Clarissa Tossin's "The Mayan"

Commonwealth and Council (September 9 - October 21, 2017)

In the catalogue of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, Homi Bhabha contributed an essay that would provide a critical theory through which to address the limits of multiculturalism. It seems relevant to revisit the polemics of the 1990s today, because now more than ever, we need to create room for the in-between.  Opening up a playful space for metaphoric materiality and cultural ambiguity, Clarissa Tossin’s exhibition, The Mayan, graciously offers a field for “the back and forth, hither and thither”[1] that Bhabha had articulated in relation to the translation that the spectator must negotiate in the recognition of cultural hybridity. 

As participants, we are invited to decode references not to arrive at a totalistic understanding of the sculptures’ site-specificity, but rather to approximate a sense for the careful effort required to unpack notions of difference and authenticity. Tossin has created five sculptures – some that are freestanding and some that are affixed to Commonwealth and Council’s architecture.  In each iteration, she juxtaposes synthetic and organic materials to render her references just familiar enough to resemble their rarefied originals.  For instance, in each of her sculptures, she incorporates skin-colored silicone casts of the facades of the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles, an entertainment venue designed in the “late 1920s Mayan Revival Style” by Francisco Cornejo.  The silicone is lightweight and malleable enough to capture every impression; it is no wonder then that this material is commonly used to create face masks in Hollywood productions, and that perhaps the theme of mimicry could also be mediated through this choice.   

Less obvious, however, is the reference to the Brazilian commodity of rubber, a theme that has been previously invoked in pieces like Transplanted (VW Brasilia) from 2012.  In this work, Tossin cast an original Volkswagen Brasilia with natural latex.  The VW Brasilia was marketed in the 1970s as an extension of the Modernism symbolized by Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture and industrial development.  Rubber stands in for the naturally rich and exportable reserves of the Brazilian economy, a resource that to many who were critical of the Developmentalism of this era, exacerbated the country’s favelas and income inequality. Tossin’s succinct choice of material thus reveals a poetic function that extends beyond the superficial reference to Mayan hieroglyphs and special effects make-up. 

But of course, Mayan hieroglyphs are laden with signification, mythology, and tradition.    Tossin’s decision to appropriate Cornejo’s mediation of Mayan themes, could produce endless origins-- not unlike the hrönir in Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” -- but the impossibility of locating an origin is half the point.  Within the facades of the Mayan Theatre, Cornejo seems to have quoted certain icons and figures directly from historic stele.  In other instances, he may have crafted his own interpretations based on an internalization of the style -- at least this is what we are led to believe by Tossin’s suggestive titles.  A piece like Yaxchilán Lintel 25 (feathered serpent) references one of three famous lintels comprising Structure 23, original to the ancient site of Yaxchilán in present day Chiapas, but a comparative analysis is, again, beside the point.  Beyond the appropriated imagery and the comedic misappropriation of the title, the joke is made funnier by a rectangular scrap of faux reptile skin (likely purchased from a wholesale fabric store in LA’s Garment District) layered with a serpentine braid adorned with hokey quetzal feathers.

Tossin does not merely appropriate titles, but she also makes deft references to a museological presentations of pre-Columbian artifacts.   In A cycle of time we don’t understand (reversed, invented, and rearranged), Tossin has framed modular fragments of her Mayan-themed skin to hang in a manner akin to the way incomplete reliefs are installed to preserve a sense of the historic presentation; the upper-left and lower-right-hand corners frame the wall, as if to suggest that they fill in the outer edges of a whole.  She balances the empty space with cast hands and feet that protrude from the wall.  According to the press release, these body parts were cast from dyed plaster and made to resemble ceremonial gestures employed by Mayan dancers.  In Tossin’s work, the digits extend into three-dimensional space to materialize her performative reading of Mayan hieroglyphs, themselves a gateway into the artist’s interest in Mayan cosmology.  They also serve functional roles, acting as additional supports from which more skin can hang, and extending the trope of mimicry further by referencing terracotta as the name of a color, rather than a form of earthenware.

The hands also appear in A two-headed serpent held in the arms of human beings, or Ticket Window.  The arrangement of the hands in mid-gesture and the natural drapery of the silicone call to mind the square neck of a huipil, a traditional blouse worn by Mayan women.  The many references to textiles, skins, and clothing, not only orient the work in relation to a body, but it also lends itself to a metaphor of adorning identity as a skin or a mask.   In our culture of identity politics and consumerism, where authenticity can be sold as a commodity, Tossin’s humorous and de-essentialist approach serve as a timely example for how we can speak of our differences without resorting to the trappings of universal characterizations, assimilation, or cultural segregation.   


[1] Homi K. Bhabha, “Beyond the Pale: Art in the Age of Multicultural Translation,” 1993 Biennial Exhibition (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993) 64.