- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

The “Me Decade,” Tom Wolfe’s famous label for the mass self-absorption that he attributed to American popular culture of the 1970s, had its counterpart in the visual arts. Among the self-absorbed new directions in the art of the time were the “minimalist,” “conceptual,” “performance,” “earth” and “body” art movements.

One of the least known members of this “Me Generation” of avant garde artists of the ‘70s and ‘80s is Cuban-born “earth body” sculptor Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), whose work is just now receiving its first survey at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden — almost 30 years after she fell to her death from the window on the 34th floor of the Greenwich Village apartment she shared with her husband Andre.

Tried for her murder, her husband was acquitted in February 1988.

During her short lifetime, Miss Mendieta was eclipsed by more aggressive male artists. Among them were earth works artist Robert Smithson, performance artist Vito Acconci and conceptualist Yves Klein.

Critical pigeonholing of Miss Mendieta as a Latina feminist artist contributed to her neglect.

Shipped out of Cuba at age 12 in 1961 under the Catholic Church’s Operation Peter Pan to rescue children from the virulent anti-Catholicism of the Castro regime, she and her older sister Raquelin were sent to foster homes and a boarding school in Iowa. They were finally reunited with their mother, Raquel, and brother Ignacio in 1966.

Turning to art as a way of alleviating her early traumas, Miss Mendieta earned two master’s degrees at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, the first in painting and, later, a second in the new Intermedia Program.

Miss Mendieta believed her art was intimately connected with her youthful exile. “I have been carrying on a dialogue between the landscape and the female body,” she is quoted as saying in the exhibit catalog. “I believe this is a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature).”

Her desire to re-establish connections with Cuba led her to create the well-known “Silhueta Series,” in which she pressed her naked figure into the earth, leaving behind the outline of her contours, or silhouette. Using the landscape of Iowa as a surrogate for that of Cuba, she could imaginatively return to her native land.

Like that of many of her contemporaries, her art is mostly ephemeral. She didn’t seem to care whether the public saw her work or not. Now, as in her lifetime, viewers experience much of her work only indirectly, through the medium of photographs, films or videos.

Still, these are better than nothing.

The photo of “Nanigo Burial,” a “silhueta,” shows the vestiges of her contours left in the wax from 47 partly burned, black candles melted on to the floor. In a way, she’s left her spiritual, as well as physical, presence there.

The general public may be repulsed by Miss Mendieta’s works using what looks like blood. The first gallery’s “Untitled (Body Tracks),” for example, shows the artist dragging her “blood-dipped” arms down a white surface attached to a wall. That the “blood” was either animal blood or red tempera doesn’t diminish the image’s terror.

In her signature “silhuetas,” the artist used her body as what Mr. Klein would have called “living brushes.” As exhibit curator Olga Viso writes in the show’s catalog, “Mendieta’s cipher — the naked female form that performs in the studio, merges with the landscape, is etched on a leaf, or is burned into the soil or a tree trunk — is the hallmark of her production.”

The ideas behind Miss Mendieta’s earth body art are somewhat obtuse and difficult for the visitor to comprehend. A more understandable approach to laying out the show would have been starting with Miss Mendieta’s later, more permanent art — sculptures from her “Trees” and “Mother Goddesses” series, for example — instead of placing them at the exhibit’s end.

A major focus of her work is the “Mother Goddess,” as both a revered, centuries-old fertility image and as a goddess who ate her children. It was a popular subject for her fellow female artists in New York in the early 1970s, but she imbued it with power through repetition, constantly drawing, sculpting, printing and painting the goddess. As Miss Viso explains, the metaphor of the artist’s body as an extension of the earth appears in rivers, sandy beaches, clay, forests, leaves and trees.

Miss Mendieta’s art is one of appropriation and fits perfectly into the current postmodern, pluralistic art ambience. Her expression, however, is not original enough to warrant this kind of retrospective.

The artist died young, and the work she left behind is still immature.

Visitors can only surmise what her art would have been had she lived.

WHAT: “Ana Mendieta, Earth Body: Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985”

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Seventh Street and Independence Avenue, SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. through Jan. 2

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-100e

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