by Gabrielle Selz
On a large pink rectangle of canvas cloth, outlined in simple silhouettes, stand rows of small figures looking frozen as if waiting for something to begin. Their round faces, plump limbs, and fat palms identify them as children, but they are anonymous as individuals. In place of facial features—eyes, nose, mouth— the artist Arleene Correa Valencia presents blank templates. The only identifying features are the bright pieces of clothing the children wear: the girl’s brightly flowered skirt, the boy’s reflective yellow socks, the baby’s pinafore. Above their heads, kites and butterflies fly, symbolic images of play, dreams and freedom. But make no mistake, these children, separated from their parents, some never to reunite, have been flung into a system over which they have no control or power. The piece, Pãpalõtl: Soñadores En Búsqueda de Amor/Pãpalõtl: Dreams In Search of Love, a narrative of innocence trapped between borders, is one of the most powerful and haunting works in the artist’s current exhibition at Catharine Clark Gallery titled, Naces Asi, Naces Prieto. No Naces Blanco. You Are Born Like This, You Are Born Brown. You Are Not Born White.
A series of 16 drawings created on repurposed fabric and embroidered on paper tell other immigrant stories, forming another of the show’s highlights. Her technique —aptly named a running stitch—pinpoints the emotions of loss, anxiety, fear, and longing in exquisitely sparse and potent compositions. Each incorporates an element of absence, portraying a spectral child embracing or clinging to a parent’s leg.
These small works are agonizing, tender and anguished. The parents wear reflective clothing; the children are silhouetted in illuminated white thread, the two conjoined like puzzle pieces, with one part intentionally omitted. Of the reflective material Correa Valencia uses to connect them she writes, “When exposed to light, the outline of the adult figures absorbs this energy, symbolizing the fear of family separation and deportation. But in darkness, the separation is made visible as the child absorbs the light and becomes a beacon of hope.”
Stitch-by-stitch, Correa Valencia’s art translates the personal into the political and the universal. As a toddler, she, too, was separated from her parents for a short time and crossed the border with her siblings in the care of a coyote (smuggler). About a year before this incident, her father, traveling ahead to the United States, was separated from the family. Correa Valencia vividly recalls these two episodes as the most traumatic of her life, and they subsequently became the catalyst for her art. However, it wasn’t until the outbreak of covid and the early days of the pandemic, when she was confined at home with her in-laws, that she began sewing and using textiles, a practice she instantly understood as being connected to her heritage and culture. It became the medium through which she could weave together her family’s history and tell the stories of immigrants.
Hijos el Sol/Children of The Sun depicts the figures of Correa Valencia and her siblings standing in front of the Aztec sun calendar, a tribute to her father, the narrative force behind her art. He wanted to be an artist, a dream he relinquished to support the family. But with her encouragement, he painted the sun image, and it’s this very image, that serves as the backdrop for his reunited children. In other areas of the canvas, Correa Valencia has repurposed the fabric from the clothing they once wore. One of her brother’s wears a shirt bearing the logo of the company where their father works. The material that once enveloped and protected their childhood bodies has made its own crossing journey, migrating and transforming from garment into art.
In the gallery’s media room, two light works, Salida/Exit and Un Momento Mas/One More Moment, depict a parent bidding a child farewell. We do not know who is leaving or staying, only that this is a moment of separation we have all experienced in varying degrees. To convey the universality of this wrenching moment, Correa Valencia portrays these figures on a mirrored aluminum surface. In looking, we all become visible within her eerie fluorescent LED light outlines because the story of human migration, carrying light forward and holding it until reunion occurs, is universal and unfolding. It is a story that no single thread can mend, but it’s exquisitely illuminated here, altering how we see and experience one another.
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Arleene Correa Valencia: “Naces Asi, Naces Prieto. No Naces Blanco. You Are Born Like This, You Are Born Brown. You Are Not Born White” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through November 4, 2023.
About the author: Gabrielle Selz is an award-winning author. Her books include the first comprehensive biography of Sam Francis, Light on Fire, and Unstill Life: Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction. Her essays and art reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Hyperallergic, Art & Object, Art Papers, The Rumpus, and The Huffington Post, among others. She makes her home in Oakland, California.