Most artists avoid the word “pretentious” at all costs, but conceptual artist Anna Maria Maiolino has no qualms about using the word to describe herself. Maiolino’s Territories of Immanence exhibit abounds with the unfamiliar: Stacked plaster circles, nonsensical films, and haphazard drop marks fill Miami Art Central as a retrospective look on her 46 year-long career.
Despite her prolific career, Maiolino is little known outside her native country of Brazil. So what makes her abstractions worth their place in a gallery? “Anna Maria belongs to a generation that is now being recognized internationally,” said Paulo Venancio Filho, one of the exhibit’s curators. “We hope to be a pioneer by showing artists not as known in the U.S. Brazilian art has this stock of great artists who will be known in the future.”
The Artist at Work
Prior to the exhibit’s opening, the MAC is a hive of activity. A frenzied buzz permeates the museum’s usual tranquility as staff members hurry to prepare for the opening later in the week. South Florida sunshine streams through the museum’s doors, thrust open to let in humidity, while Maiolino stands at a nearby table. With 3,000 pounds of museum-provided clay, Maiolino is creating original works, partially for her exhibit.
She is the last step of an assembly line to create long, snakelike rolls of clay that will become part of what resembles a mound of spaghetti. Two others, her assistant of 15 years, Edmundo de Paiva, and local artist Veronica Fazzio, comprise the other steps of the assembly line. Loud thumps fill the gallery as Fazzio throws the clay to remove air bubbles before de Paiva initially shapes the roll. Maiolino makes the finishing touches.
She leaves the table and begins a walk-through of the unfinished exhibit, pointing out pieces along the way. Maiolino’s cropped khaki trousers, black T-shirt, and lime green Chinese slippers emphasize her petite stature. Her brown eyes light up when she explains her work.
“I like using different media,” she says, strolling among films, paintings, sculpture, and drawings. “I can express the same idea in different ways. It’s a way to renovate myself.”
First stop is “They Are,” scattered stacks of white plaster donut shapes, cast from an original clay shape. “This is not traditional sculpture,” Maiolino explains. “We can fragment it. One piece can stand by itself. It’s like an amoeba: If it loses one piece, that piece can survive alone.”
The pieces, which she began in 1993, form gentle circles with subtle wrinkles along their curve. The ends of pieces in some stacks line up in an orderly fashion, others do not.
Next, “The Shadow of the Other” from her Sculpture Installation series. These are square shapes in muted earth tones, hollowed out with gaping holes. Originally used as molds used for clay shapes, Maiolino has decided to make these pieces of artwork. “The mold is usually broken, but it shows this idea of the positive and negative. The positive is the shape that comes from the mold, and the negative is the mold itself,” she says.
Following the idea of positive and negative, she points out her Material Codification series, paintings created by drop marks. Simple black streaks on white canvas appear calculated. Some look like bloom-less flower stems, others are jointed like tree branches. In a later series, New Drop Marks, Maiolino creates negative images of these on a black background. “These show a dynamic relationship between the ink, gravitation, air, wind, humidity, and paper,” she says, drawing parallels to the open doors of the museum.
Her explanations make sense, but that begs the question: Can the average gallery-goer appreciate Maiolino’s work without her clarification?
The answer depends on the time frame of her work. Her early, autobiographical work attracts the eye with bright primary colors and holds that attention with their literal forms. “The Trip,” a depiction of Maiolino’s emigration to South America from her birthplace of Italy, labels its parts: Mae and Pai (mother and father in Portugese, respectively), Anna, and “Maaaarrrr” (the sea). “Waiting,” an installation piece that creates a clothesline-complete with clothespins and washing-outside a simulated window reflects Maiolino’s belief in the multiple roles of a woman’s life-an idea that resurfaces multiple times in her work.
Certainly, one could argue that Maiolino’s extensive clay work mimics the kneading of dough in baking. “Sometimes I come back to more traditional styles, like a diver coming up for air,” she says. While Maiolino describes her early pieces as “primitive,” these are the works that will appeal most to a general audience, which makes it a real shame that they hide in a corner on the second floor of the exhibit.
At the opening of the exhibit, the MAC roars with conversation and boisterous jazz. The crowd snacks on hors d’oeurves and sips mojitos as they tour the gallery. While the occasional child scampers by, the attendees as a whole make up an older demographic. Maiolino herself remains low profile, draped in deep purple, as she takes in the scene with Filho.
Whether one understands her work or not, Maiolino’s passion and ideas are undeniable. “I want to be a testimony to my time,” Maiolino says. “It sounds pretentious, but to have the desire is fine.” It may require a stretch, but those willing to go out a limb just may grab the point of Maiolino’s work.
Territories of Immanence will remain in Miami Art Central until June 18. The museum, located just west of campus, is open to the public from Tuesdays through Sundays, 12:00 to 7:00 p.m. Admission is free for students.
Hannah Bae can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.