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ART REVIEW : Mendieta Exhibit Reveals Lush, Primal Power

March 20, 1989|CATHY CURTIS | Times Staff Writer

Ana Mendieta? Wasn't she the Cuban-born artist married to sculptor Carl Andre? He was acquitted last year of charges that he pushed Mendieta out the 34th-story window of their New York apartment to her death.

There are major revelations in an exhibit of Mendieta's work at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (to April 23), but they're not the stuff of tabloids. They stem instead from the artist's stunningly original and passionate embrace of Eros, nature, ritual and primitivism.

Mendieta was 36 when she died in 1985, but her work began to take its characteristic shape more than a decade earlier when she was finishing graduate school at the University of Iowa. Rejecting painting for the "magic" of performance, she used her own body to re-create a campus rape-and-murder scene in 1972.

Soon thereafter she discovered the rich symbolic lode of the Afro-Caribbean religion, Santeria, which borrowed from Catholicism and the culture of the African Yoruba tribe. Together with Pre-Columbian fertility symbolism, ardent feminism and the wisdom to limit herself to highly condensed, slyly reticent, minimal imagery, Mendieta had the tools she needed to convey lush, primal power.

All her works register her visceral bodily involvement, but the earlier ones are literally inseparable from the circumstances or the places in which they were made. "Body Tracks" (Rastros Corporales) are long, blurry marks that her hands and forearms made as they slid down a large piece of white paper during a performance heightened with pulsing Cuban music.

Mendieta's color photographs of pieces she made outdoors in Iowa and Mexico during the '70s show images of a female form--usually her own petite body, sometimes the squat bulk of a Pre-Columbian figure--appearing as if magically inhabiting an area of ground. One is a faint, almost unrecognizable outline in the grass, another is a cave-like silhouette burned into the landscape, yet another is made of red flowers that seem to be pouring out of a "violated" dead tree trunk.

A group of black-and-white photographs captures the formal purity of limestone carvings of fertility images that Mendieta made during the second of two visits to Cuba, in 1981. She became reacquainted with the native land from which her well-meaning parents shipped her as a child during the Cuban Revolution. (Shunted back and forth in a blur of orphanages and foster homes with her sister and enduring racist taunts as a teen-ager, she came to think of the Earth as "the concrete conception of her homeland," according to the compelling videotape that accompanies the exhibit.)

Later in the '80s, she would start to translate her simplified imagery into portable works: linear gouache and acrylic paintings on bark paper; spiral-imprinted sand pieces resting on the floor; and authoritative floor pieces made of cracked mud in elegantly reductive formats.

Her last works in the show (curated by Petra Barreras del Rio and John Perreault) are particularly strong--"Fernwoman" (Mujer de Helecho), untitled wooden slabs that lean against the wall and semicircular tree trunks carved and burned with gunpowder.

The macho quality of gunpowder contrasts piquantly with the variously leaf-like, labyrinth-like and mountain-like versions of female silhouettes. In one of the tree trunks, knobby protuberances poking past the immaculate, blackened shapes on the wood celebrate female sexual energy. The tree pieces were the basis for a project Mendieta was to have made for the MacArthur Public Art Program in Los Angeles.

Made from an Osmunda fern root, "Fernwoman" (which is nearly 5 feet tall) is an densely knit, tactile black presence, a compact female form with a long head and gravity-dragged breasts. The striking purity of such work--at once so coolly contemporary and so charged with implacable voodoo power--confirms Mendieta's place among the most gifted of her generation.

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