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Bodily Dysfunction

One of the first things you may notice upon entering the Schmidt Center Gallery at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton is a grand piano in the far left corner of the gallery. On it sits a small placard reading "Attention Patrons: This Piano Is Not Part of the Exhibition." At first, I thought, "How silly." The Art and Culture Center of Hollywood keeps a grand piano tucked away in its main gallery, and there's no sign to ensure it's not mistaken as part of a show.

But then I reconsidered. Given that installations and multimedia works are so prominent in contemporary art, maybe it's understandable that the piano could easily blend into one of the pieces around it, especially since the Schmidt is such a small gallery.

The small, compelling, but ultimately dismaying exhibition that the piano is not a part of is "Corporal: Contemporary Women Artists from Latin America," which includes works by a baker's dozen artists from seven countries. In the modest but handsomely produced brochure to the show, guest curator Giannina Coppiano Dwin wrestles with the familiar question of what defines Latin America: "Neither language nor geography contains the criteria for being Latin American. Latin America eludes rigid and simplistic identity politics."

George Bolge, executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, addressed the same question in the catalog to last year's "Reality and Figuration: The Contemporary Latin American Presence" at the Boca museum. He made the point that Latin America is a political and cultural designation rather than a geographical one, made problematic "in that it covers populations that are so diverse, and cultural traditions and practices that differ so widely."

Dwin gets around the problem by presenting "a group of artists thematically joined by their interest in exploring the physicality of bodies. Whether their own, those of others or those of animals, these artists focus on body-centered concerns...They offer multiple responses reflecting their diverse histories, ethnicities and geographic locations."

Early in the show are two strange pieces incorporating animals and insect parts. Maria Fernanda Cardoso, who was born in Colombia and now lives in Australia, uses nearly three dozen insect tongues in a sheet of opaque white plastic for the delicate Tongues. And her Ranas Bailando (Dancing Frogs) is a ring of 46 preserved frogs. Both the frogs and the insect tongues are eerie in their simultaneous sameness and uniqueness.

Another animal, the horse, plays a part in both of the show's video pieces. Mexican artist Silvia Gruner's El hombre que amo/La mujer que espera is a VHS video diptych, with one screen featuring a mechanical toy horse in frantic (and noisy) motion. The other screen shows a hand stroking the coat of an unidentifiable animal, seen in extreme close-up. The gender commentary here is heavy-handed and obvious.

The Longest Year, a video by Eugenia Vargas of Chile, is subtler. Its imagery, often blurry and punctuated by blasts of strobe light, features a woman and a horse, and it conjures up all sorts of connotations about women and horses in history and art.

Not surprisingly, some of the pieces are explicitly political. Mexico's Margarita Cabrera comments on the use of cheap foreign labor to make goods for Americans by "upholstering" household appliances -- Wafflemaker, Slow Cooker, and Toaster -- with brightly colored vinyl. She leaves long strands of thread to emphasize the handmade quality of the items.

Delcy Morelos, another Colombian, uses scale and startlingly bright color to great effect in No es un rio, es una madre (It's not a river, it's a mother). The piece consists of four large paper panels, unframed and tacked to the wall, with roughly the bottom two-thirds spattered and layered in blood-red acrylic. In the context of the show's theme, the pigment suggests both menstrual blood and the blood shed in a country wracked by drug wars.

The show's one American-born artist -- Sandra Bermudez, who is of Colombian descent -- combines her Wallpaper and Pillow series for what looks like an ordinary wall covered in ordinary wallpaper. Get close, however, and you'll see that the patterns on the wall are made up of countless tiny nude portraits of the artist. As a panel nearby explains, "her nude image is reduced and repeated in pin-up poses and placed on a brightly colored background. The nude portraits have been 'cleaned up' to eliminate natural orifices and pubic hair, further objectifying the female body by rendering it unable to menstruate, procreate or nourish." Pillow 22, a 30-by-40-inch color photo in the center of the wallpapered wall, is such an extreme close-up that you can't identify the body portion it's portraying.

A nearby piece on the gallery floor, by Sandra Ramos of Chile, provides additional pillows -- literally. Sola, de noche, me caso con la cama consists of five pillows with images applied in embroidery, gold leaf, and paint. Dwin attaches political significance to the pillows, but if there's a political statement there, it escaped me.

Perhaps the exhibition's most haunting pieces are those of Janneth Méndez of Ecuador, who, according to the brochure, "ritualistically collects skin, nails, hair and bodily fluids. Unknown people of different ethnic origins and socio-political backgrounds are woven into one single presence in her constructions."

It sounds a bit creepy, I know, but Méndez pulls it off somehow. An untitled piece consists of ten small wooden panels that contain ghostly fragments of human skin. And for Paréntesis, the artist has collected strands of hair and painstakingly woven them into half a dozen oddly graceful forms that hang on the wall. Individual identities become part of a communal identity.

Half a dozen large color photographs by Mónica Van Asperen, an Argentinian, are among the exhibition's slickest, most provocative pieces. Three are on a wall inside the gallery, the other three high above the gallery in the Schmidt Center's foyer. The photos are part of a series called Inclusion de mi hacia el otro (Inclusion of myself toward the other), and they all feature pairs of nudes connected with coils of flesh-tone elongated balloons that cover their heads and upper bodies.

Dwin, in the brochure, describes these figures as "quasi-androgynous," but to me, they all look clearly male. The nudes, in sharp focus on an empty set, variously stand, lean, and crouch. In some pictures, the balloons are like a mass of thick spaghetti, while in others, they suggest, especially from a slight distance, condoms of a sort. Unwittingly or not, Van Asperen has created imagery that powerfully evokes the way so many contemporary gay males are linked in a time when all bodies are suspect. I say "unwittingly" because so much of the content of "Corporal" is female-oriented. But this reading of Van Asperen's piece is very much in keeping with the show's stated concerns.

The downside to "Corporal" is that it feels incomplete. Granted, the Schmidt Center Gallery is a relatively small exhibition space, but I came away wishing that the show had included two or three more pieces by most of the artists. Then again, a show about bodies that's something of a tease may be entirely appropriate.

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Michael Mills

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