art Gallery is currently hosting the exhibition Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. Curated by Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Abigail McEwen, and University of Maryland graduate students, the exhibition features forty-five artists from sixteen countries across the Americas. To commemorate and celebrate this unique exhibition and collaboration between the Art Museum of the Americas of the Organization of American States and The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, various University of Maryland graduate students and undergraduate students have taken over our blog. Below, University of Maryland senior Stephanie Gaither recaps the exhibition’s opening.

A First Look
Stephanie Gaither ’15

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The Art Gallery’s Taras Matla addresses the crowd at the opening. Photo by Madeline L. Gent

On March 25th, 2015, The Art Gallery presented the exhibition Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. Despite earlier previews and some familiarity with the pieces, nothing could beat the feeling of seeing the complete installation for the first time.  Perfectly situated, the artworks create a balanced and harmonious ambiance that guides the visitor throughout the space, sustaining a steady excitement and emotional response through each of the four areas. The opening gathered students, faculty, artists, and art enthusiasts on campus to enjoy the wide selection of objects. Taras Matla of The Art Gallery, Andrés Navia of AMA, and Professor Abigail McEwen all spoke briefly at the opening “We were thrilled to partner with the Art Museum of the Americas, home to one of the preeminent public collections of modern and contemporary Latin American art,” McEwen later stated.  “This exhibition was a true collaboration between AMA and The Art Gallery and one that we hope to advance in future years.  I was delighted to see so many students at the opening, and I hope that the exhibition continues to draw the campus community to the Gallery in the next month.” Close to 200 people attended the opening reception.

A few days later, I had the pleasure to interview some of the students in Professor McEwen’s undergraduate colloquium who attended the opening. Lindsay D’Andelet declared, “I thought that the opening was very interesting; there were a lot of people there including the director of AMA. Walking in the gallery was really cool, because I was one of the first people here and the first thing that I noticed was the large piece on the back wall which drew me in.” Sibia Sarangan, a student and the Gallery’s Collections Management and Research Intern, stated, “The opening was really successful in my opinion. A lot of people showed up from different demographics– students, members of the community, and everyone seemed to really enjoy the art. The exhibition was the result of collaboration between a lot of different people and institutions such as the Art Museum of the Americas and The Gallery here at the university. I think it was a great success and everyone seemed to be either interested in the streams and how the different pieces are connected with each other.” Most people seem to agree that the opening was a success, and are all very excited to have more people visit the show this month!

Stephanie Gaither is a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is majoring in government and politics, and economics. Her interests include traveling, reading, and visiting art museums.

Dust and Ashes: A Poetic Reaction to Berni’s Imaginary World

The Art Gallery is currently hosting the exhibition Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. Curated by Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Abigail McEwen, and University of Maryland graduate students, the exhibition features forty-five artists from sixteen countries across the Americas. To commemorate and celebrate this unique exhibition and collaboration between the Art Museum of the Americas of the Organization of American States and The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, various University of Maryland graduate students and undergraduate students have taken over our blog. Below, University of Maryland senior Angela Seo-hyun Cho employs poetry to analyze and interpret a work featured in the show.

Dust and Ashes: A Poetic Reaction to Berni’s Imaginary World

Angela Seo-hyun Cho ’15

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Antonio Berni, Ramona, 1965, Xilo-Collage Relief, 14.75 x 10 in. AMA | Collection OAS Art Museum of the Americas

Antonio Berni fixated on two subjects, Ramona Montiel and Juanito Laguna, beginning in the mid-1950s. What was it about these two characters that so enchained him to their existence? One of these characters, Ramona, is on display in The Art Gallery. The artwork is black and white, slightly raised as to give it a three-dimensional appearance, but still almost cartoon-like and eerie. Berni might have appreciated a poetic rendition of and reaction to his many studies of the characters Juanito, a poor boy struggling to survive in an industrial shantytown, and Ramona, a working-class girl turned high-class prostitute, selling her body and soul.

Here follows my poetic take on the world of Ramona:

Dust and Ashes

Is poor so poor or rich so rich?
As far black as blackness goes or as far light as lightness goes,
you dig and build empires of dust all around you

So, is dust then so delectable and so palatable to your lips
that you should guzzle it down and stuff it down your throat?
Why are you so unquenchably hungry?

You fill your belly with dust and excrete human ashes
And you use the excrement to fashion ornaments
And figurines that resemble the echo of love

And you decorate your empires with lace and pearls,
and paint the towns with black ashes,
all the while licking off more dust from the sides of cars, buildings, anything you can find

But, alas, the empire rocks to and fro and finally, collapses on top of you:
Shards of wealth pierce you in between your second and third rib.
You choke on your own excrement and you violently cough up rubies and emeralds

And you wonder what happened to your soul
And you realize your soul was made dust too
And you ate it 634 days ago when you forgot that
To be unimaginably rich is not always rich
and to be desperately poor is not always poor.

I leave you with some questions. From whose perspective does this poem come from? And secondly, what is your personal interpretation of this poem? Of Berni’s work?

Angela Cho is a senior at the University of Maryland. She is studying english literature and is interested in art of all forms.

Strange Fruit: The Banana in the Americas

In anticipation of our current exhibition Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas, The Art Gallery’s blog featured posts from the University of Maryland graduate students who curated the show with their professor Abigail McEwen, Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology. Below is the final graduate student post. Please stop by The Gallery before the show closes on April 25th!

Strange Fruit:

The Banana in the Americas

Tyler Shine

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Antonio Henrique Amaral, Banana, 1971, oil on canvas 66 3/4 x 50 1/2″ AMA | Collection OAS Art Museum of the Americas

Several rows of green and yellow bananas greet shoppers at my neighborhood grocery store in Washington, D.C. Stocked in groceries across the country, the banana is a familiar fruit that calls little attention to itself. But in a series of paintings made between 1968 and 1975, the Brazilian artist Antonio Henrique Amaral (b. 1935) transformed the humble banana into a monumental subject. Conjuring up associations to warmer climates, exotic bodies, and perpetual leisure, the banana has become a strange, but vivid metaphor for micro-histories of commodity markets, migration, popular culture, global economic regulations, ecological issues, and even the performing arts.

In our graduate seminar last semester, we discussed the physical and conceptual boundaries that mark the experiences of exile in Latin America. In this post, I explore the multiplicity of meanings embodied by the banana, particularly as it represents the landscape/body of the Americas. “Bananas are so common that they are almost invisible,” historian Virginia S. Jenkins remarked in Banana: An American History.[1] What forms of agency belong to this ubiquitous and allegorical fruit?

I began my research on Amaral’s paintings with a visit to the archives at the Art Museum of the Americas (AMA) where I found, in the artist’s file, an unexpected pamphlet for the Ninth Annual Banana Festival in the twin cities of Fulton, Kentucky and South Fulton, Tennessee. This slim volume led me to think about the ways in which the banana has continued to connect the United States and several Latin American countries. The banana arrived in the Americas from Asia by way of Africa, on ships of sixteenth-century Portuguese explorers. Bananas were a luxury import until the late nineteenth century, but the advent of new technologies – steam-powered ships, refrigeration, canning, and boxing – allowed tropical fruits to become widely available on the world market. The banana became popular in the United States following the Centennial Exposition (Philadelphia, 1876), which included a forty-acre display of “orange trees, a banana plant, date palms, wax plants, century plants, sago palms, fig trees, orchids, and pineapples.” As Jenkins explains, “The banana plant was so popular that a guard had to be posted near it so that visitors would not pull it apart for souvenirs.”[2]

Amaral developed his large-scale banana paintings in two phases. The first (1968-72), broadly titled Brasiliana, features solitary clusters of bananas in the green, yellow, and blue colors of the Brazilian flag. Paintings of the second phase (1973-75) are characterized as Campos de batalha (Battlefields). Amaral created the Battlefield paintings while in the United States, where he went in order to avoid censorship from the Brazilian government. These later paintings introduce sharp, metallic objects, such as forks and knives that stab and cut the ripening and rotting flesh of the bananas. In stating, “I reject all repression,” Amaral suggests both the specificity and universality of his artistic project.[3] We can see in Amaral’s banana paintings not only political resonances, but also ecological, racialized, and gendered meanings that reinforce the artist’s affirmative stance against oppression. In the lines that follow, I will briefly address the latter issues of race and gender.

In popular culture, the banana is often conflated with the Latino/a body and the tropical landscape. Sociologist Mimi Sheller, in an article on how the banana connects the complex systems of global transportation, communication and politics, writes that “food…is not simply something we consume; rather, it is a crucial part of the daily routines and actions of bodies through which racialization happens. Bananas contribute to racing space and bodies in several complex and interacting ways.”[4] As a tropical export crop, the banana depends on a racialized labor force of ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ bodies distinct from its presumptively ‘white’ consumer in North America. (This distinction can be problematized if we consider that consumption of bananas in the North does not necessitate a white consumer.) Bananas also figure into evolutionary hierarchies as a food eaten by non-human primates like monkeys and chimpanzees, thus becoming a sign of ‘primitive’ association with animals. Lastly, the banana is sexualized due its phallic shape. In these ways, the tropics manifest a sexualized space inhabited by raced bodies deemed lower on the evolutionary chain of being, bodies that are further sexualized by their association with the banana.

Myra Mendible’s “ironic reference to bananas and buttocks” in the title of her edited volume, From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, “conjures images of banana republics and fertile natural resources—literal and figurative ‘booty.’” Her words connote “a history of U.S. tropicalization vis-à-vis Latin America and evoke the kind of ambivalent desire and disgust that characterizes North-South relations and, by extension, inflects the Latina body as transnational signifier.”[5] (See Ellie’s post on the female body in exile, here.) One embodiment of this tropical, nonthreatening vision of South America was given by the Brazilian actress, singer, and samba dancer Carmen Miranda, whose flamboyant persona served as the inspiration for the United Fruit Company’s creation of Chiquita Banana a half-banana, half-woman cartoon character. With a heavy accent and fruit-topped headdress, she acted as the company’s “friendly face.” Caetano Veloso aptly summarized Brazil’s love-hate relationship with Miranda:

For the generation of Brazilians who…became adults at the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship and the international wave of the counterculture…Carmen Miranda was, first, a cause for both pride and shame, and latter, a symbol that inspired the merciless gaze we began to cast upon ourselves.[6]

The critical self-consciousness Veloso describes is embedded in Amaral’s paintings. Their protagonist is a discursive symbol reflecting nationalist struggles, oppression, economic exploitation, migratory patterns, racial and sexual tensions, subversive politics, and environmental denigration.

 

[1] Virginia S. Jenkins, Banana: An American History (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), ix.

[2] Ibid., 11.

[3] Edward J. Sullivan, “A View from Abroad,” in Antonio Henrique Amaral: Obra em Processo (São Paulo: DBA, 1997), 281.

[4] Mimi Sheller, “Skinning the Banana Trade: Racial Erotics and Ethical Consumption,” in Geographies of Race and Food: Fields, Bodies, Markets (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 292.

[5] Myra Mendible, From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 7.

[6] Ibid., 12.

 

Hybridity and Exile in María Martínez-Cañas’ Photomontage

In the following weeks, a series of guest-blog posts will be published in anticipation of The Art Gallery’s next exhibition, Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. This exhibition has been curated by Professor Abigail McEwen, Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, and Ph.D. students from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland.

Hybridity and Exile in María Martínez-Cañas’ Photomontage

Ali Singer 

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María Martínez-Cañas, Fragment Pieces #4, 1982, silver gelatin photograph, 16″ x 20″.            OAS AMA | Art Museum of the Americas

Last fall, I had the opportunity to visit the archives at AMA to research a handful of artists for Streams of Being.  Each time the archivists brought out a new folder, they reminded me to be attentive to the order of its contents, prompting me to visualize the ways in which we might think of each folder as a fluid text in and of itself.  The loose documents read like the pages of an artist’s book, with pieces added as AMA acquired them.  Yet the narratives nonetheless remain fragmentary, almost like a photomontage.  What I became more interested in as I read and studied each new document, each new trace of some history, were the spaces in-between this narrative.  Michel Foucault, in his text The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), envisions the archive as a way of studying, or constructing the past to shape meaning.  Foucault’s definition allows us to further think about the archive as a space of making.  One of the artists in our exhibition, María Martínez-Cañas, has helped to shape my own ideas about this exhibition through her own work, which acts as just such a constructed archive.  In particular, her photomontage Fragment Pieces #4 fits into a larger artistic narrative in which the medium of photography, and any singular image, is pointedly relegated.[1]  In its place, she often draws on her own histories, both personal and collective, tapping into many of the themes we studied throughout our seminar: exile and diaspora, global and local histories.  Her work strikes a balance between her own biography and the ways in which the objects themselves have meaning and agency, a theme that Raino Isto has explained here.

A topic that we explored in theoretical depth last semester, the theme of exile runs throughout our exhibition.  In this regard, the medium of photomontage has been particularly important to Martínez-Cañas because, as she says, it helps her “to create new memories that have to do with who I am.” Artists have often used the medium as a form of political protest, and Andy Grundberg suggests that perhaps the majority of these artists were also in exile or refugees.[3]  From this perspective, Martínez-Cañas engages her historical ties to a larger network of artists in exile at the level of medium.  We can see the fragmentary nature of her photomontage technique as operating at this initial level: the work exists as a single fragment of a larger narrative of artists in exile linked through this condition of medium specificity.

The images within the piece itself are also significant in their representation of the intellectual trajectory of our class as we shaped this exhibition.  The photographs depict pre-Columbian objects, suggesting a historical and hemispheric link for Martínez-Cañas as a Latin American artist.  The written text above and below the object on the left reads, “That which narrates can make us understand.  The primitive begins alone; he inherits no practice.”  The notion of inheriting practice subtly implies cultural hybridity, whereas “beginning” and “alone” taken together describe points of origin unfettered by outside input.  Cultural hybridity as well as the complex relationship between the local and the metropolitan, as we explored through the work of writers such as Fredric Jameson and Arjun Appadurai, resonated at the fore of our thinking around this exhibition.  Martínez-Cañas’ piece speaks well to these larger themes as the text, visually paired with pre-Columbian objects, engages to one half of the equation: the indigenous.  Yet the text also foreshadows later European conquest, particularly in the use of the word “primitive,” a European notion that relegated indigenous populations to a presumptively less civilized, and thus lower, social standing.

Many of the artists in this exhibition deal with notions of cultural hybridity.  Hybridity implies an initial flow and movement, perhaps due to exile or immigration, or even the liminal condition of the refugee.  Martínez-Cañas was born in Cuba, but she and her family fled to Puerto Rico as exiles shortly thereafter.  Thus, she has lived not only a life in exile but also one defined by cultural hybridity.  She moved to the United States only a few years before she produced Fragmented Pieces #4, a work that frames and augments the feeling of displacement.  The photomontage medium, as adapted in this piece, allows us to imagine the work itself as expressing a kind of hybridity.[4] The image of the book onto which Martínez-Cañas has placed the pre-Columbian images returns me again to the notion of the archive and the experience of flipping through the various fragments contained within each folder, a metaphorical “artist’s book.”  Fragmented Pieces #4 is emblematic of the themes and ideas we explored together as a class and, at a personal level, it registers the ways in which my thinking has been further shaped through the use of AMA’s archives.  My visit to AMA was crucial to my understanding of individual artists work.  Tellingly, it also inspired new creative conjunctions between  an artist, as pieced together by the archive, and the fragmented narratives and cultural fragmentation as experienced by an artist (herself) in exile.

 

[1] Although this specific piece is not included in our exhibition, this work by Martínez-Cañas expresses many of the themes central to our exhibition and guided my thinking during the course of my research in the archives at AMA.

[2] Andy Grundberg, “A Storm of Images: the Photographs of María Martínez-Cañas,” in María Martínez-Cañas: A Retrospective, April 30 – July 28, 2002 (Fort Lauderdale: Museum of Art, 2002).

[3] Andy Grundberg, “A Storm of Images: the Photographs of María Martínez-Cañas.”

[4] Olga M. Viso, “With Feet Firmly Planted,” in María Martínez-Cañas: A Retrospective, April 30 – July 28, 2002 (Fort Lauderdale: Museum of Art, 2002).

Recovering Renart

In the following weeks, a series of guest-blog posts will be published in anticipation of The Art Gallery’s next exhibition, Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas. This exhibition has been curated by Professor Abigail McEwen, Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, and Ph.D. students from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland.

Recovering Renart

Cecilia Wichmann

 

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Emilio Renart, Drawing no. 13, 1965. Ink on paper, 44 x 30 in. Collection OAS AMA | Art Museum of the Americas

 

These untitled drawings suggest . . . that life is a recalcitrant force, not to be contained or defined by attributes given it by the human mind.

-Benjamin Forgey, The Sunday Star, December 5, 1965

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Entrance to “La Casita,” home to the archives and offices of AMA | Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC

Entering “La Casita” on November 6 for my first dive into the archive of the Art Museum of the Americas (Organization of American States), I was greeted by intrepid AMA collections curator Adriana Ospina. Adriana led me upstairs to a brightly lit landing, outfitted with a copier/scanner and desk on which she had neatly arranged what archival materials she had been able to unearth on Argentine artist Emilio Renart (1925–1991).

A month or so earlier I had happened upon an image of Renart’s Drawing no. 13 in AMA’s online collections portal and was intrigued. By the time that I encountered the work in person, a few weeks later, I had developed a minor obsession with the gossamer threads of white and ice blue inks that seem to materialize out of dark, oceanic depth and onto its raw paper surface.

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Photographs related to Argentine artist Emilio Renart’s 1965-66 exhibition at the Pan-American Union. [Archives of AMA | Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC]

The resources now arrayed in front of us included the artist file, the exhibition file for the 1965–66 show from which Drawing no. 13 had been acquired, and country files on Argentina covering the years immediately preceding the exhibition. Adriana wasted no time in confirming what we had both suspected about records for this little-known artist and unstudied drawing: the files were slim. But Adriana said she had also found something unexpected, something tantalizing, that she knew that I would like: an envelope containing fifteen photographs associated with Renart’s exhibition.

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Archival materials, AMA | Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC

The photographs tell a curious story of absence and surrogacy. As it turns out, José Gómez-Sicre, Chief of the Pan-American Union’s Visual Arts Unit from 1948 to 1976 and organizer of Renart’s exhibition, was not primarily taken with the artist’s drawings. He settled for the exhibition of works on paper only when it proved impossible to present Renart’s series of “strange and haunting” assemblages that the artist had begun to construct in 1962. These “queer . . . objects,” which Gómez-Sicre understood as simultaneously inhabiting the worlds of painting and sculpture, could not easily be transported. They may have been impossible to reassemble without the artist present (he was apparently unable or unwilling to travel to DC), and they were too large to fit comfortably in the Pan-American Union’s exhibition hall. The photographs serve as proxies for these three-dimensional “monsters,” as Gómez-Sicre refers to them in a brochure text, or “Biocosmos,” as inscribed on the back of each black-and-white print.

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Emilio Renart with Biocosmos no. 1, 1963. Archives of AMA | Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC

The photographs show three iterations within the Biocosmos series (a fourth is pictured elsewhere in the archive). In some instances, the artist is pictured, his body positioned behind or between the ridged skins and wiry cilia of these ambiguous, mammoth forms that suggest (extra-)terrestrial outcroppings, animate feelers, or perceiving machines.

Gómez-Sicre’s desire to show Renart’s assemblages in DC by no means suggests reluctance about the drawings. Though “calmer” than the “monsters,” they are “no less intriguing” in his view and may be intimately connected, spun of the same creative DNA: “In these refined and exquisite compositions, threads interweaving like strands of silk or human hair emerge from darker zones of free forms which can be considered the nucleus of every composition. Each thread flows miraculously in a different plane. When the lines are straight and cross each other, there is the same charm and the same definition of space as in the free lines. These lines and Renart’s eye-catching concept of three-dimensional and aerial space constitute the purest elements.” The archival envelope contained three photographs of drawings likely included in the exhibition, all part of the same series as Drawing no. 13.

Emilio Renart, Drawing no. 4, 1965. Archives of AMA | Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC

 

This cache of photographs left me with questions—what is the relation of Renart’s drawings to his assemblages? How did he achieve these fluid, interlacing lines and faulted surfaces in two and three dimensions? How might this body of work congeal an interrelation of the body, the biosphere, and the cosmos, and how do these forms signify beyond abstraction, fifty years ago and today?

Visit the online interactive Emilio Renart’s Creative Ecology: Anatomy of a Research Project on the Streams of Being exhibition website to explore these questions about Renart’s work in a constellation of contexts, from art history and anthropology to science and world politics.