by Renny Pritikin
The Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jiménez famously said, “If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.” Like Jiménez, Amalia Mesa-Bains has always rejected simplistic either-or choices. Notably, she refuses to choose between binaries — she sees time, for example, as an uninterrupted continuity in which the past lives within the present. She titled her retrospective Archeology of Memory because her work, as a cumulative recapitulation of family and personal history, embodies the wide sweep of social history. Perhaps Mesa-Bains’ most important contribution is the assertion that an artist can celebrate, even be haunted by, the people in her past and simultaneously demonstrate how those people’s lives embody a timely deconstruction of the colonial record. Furthermore, she resuscitates historic figures and contemporary colleagues as role models, inspirations and “adopted” family members. For example, close artist colleagues embraced in her work include Patssi Valdez, Carmen Lomas Garza, Judy Baca, Ester Hernandez, the late Yolanda Lopez, and many others. At the same time, she incorporates frequent references to such figures as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a daring feminist and anti-colonialist Mexican nun in the 17th century! (This familial connection manifests in Circle of Ancestors, which features a ring of empty chairs, vaguely reminiscent of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party).
Mesa-Bains works primarily in installation art using altered found objects. I use the word “installation”—that most mercurial of mediums—cautiously, because, as is an issue throughout her oeuvre, it can be reductive. She constructs her installations intentionally referencing the past, reaching back to incorporate updated forms of traditional Mexican and Chicano altars and ofrendas, a type of altar built in memory of a deceased person. At the same, time her installations also reference European cabinets of curiosity which first emerged in the 16th century and exhibited mysterious and rare objects. Mesa-Bains’ ofrendas often include found cabinets that humorously refer to the European tradition but substitute personal mementos for arcane items like dragon’s teeth.
Recapitulations of such works, which span the artist’s 50-year career, dominate the second half of the show. They occupy wall space of ten to fifteen feet, often hung with cloth suggestive of theatrical curtains. Mirrors and framed photographs (altered with text or images) and shelves containing found objects (altered and unaltered) adorn the walls. Mounds of material, akin to sawdust or potpourri, spill onto the floor. The show consists of these altars, an ongoing major work, Venus Envy Chapter I through IV (1993-2022) and other smaller bodies of work distributed throughout. It is an overwhelmingly prolific, information-stuffed exhibition that is intellectually ambitious and emotionally charged.
The show begins with Venus Envy I (subtitled “First Holy Communion, Moments Before the End”) (1993/2022) and ends with the oldest piece, a 1983 ofrenda for Dolores del Rio, one of two that Mesa-Bains executed for Hollywood stars of Mexican descent. (The other is about Rita Hayworth.) The reality is that all the pieces, though separated by 40 years, engage in much the same business: compiling a dossier of formative influences on the artist that include: Catholic ritual and the inculcation of doctrine; women’s experience of both Chicana and California culture; the Chicana influence on and from popular culture; the nature of the immigrant experience; Mesa-Bains’ personal history; and folklore juxtaposed with academic training. The title, Venus Envy, embodies these conflicting and mutually informed pursuits, mocking, rejecting and inverting Freud. What traits of Venus are envied? It’s unclear, but the work, which divides into chapters, offers hints. Chapter I is overtly religious; it starts with the kind of votive candle display found at a Catholic altar, then segues into a white-satin draped vanity table that suggests virginal purity and sultry sexuality. Chapter II, The Harem and Other Enclosures posits a fascinating commonality among the harem, the enclosed garden and the nunnery as sites for the objectification and subjugation of women and as spaces that unintentionally nurtured female culture.
Chapter III, Cihuatlampa, the Place of the Giant Women (1997) meditates on body size. A large woman with a big personality and unabashed intelligence, Mesa-Bains asserts that Chicano culture and the world punish women for those traits. Cihuatlampa is the mythical place in Mexican folklore where women who have died in childbirth go. Though she has no children, Mesa-Bains also thinks of that place as a refuge for those cast out for being outsized, physically and intellectually. Like the photographer Laura Aguilar (1959-2018), known for nude self-portraits of her big body, Mesa-Bains includes a picture of herself as a young woman posing as a topless warrior in the catalog. This segment also includes a tongue-in-cheek floor-mounted sculpture, an odalisque of Mesa-Bains as a green mountain, with a gorgeous feathered garment (a la Carlos Villa) waiting for her on the wall. This willingness to mock her conceits while still asserting their importance is one of the artist’s distinguishing traits.
Doctors told Mesa-Bains she might need a heart transplant in midlife due to severe respiratory problems. Not long after declining that procedure, she suffered a near-fatal car crash. She survived both episodes, returned to relative health, and documented the experiences in Chapter IV The Road to Paris and Its Aftermath, The Curandera’s Botanica (2008/2023). The work centers on a larger-than-life light box image of the artist’s mother, a traditional healer. A display cabinet containing herbal medicines and a table filled with Western scientific equipment form a metaphor for how Mesa-Bains operates: drawing on both forms of medicine, teetering between conflicting polarities and resisting.
The second section of the exhibition consists of other installations, including the Circle of Ancestors (1995) mentioned above, as well as two notable glass works: What the River Gave to Me (2002) and Transparent Migrations (2001). The first is a “river” of hand-blown blue “rocks” situated in a stream of crushed glass illuminated from below by LEDs; it runs through a channel cut into a hand-carved painted landscape. This evocation of the female body and bodily fluids, coupled with a sly reference to crossing the Rio Grande as her immigrant parents did, reverberates nicely. Transparent Migrations, with its plants made of jagged blue glass and a mirrored armoire, evokes the sharp-edged, if often unseen dangers, of crossing borders. (A related work, Emblems of the Decade: Borders, first shown at the Studio Museum of Harlem in 1990, and later at several other high-profile institutions, is on view at Rena Bransten Gallery through April 29.) As the visitor travels backward through the artist’s output and forward towards the exit, an early large (120 x 216 x 72 inch) installation in blue, Queen of the Waters, Mother of the Land of the Dead: Homenaje a Tonantzin/Guadalupe (1992) comes into view. It appears like an excavation whose deep layers reveal Mesa-Bain’s roots where pre-Columbian folklore, Catholicism, feminism and sad blue elegance reside.
Among some of the most handsome objects in the exhibition are seven of the artist’s codexes. Mesa-Bains’ inspiration is as much narrative and literary as it is visual, reflected in these books’ complex amalgam of layered text and images. Ideas and visual references float in and out, veiled and evanescent, overlapping, stitched and printed, bringing the convolutions of the installations into two dimensions. Mesa-Bains
refuses to reject such beauty, as some critics have chided her for, because in beauty, she finds power: the power to move people, as she has said. Twenty-one remarkable prints energetically accomplish the same interrelated references as the books but in a slightly less information-packed manner.
A valuable scholarly catalog accompanies the exhibition, with many essays and helpful contributions, especially those penned by the artist. The first Bay Area artist to receive a MacArthur award, Mesa Bains has been, in addition to her career as an artist, a civil rights activist, a public intellectual, a museum leader, and an influential educator. University museums like BAMPFA are uniquely able to operate outside the market system to elevate the often-neglected contributions of people like Amalia Mesa-Bains, and we are fortunate for it.
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About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.