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Book Review: Traces


Book Review Traces By Ana Mendieta Reviewed by Janelle Lynch Ana Mendieta: Traces is a comprehensive, generously illustrated catalog published in conjunction with exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery, London and the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg. It includes film stills, photographs, drawings, sculptures, and a trove of ephemera. While much has already been written about Ana Mendieta’s life and work, Traces contains previously unseen material...

Traces. By Ana Mendieta.
Hayward Publishing, 2014.
 
Traces
Reviewed by Janelle Lynch

Traces
By Ana Mendieta
Hayward Publishing, 2014. 240 pp., 150 color illustrations, 8½x10½".

Ana Mendieta: Traces is a comprehensive, generously illustrated catalog published in conjunction with exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery, London and the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg. It includes film stills, photographs, drawings, sculptures, and a trove of ephemera. While much has already been written about Ana Mendieta’s life and work, Traces contains previously unseen material due to curator Stephanie Rosenthal’s unprecedented access to the Ana Mendieta Estate Archive.

On the cover is a detail of Tree of Life, 1976, that shows the five-foot tall Mendieta covered in mud and grass, standing against a massive tree trunk with her hands up as if in surrender to Mother Nature. On the overleaf is a poem translated from Spanish that she wrote on March 20, 1981. It begins:

Pain of Cuba
Body I am
My orphanhood I live

In Cuba when you die
The earth that covers us
Speaks

Together, the image and text underscore what Rosenthal successfully demonstrates in her essay, Traces, and in the catalog: that Mendieta “saw art as inseparable from her body, her life, and her cultural heritage.” Art historians Adrian Heathfield and Julia Bryan-Wilson also contributed essays.

Traces. By Ana Mendieta. Hayward Publishing, 2014.

Mendieta was born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba, into a politically prominent Catholic family that opposed Fidel Castro’s government. In 1961, before the outbreak of the Cuban Revolution, the Mendieta family sent Ana and her sister Raquel√≠n to the United States as part of the Peter Pan Program, a collaboration between the American government and Catholic charities that relocated more than 14,000 refugee children. The sisters arrived in Miami and spent the next four years in different foster homes in Iowa. In 1965, Mendieta began making art in college and devoted her life to it until her controversial death in 1985.

Traces. By Ana Mendieta. Hayward Publishing, 2014.

Traces is a considerable volume made accessible by its layout and design. The uncoated paper choice complements the naturalness of Mendieta’s work, however, it doesn’t allow for the finest reproduction, particularly of the film stills and early slides. Each section is indicated by a change in paper shade from ivory to buff, the color of the manila folder that Mendieta used for her A.I.R. Gallery installation sketch, which is reproduced on the front and back endpapers. Following the essays an ample section of images begins with an overview of the films Mendieta created between 1972 and 1981, including four stills from Moffitt Building Piece, 1973, a Super-8 color, silent film. Both Heathfield and Bryan-Wilson write about this work in which Mendieta showed blood flowing from her front door onto the Iowa City sidewalk and documented the responses of passersby. It is among several other films depicted in Traces that illustrates Mendieta’s use of blood as a metaphor for birth, love, and death.

Mendieta did not consider herself a photographer but used the camera as a witness to document her transitory actions, performance-oriented tableaux, and collaborations with nature.

Traces. By Ana Mendieta. Hayward Publishing, 2014.

Traces substantial Photographs/Slides section opens with a description of her processes, the materials that she used, and the evolution of her work between 1972 and 1983. These remarkable images made in Iowa, Mexico, and Cuba, where she returned for the first time in 1980 on a cultural exchange visit, make palpable Mendieta’s relentless search for home and belonging. “I have thrown myself into the very elements that produced me, using the earth as my canvas and my soul as my tools,” she wrote about this period. Imagen de Yagul (Image from Yagul), 1973, depicts this sentiment. It shows Mendieta’s nude body covered with white flowers from head to toe reclining on — or merging into — a sloping rock formation. Also visible are the influences of the Mexican, African, pre-historic, and pre-Columbian art that Mendieta was exposed to in childhood, as in Untitled (Stone Woman Series), for which she used primitive forms and motifs instead of her own body. Photographs are the only representations of her temporary interventions or “earth-body works,” as she referred to them, works that would eventually be reclaimed by nature.

Drawing as a means of visually documenting thought was integral to Mendieta’s practice, even as a student. Later, in the early 1980s, she began making non-photographic art works on paper, bark, and thick leathery copey tree leaves. One page shows an installation view of Rastros Corporales (Body Tracks), 1982, a three-part work made with blood and tempera on paper, with a detail on the next page. For it, Mendieta used her hands and arms, again in total surrender to the materials, process, and her primordial need to leave traces. More delicate and subtle works, such as Untitled, 1984, a design on a copey leaf, connect back to Untitled (Stone Woman Series) and other archaic forms previously seen.

Traces. By Ana Mendieta. Hayward Publishing, 2014.

The Sculptures section describes Mendieta’s shift away from her “earth-body works” to permanent pieces. Untitled, 1983, made with sand, earth, and a binding agent refers to both primitive forms and to Henri Matisse’s abstractions of the body, an influence Rosenthal asserts in her essay. In 1983, the American Academy of Rome awarded Mendieta the Prix de Rome. In Italy she began working with wood and dead trees. Totem Grove, 1985 is a series of four larger-than-life figures with designs that suggest human forms burned into them with gunpowder. Untitled, 1985 is a singular work, also with a gunpowder design that references the organic shapes on the copey leaf works.

Traces. By Ana Mendieta. Hayward Publishing, 2014.

Traces ends with an Anthology that includes transcribed conversations and lectures, diary entries, installation plans, postcards, newspaper articles, letters, an incongruously designed map of Mendieta’s travels and worksites, and a statement she made in 1982 at the New Museum in New York: “I believe that art, although it is a material part of culture, its greatest value is its spiritual role and the influence that it exercises in society, because art is the result of a spiritual activity of man and its greatest contribution is to the intellectual and moral development of man.” Traces is itself an offering. It honors Mendieta’s life and work and affords an intimate, privileged understanding of the artist.—JANELLE LYNCH

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JANELLE LYNCH is a photographer, teacher, and freelance writer based in New York City. She was a 2012-2013 Fellow at the Writers’ Institute, CUNY Graduate Center. Her second monograph, Barcelona, was published by Radius Books in 2013. www.janellelynch.net

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