AS ONE MIGHT expect of an artist whose life has unfolded on different continents and over seven decades to date, Anna Maria Maiolino has produced a remarkably varied body of work. Born in 1942 in wartime Italy to an Italian father and an Ecuadoran mother, she spent formative years in Venezuela and Brazil. In the late 1960s, she moved with her children and her husband, artist Rubens Gerchman, to New York, where the family sought refuge from Brazil’s military dictatorship. She stayed in New York for a few years before divorcing Gerchman and returning to Brazil with her children. Encompassing works on paper, photography, drawing, sculpture, video, and performance documentation, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s chronological retrospective—which is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a multi-venue exhibition program exploring artistic dialogues between Latin America and Los Angeles—shows how Maiolino has used her art to investigate a range of subjects, from the daily rituals of the home to the repressive conditions of a dictatorship to bodily existence.
Anna (1967), the first work in the show, is a woodcut featuring the upper bodies of two rudimentary figures that share a speech bubble containing the artist’s name. The torsos rest upon a rectangular block displaying the same name in stencil-style lettering. Viewing the print, you get caught in a bizarre closed loop: the artist’s name, you realize, is the same backward and forward; the speech bubble seems to bounce interminably between the two vacuous mouths. In addition, the image as a whole seems to shuttle between political and personal interpretations. Lacking ears, the figures perhaps allude to the practices of a repressive environment in which people prioritize speaking over listening, or might even suggest the victims of a torture method called ear cuffing—in which subjects’ ears are hit until the eardrums are destroyed—that was carried out under Brazil’s military regime. Yet the print, with its bold stating of the artist’s name not once but twice, also reads as an early expression of Maiolino’s desire to assert her personal agency—a wish that perhaps related to her status as an immigrant in Brazil and that grew only stronger in her subsequent years in New York, during which time her career and social status were eclipsed by her husband’s as she focused on the daily rituals of tending to her children. With the exception of the drawing series “Entre Pausas” (Between Pauses, 1968), which she made during breaks in caretaking and in her day job as a textile designer, Maiolino created little artwork during this period. When she returned to Brazil in 1971, with her children now of school age, she decided she would be “a mother and artist with the same importance,” as she recently explained to the Los Angeles Times.
Mouths and digestive systems are recurrent motifs in Maiolino’s work, and might refer, in part, to Oswald de Andrade’s influential Cannibalist Manifesto (1928), wherein the poet wittily described Brazil’s consumption and creative regurgitation of other cultures as a national strength and a means of producing a modern, independent country. The 1967 woodcut Glu Glu Glu . . . (whose title phrase means “gobble gobble gobble” in Portuguese) portrays the same type of open-mouthed figure as that seen in Anna. It sits at a table topped with a spread of food. A pipe runs from the table (or perhaps from the figure itself) to a toilet depicted in the composition’s bottom half. Another 1967 work titled Glu Glu Glu . . . is an odd, wall-mountedsculptural piece made from painted, stuffed fabric. Here, the figure is rendered in a deep blue with red lips and two rows of cartoonish teeth; the phrase glu glu glu spills from the open mouth, leading down to a digestive system painted in yellow, green, and red. The piece is diagrammatic but not didactic. This is what keeps us all alive, Maiolino seems to say. There is poetry in the pragmatism.
The aforementioned works only hint at the diverse assortment that comprises the show’s first half. Other highlights include works from the series “Desenhos Objetos” (Drawing Objects, 1970–76)—poignant framed constructions of paper and thread—and the black-and-white photograph Por Um Fio (By a Thread, 1976), which shows Maiolino sitting between her mother and her daughter, their familial connections reinforced by segments of rope they hold in their mouths (one spanning from artist to mother, and the other from artist to daughter). But while punctuated by compelling works, the selection feels a bit meandering, reflecting as it does an artist’s initial processes of self-examination and of navigating complicated sociopolitical realities.
Maiolino arrived at a newfound confidence in the 1990s, when she began producing the powerful sculptural work that signals her mature practice. Taking up a central gallery in the show, the installation Estão na Mesa (They Are on the Table, 2017) serves as a striking illustration of such work. A heap of thick strands sits at the room’s entrance, while another jumble snakes across the gallery floor. Tightly arranged lumps cover nearly an entire wall. Three long rectangular tables, pushed together end to end, are topped with masses in various shapes—curlicues, blocks, half-moons, twists, and so on. It is a visceral experience to be confronted with this amount of hand-worked, unfired clay. Resembling meatballs, pasta, donuts, and, undeniably, fecal matter, the sculpted pieces provide a more immediate treatment of the themes of consumption seen in the decades-earlier works.
The next gallery contains sculptures from several series. “Novo Outros” (New Others, 2013) consists of cement slabs pocked with amoebic concavities and mounted on metal tables. From afar, these square-shaped works suggest cold, detached Minimalist objects; as one approaches, the depressions in the cement are shown to contain forms resembling pieces of fruit, fossils, and body parts. In one such work, a vaguely Kusama-esque phallic protuberance juts out of one of the holes and a lumpy, textured form summoning intestines or brains occupies another.
The final gallery in the exhibition contains dozens of recent ink drawings, but the strongest works are, again, various corporeal sculptures. Stacks of white plaster coils stand to one side of the room, while other curved plaster pieces are affixed to the walls. The simple forms resemble microorganisms, while their white color conveys a ghostliness and their desiccating clay suggests processes of petrification. Although Maiolino’s earlier works offer engaging meditations on everyday life, her hand-worked sculptures seem to go deeper, alluding to cycles of life and death that surpass the strictures of social constructs.