Anna Maria Maiolino at MOCA Los Angeles | August 4, 2017 – January 22, 2018
Though a square may seem rigid and insular in its art historical associations to Minimalism or geometric abstraction, its philosophical associations to Plato’s ideals, its idiomatic associations to square personalities that fail to think outside the box, and fixed gazes that look square in the eyes, squares are, in fact, generative in their geometry and universal in their ability to structure a form of organization. Drawing a diagonal line from one corner to another, a square produces two isosceles triangles with an irrational (and therefore infinite) hypotenuse. Bisecting a square vertically and horizontally at the midpoint of each side produces four squares, which can be divided endlessly to produce smaller and smaller squares. Surely this is a crude description of geometric operations, but perhaps it can serve to foreground a different entry into the formal considerations of Anna Maria Maiolino’s body of work.
Squares figure prominently in Maiolino’s paper works from the 1970s. As a participant of the Neo-Concrete movement commonly associated with artists like Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, and Lygia Pape, Maiolino’s reliance on this geometric form seems to be read as characteristically oppositional to the mathematical rigor advocated by Concrete artists, and therefore exemplary of Neo-Concrete alliances. Suffice it to say that stylistic identifications are predominantly the function of art historical framing within monographic exhibitions, so let us consider the square outside the frequently cited references to New Brazilian Objectivity.
In her Mapas Mentais (Mental Maps) series, Maiolino adopts matrices to house signifiers of her identity. Eu (1971) is a clear example, which situates the first person subject pronoun, eu (I in Portuguese), in spatial configurations that represent the various permutations for typographic placement: upper-center, middle-center, lower-center, lower left, upper right, rotated by 90 degrees, reversed, etc. In all its variations, the eu appears along the x and y-axis, consistently contained within each unit of the 6 x 6 matrix. On a purely visual level, this interpretation of a matrix may read as a commentary of how something as small as a subject pronoun could frame a linguistic (and perhaps existential) awareness of the self. The many articulations of the eu, though they appear to be composed of the same morphemes, could also be read as an endless variation, and therefore as a difference of place and time. Alternatively, perhaps the eye that reads is the eye that recognizes that language situates the subject of the sentence in multiple places and times. A typical reading of Neo-Concretism would propose for artworks to be interpreted as non-objects that challenge Cartesian dualism, but whether Eu would embody this opposition to the split between body and mind is difficult to surmise without a direct reference to phenomenology (a task admittedly beyond my intellectual means!).
So for the time being, with my limited means, we turn to consider Capítulo I and Capítulo II (1971). Presented on a slightly larger matrix (8 x 8), these two works incorporate richer signifiers, color, numbers, stenciled letters, and English. The artist speaks Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese fluently, but English does not seem to be a dominant language in her work. Therefore, the turn to English here is striking, as it was also produced in the year that she returned to São Paulo, after spending 3 years in New York. According to anecdotal accounts by the artist, Maiolino lamented her time in New York as being artistically unproductive. Though her then-husband, Rubens Gerchman, actively engaged with fellow Brazilian emigrés in a rich exchange of artistic production, Maiolino often felt excluded from these conversations. She left her husband in 1971, to return to her home in São Paulo. This biographical detail cannot be directly applied to a reading of these particular works without a verification from the artist, but perhaps they lend insight into an alienation embodied by her appropriation of a foreign language. In both of these paper works, there are several references to feelings of longing, hardship, uncertainty, and anguish: “restlessness”, “childbirth”, “war”, “sorrow”, “questions”, “find”, etc. Notably, references to her homes and loved ones are iterated in her mother tongues: “Brasil”, Italia”, “nonno.” The stenciled “I” in this instance, bears a passing resemblance to the abbreviation for identity within group tables. The identity, in group theory, is the zero element. Through a series of operations, the element will return back to itself, just as the addition of zero to any integer will produce the integer itself. This return assumes that there are a finite set of operations which will limit all possible movements of the prime element into a set of permutations that can be reduced to their simplest forms. Whether the I is a reference to the English first-person subject pronoun, a purely symmetrical form, or a reference to an algebraic variable that is meant to have a metaphoric dimension mirroring the artist’s interiority is open to speculation, but what is certain is the vast potential for linguistic, mathematical, and phenomenological readings of this work. Art history currently suffers from anachronistic analytic tools that prevent multi-layered unpacking of works, so a rudimentary experimentation with references outside the discipline have been employed here for further consideration.