A Dark and Scandalous Rockfall
The frontier/la frontera has the same literal meaning in English and Spanish: the border. However, the metaphorical meaning is the opposite. In English, the frontier implies wide open spaces, endless possibility. In Spanish, la fronterais the limit. This discrepancy speaks to the disparate notions of the border, a central trope of Mexican-American art and political theory. Mestiza poet Gloria Anzaldúa calls the U.S.-Mexican borderlands “una herida abierta,” an open wound.[i]A wound that has gaped progressively wider in the past year. The border has been more or less a contested zone since the expansion of the United States from its original colonies in the 19thcentury. However, on the conceptual spectrum, ranging from a permeable zone of cultural contact and economic exchange to literally an impregnable wall, we are now in a dark and scandalous place. In a time of heightened anxiety over cultural identity, divisive rhetoric extends to border perception. This North-South exhibition presents an alternative, bilateral narrative that accentuates commonality between two women artists and two neighboring countries. The work of Mexican artist Perla Krauze and D.C.-based sculptor Barbara Liotta combine in a collaborative gesture of healing. Their eponymous jointly-fabricated sculpture, made from locally-sourced slate, forms a landscape spanning the length of the gallery. Liotta’s suspended “stars” hover over Krauze’s stacked “mountains,” unifying the shared space.
A Dark and Scandalous Rockfallis rooted in conceptions of the land, meaning the environment, place, and geo-political borders, as well as in landscape, which is the way artists perceive and depict nature. The title is drawn from the poem “La Lluvia Seca” (Dry Rain) by Mexican poet Pedro Serrano, which begins: “At times the poem is a collapse/ a slow and painful landslide/ a dark and scandalous rockfall.”[ii]Serrano’s poems often paint vivid pictures of the types of fractured landscapes that inspire Krauze and Liotta. “Cala de Aiguafreda” (The Cove at Aiguafreda) describes rocks crumbling over time into pebbles and sand. Sandstone is rubbed away, revealing ourselves. It culminates in the revelation: “Faults and fissures of mineral accretions, that’s what we are.”[iii]The poem “En Capilla” (In the Chapel) is filled with dense colorful imagery of “a blue and vermillion tide,” ”a caul of coloured dust,” “water and blood,” “a placenta,” “indigos and garnets,” and “stained glass.”[iv]Krauze does actually mix colored dust with acrylic binder to make paint, as in her Tracespaintings. Both artists use the material qualities of stone -- color, weight, texture, and durational mineral strength -- as key elements in their sculpture. Which makes the oxymoron “dry rain” the perfect political- artistic metaphor for the current desiccated and fissured political landscape reflected in this exhibition. The poem concludes: “The poem is the scab,/ the image finally broken in pieces,/ the ruins of that image.” This exhibition contains many broken shards, but is not about ruins as much as about the scab on the wound, which implies healing, and that shared mineral strength.
Perla Krauze and Barbara Liotta have much in common as women and artists. Both born in the early 1950s, they trained during the same period of socio-political and art world upheaval in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Both were influenced by the predominant “anti-form” art movements of Minimalism and Land Art. Artists such as Richard Long, Robert Smithson, and Nancy Holt rejected traditional sculptural techniques and materials, working directly in nature, incorporating elements of process, time and space into their creations. While Liotta is attracted to the austerity and beauty of Long’s compositions of natural materials, such as his interior stone circles, Krauze identifies with his conceptual approach to site. Like Long, her process involves travel and evocation of geography or environment through stones that she collects and brings into the gallery as a form of spiritual mapping. Krauze also transfers the physical properties of stone, its abrasions and fissures, to canvas, by making graphite frottages (rubbings). Imprint 15thStreet, D.C. Series, was made in the parking lot of the Mexican Cultural Institute, thus tying the exhibition directly to its Washington D.C. location. The crosshatch patterns in her Imprintpaintings derive from lines made by stone cutting, indicating the processes of transforming stone from raw material to functional or artistic object. Layered with abstract observations of nature, the paintings serve as grayscale tone poems. Sometimes she alters stones through painting or gilding; sometimes stones are replicated in other materials such as the resin “boulders.” They are arranged to create miniature landscapes, complete in themselves, but also referring to the land where they originated, in similar fashion to Smithson’s concept of a “Nonsite.”
Robert Smithson, a prolific writer as well as sculptor, professed the idea of “Nonsites” as a way of bringing his environmental work into the gallery space. Nonsites were stones or soil arranged on the floors of exhibition spaces, sometimes encased by geometric containers and accompanied by photographic maps. Smithson described them as a dialectic between the site where the materials were found, and the non-site of the gallery, “so that basically the Nonsites are abstracted, three-dimensional maps that point to a specific site.” [v]Smithson and his artist wife Nancy Holt among others, were drawn to the wide-open spaces of the Southwest as the arena for monumental earthworks, such as the 1,500-foot-long Spiral Jetty(1970) in the Great Salt Lake or Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973-76), covering an 86-foot diameter of the Great Basin Desert in Utah. Both staked out immense site-interactions in land geologically unchanged for thousands of years.
Krauze’s studio-scale installations map places that are important to her, recalling parts of the U.S. and Mexico: Santa Fe, Four Corners, Puebla, Oaxaca. She frequently journeys in the land artists’ footsteps to the Four Corners area of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, the quadripoint where the four states meet. Until 1848, this entire region was part of Mexico, and is still referred to as the ancestral lands of Aztlán. Unsurprisingly, it feels familiar for an artist who grew up in the similar arid and rocky suburb of El Pedregal, outside Mexico City. The glassy obsidian, volcanic recinto, white Oaxaca sandstone, and foliated slate are arranged in this exhibition like a geologist’s collection, or a cabinet of curiosities, or a timeline of North American geographical history.
In her twenties, Liotta was personal friends with Dan Flavin, another of the icons of Minimalism. She has made her own pilgrimages to the Southwest region of the United States, particularly Marfa, Texas. Marfa is home to the Chinati Foundation where Flavin’s fluorescent light sculptures are installed alongside the work of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Richard Long among other Minimalist and conceptual artists, perfectly situated in a barren, remote, minimalist landscape. Texas is, of course, another state that shares the Mexican desert environment, and it was Mexico until its declaration of a separate republic in 1836. Liotta’s work does not reflect that historical backdrop. She is aesthetically drawn to the austere rigor of Minimalist art, as seen in her stone compositions incorporating features of Minimalism such as the grid structure, seriality, abstraction and abandonment of the pedestal.
Liotta suspends broken shards of marble, quartzite and slate to depict the essence of human form and movement. As an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College, she switched majors from studio art to dance in order to study with Bessie Schönberg, a renowned modern dance choreographer, whose teaching method encouraged creative exploration of rhythm, gravity, time and space. Liotta asserts that Schönberg taught her more about composition than any studio art teacher. Dance still informs her work. Liotta’s awareness of the body and gesture is conveyed through the fluid sense of energy in her shattered stone compositions. As well as the desire to capture the moment in time when a dancer pauses and stretches in mid-leap.
Another link to the performing arts is the rhythmic quality of Liotta’s installations, which may be influenced by listening to classical music while she works. For the Dark and Scandalous Rockfallcollaborative sculpture, she had Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Beethoven playing through her headphones. The shards of suspended slate may even be read as notes in a musical score, perhaps a concerto in three movements, leaving the viewer to imagine how the music sounds.
The landscape format of this installation is somewhat of a departure for Liotta, who generally identifies her work as evocative of the human figure. The use of raw chunks of white marble in Chorusand Tlalocalludes to the Greco-Roman classical origins of Western figurative sculpture. Chorusevokes the multitude of a Greek chorus in classical drama, whose spoken word provides the refrain. While the blocky, imposing figure Tlaloctakes its name from the Aztec god of rain and fertility, coveted powers in an exhibition framed by “Dry Rain.” These mythological themes are echoed by the seafoam quartzite Green Sirena, who brings a southerly goddess presence to the exhibition entrance. Her delicate cascading form is braced by Krause’s translucent ultramarine resin boulders. The dualism of Liotta and Krause’s harmonious, yet distinctive, work is introduced immediately as a tension between architectural space and natural materials, or the cast memory of nature, and the embedded memory of site.
Another commonality between Krauze and Liotta present in this collaboration is their shared Jewish heritage. Though given the vagaries of the European Jewish diaspora, one grew up in Mexico City and the other in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Krauze’s family emigrated from Poland in the 1930s and Liotta’s grandparents fled the Russian and Hungarian pogroms in the late 19thcentury. Neither would describe her work as overtly religious, yet subtle details connect to Jewish traditions, such as the custom of placing stones on ancestors’ graves. As well as the remembrance of the diaspora, which can be seen in the process of transferring stones from one location to another, as immigrants and artists do. The hard permanence of stone unchanged by country or political boundaries.