2017-08-30 17:33:03
art review: Weekend in Los Angeles: That Touch of Brazil

LOS ANGELES — Next month is the official kickoff of Pacific Standard Time:LA/LA, a festival of exhibitions and events throughout Southern California that, even in this era of biennials duplicated across borders and fairs franchised across continents, takes the prize for sprawl. PST, as it’s called, meanders into more than 60 museums, from Santa Barbara to San Diego, each of which presents an exhibition or more of art from Latin America or America’s Latino communities. Another 65 commercial galleries here are also getting in on the act: proof, if wearied New Yorkers like me needed it, that Los Angeles’s art scene is now second to none.

A few shows affiliated with PST have opened early, and one exhibition downtown — by the Italian-born Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino, who is at last receiving her first American retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art — should be urgent viewing for both local audiences and for the crowds arriving this September from this country’s east and from this hemisphere’s south. As a young artist, living under Brazil’s military government, she used painting, photography, video and paper collage to express her anxieties under the regime and her displacement in the New World, as well as her identity as a mother and daughter. Later, in a democratic Brazil, she made equally poignant drawings and works in clay and plaster, which explore more elemental themes of hunger and nourishment, ritual and obsession.

Ms. Maiolino was born in 1942 in Calabria, the less developed south of Italy, and early memories of wartime privation, as well as the burdens of immigration and leaving one’s native tongue, suffuse her later art. Her family moved first to Venezuela, then to Brazil before she was out of her teens. The Brazil that she discovered was undergoing a wholesale transformation under the decisive civilian president Juscelino Kubitschek, with a brand-new capital, Brasília, rising like magic in the country’s interior.

She attended art school in Rio de Janeiro, where she studied alongside the painters Antonio Dias and her future husband, Rubens Gerchman. They, and Ms. Maiolino too, would develop a hot-colored style known as Nova Figuração (“new figuration”), which rhymed in places with American pop or French narrative figuration. (You may have seen their work in “International Pop,” a major exhibition at the Walker Art Center and other American museums last year.)

A few of Ms. Maiolino’s early works reflect the pugnacious orientation of Nova Figuração, and directly contest the junta that took power in Brazil in 1964. For “O Herói” (“The Hero”), from 1966, multiple panels of brightly painted wood conjoin into a portrait of an army general, his lapel affixed with gaudy military decorations, his face nothing but a ghoulish skull. Nevertheless, her art always took a more poetic, expansive approach to questions of politics and society, and made heavy use of metaphor — above all, metaphors of eating and speaking, language and food.

“Glu Glu Glu…,” made in 1967, features a fabric bust painted with a wide-open mouth, perhaps eating, perhaps screaming. The head sits above a model of the digestive system whose principal components (a yellow stomach, a green pancreas, a bluish large intestine) are the colors of the Brazilian flag. Rough-edged prints, whose hashed lines recall the illustrations in pamphlets from Brazil’s poorer northeast, also depict despairing or gluttonous figures with open mouths. And when she turned to film and photography in the early 1970s, after two years in New York, Ms. Maiolino continued to employ alimentary and linguistic metaphors to reckon with a country where opening your mouth could get you sent to the torture chamber.

In the short film “In-Out (Antropofagia)” (“In-Out (Cannibalism)”), from 1973, we see close-up shots of different mouths, men’s and women’s, as they babble and swallow and regurgitate eggs or multicolored strings. Another film, “Y” (1974), features the artist blindfolded, her mouth wide open and screaming without end. The mouth, in these works and in similarly intense photographic series, expresses the political limitations of the era, and perhaps too her constraints as an immigrant and a woman. It also serves to recall Oswald de Andrade’s “Cannibal Manifesto” of 1928, the most enduring text in modern Brazilian art history, which advocated for an art that absorbed European, African and indigenous Brazilian influences, without regard to their relative status in western capitals.

While Ms. Maiolino was creating these harrowing works, she also spent the 1970s crafting wily collages, whose papers were not laid onto a single support but mounted in boxes, and therefore perceptible in three dimensions. These “Desenhos Objetos” (“Design Objects”), making use of folded papers that she punctured and perforated, look back to the geometric abstraction of postwar Brazil, though there’s an ire, too, in their gashed edges and hidden interiors.

Those paper works offer some essential preparation for Ms. Maiolino’s recent art, including her cunning late drawings and wall-mounted works of gouged plaster, which play similar tricks with inside and outside. Above all, they set the stage for a dramatic new installation making use of one of her favorite mediums, unfired clay. For “Estão na Mesa” (“They Are on the Table”), created especially for this exhibition, hundreds of clay cylinders, crescents and braids lie on a simple wood table, as if waiting for the kiln. Piles of vermiform clay are heaped on the floor.

The brown clay objects recall ancient weights and measures, extruded taffy, piles of pasta, or the knot-shaped classic Italian cookies known as tarralucci; excrement, too, unavoidably. Again, the metaphor of alimentation exceeds easy decoding — yet these late clay and plaster works are engaged, like her earlier work, with the discrepancies between individual and social life. They are personal and yet systematic, fragile and yet nourishing. And they are masterworks.

This retrospective has been organized by Helen Molesworth, who joined MOCA as chief curator in 2014, and Bryan Barcena, a research assistant for Latin American art at the museum. I hope it gets the attention it deserves, not only within the giant PST, but within a downtown Los Angeles art scene where MOCA, one of the country’s most important museums, has lately been in the shadow of some ostentatious new arrivals.

The galleries were quiet when I visited this vital retrospective, while hundreds of chancers baked on Grand Avenue hoping to get into the Broad, MOCA’s new neighbor across the street. Hauser & Wirth, the mega-gallery down the road (which represents Ms. Maiolino), had numerous visitors in its art spaces, and far more in its in-house restaurant. They would do well to pop into MOCA too. Ms. Maiolino knows there are other, more lasting kinds of nourishment.