by Elwyn Palmerton
Ed Ruscha once said, “Good art should elicit a response of 'Huh? Wow!' as opposed to 'Wow! Huh?'” Ruscha’s pop art koan is widely applicable, as it speaks to the value of difficulty over instant gratification. However, in some cases — as with Peruvian-Columbian artist Maria Guzmán Capron — it is particularly apt. The oddity of her stuffed fabric sculptures and quilt-like wall hangings repeatedly provokes a kind of befuddlement followed by an epiphanic realization which is perfectly encapsulated by Ruscha’s “huh? Wow” formula.
Partly, this is built into her chosen medium. That is, this quality of tension/resolution is built into quilting but not often exploited by its practitioners. Avant-garde collage — a lineage extending through Dada, Robert Rauschenberg, Barbara Kruger, and Thomas Hirschhorn, among many others — is generally defined by its embrace of difference: the disruptive potential inherent in juxtaposition. Quilting, which is essentially a collage-based medium, has largely kept this tendency at arms length. While it has often been associated with feminism or political art (the AIDS quilt, for instance) – fabric art tends to foreground the formalist qualities inherent in the medium, usually by keeping it tied to the grid and an overall “matchy” sensibility.
These tendencies are exploded in Guzman Capron’s work. There are no grids, squares or rectangles to be seen. Likewise, not only are the fabrics chosen for their bizarre, kitschy, eccentric charms, they are juxtaposed in ways that inherently clash. They are further arrayed into vaguely Picasso-esque female figures, often in blatantly sexualized poses. The wild fabrics assert their autonomy while the figurative elements demand that one resolve their insistent tension. These works both stubbornly resist and consistently reward attempts to reconcile their disparate elements – like a machine for generating repeated huhs followed by wows.
Take Oh, for instance. It depicts a female figure spread eagle with her knees up. Between her legs, in front of her crotch, is a black amoeba-like depiction of two hands spread out like a catcher’s mitt. Her body is a tacky flower print; the hair is an indigo and magenta plaid; and her bedding is a nearly fluorescent orange – each loudly vying for attention. The ambiguity of the splayed hands recalls (in content, if not style) Courbet’s infamous The Origin of the World. With profane subject matter and visceral materiality it evokes the ineffable line between being and non-being and the mystery of birth.
Although her figures inevitably recall Picasso — especially given the sexualized postures — Guzman’s approach to abstract figuration is, nevertheless, much more Postmodern than Modernist. The neatly cartoonish, pasted-on quality of the facial features and body parts more closely resembles John Baldessari’s jokey reductionism than Cubism. The eyes/nose/mouth glyphs, in particular, resemble his way of turning facial features into disembodied flat silhouettes.
Mi Tanga, for exampe, includes a piece of red fabric cut to suggest a bikini bottom. (Tanga, in Spanish means G-string.) It’s superimposed over a photographic print of flesh-toned onions. It takes a minute to even notice the onions and another to see the hovering bikini. Initially, this seems like jokey Dadaism but it neatly encapsulates an ongoing theme: overtly sexual women depicted as resistant to the male gaze. Although food-based metaphors for women’s bodies are generally misogynist in tone, this one reminds you that onions can make you cry. Her figures seem to be distinctly empowered on their own terms: knowing, self-possessed, a bit feral, and possibly antagonistic to the viewer. A floating eyeball hovers over the onions: “she” is looking at us, too. The absurdity of the messenger hardly undermines the seriousness of the message.
In fact, it makes the exhibition timely, echoing both the more absurd corners of the Internet and the linguistic tropes of protest culture, which revel simultaneously in the profane and absurd. A preponderance of cats in suggestive situations underscores this affinity. In Mothership, a stern feline in leopard print garb sits at the end of a rainbow projecting out from between a woman’s legs. The implicit message: Pussy grabs back!
Likewise, in Chica y Maleta, a stuffed fabric sculpture of a bright pink head emerges from a leopard print handbag. It has an elongated nose, which resembles (oddly enough) the prosthetic that Steve Martin wore in the 1987 film Roxanne. (The oddball schnoz recurs somewhat inexplicably throughout the exhibition.) This beaked creature could be an avatar for our #metoo moment, as if this ostrich-like woman has emerged from the sand, both emboldened and alert.
A floor-piece, Descarada, is comprised of six different colors of wall-to-wall carpeting in varying thicknesses, textures, and hues. These form a large grinning cartoon face with the aforementioned long nose. Wall-to-wall carpeting has an inherently nostalgic, dated quality. Here, it evokes childhood, but is much too weird to resemble anything an mundane and nonthreatening as a preschool classroom or kid’s bedroom.
In one corner of the carpet a bulbous mosquito made of fabric sits on a small wooden stool like an unused stuffed animal. Not unlike the figures elsewhere, this is a cute, apparently lovable creature, which also happens to bite. The entire piece can be viewed from the mezzanine gallery above. The cartoon face looms — if something can properly “loom” from below — like a benign trickster God. It projects sentience, like an old master painting whose eyes follow you through the room. The overall combination of elements is puzzling, playful, and perhaps merely weird. It remains an ongoing source of befuddlement – as if to suspend us in a state of “huh?” Wow.
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Maria Guzmán Capron: “Desdoblé” @ R/SF Projects through February 4, 2018.
About the Author:
Elwyn Palmerton is an Oakland-based artist dealing in obsessive and improvisational abstract paintings. A New Jersey native, he received a B.A. from New York University and an M.F.A. from The School of Visual Arts. Since graduating he has exhibited regularly in New York City and Oakland. His writing has appeared in Frieze, Art Ltd., Artillery, Sculpture and Art Review.