A Walk on the Wild Side
by Manuel E González
María Martínez-Cañas is an icon in our community. The long, complex trajectory of her elegant and indefatigable artistic life is distinguished by questioning of conventional practices in the field of conceptual photography.
REBUS + DIVERSIONS (2016) is her most ambitious, inventive and personal body of work to date. It is composed of twenty assemblages in three different scales. They are muralistic in format with silver screen-like backgrounds. Each pictorial plane reads like a rebus: an allusional device in which words are represented by a combination of pictures, letters and other materials.
The accumulated personal memorabilia in the first works in the series is drawn largely from the archives of art curator and critic Jose Gomez Sicre and Cundo Bermúdez, one of the artists included in Modern Cuban Painters, the Museum of Modern Art’s pioneering 1944 exhibition that first revealed the diverse complexity of Cuban Modernism. Both men were close personal friends of the Martínez-Cañas family. As a collector, María’s father commissioned Bermúdez to do a portrait of his family, with whom the artist lived in Puerto Rico during his years in exile, later moving to a loft in old San Juan provided by the family. He was a most generous mentor to María during her formative years. Later, as an art dealer, María’s father purchased Gomez Sicre’s archives as a gift to his daughter. She considers the scanning and reprinting of this historical and archival material a transformative process: the rebirth of treasured originals that transcend their original Modernist intentions and brings them into the present as part of an inquiry trying to make sense of the fragmentary nature of memory and place.
Each work is the chapter of a saga, revealing Martínez-Cañas’ playful engagement with narratives involving origin, perception and identity, even as she questions the creative sources of her art. A change in her style is evident from the very first of these assemblages. Martínez-Cañas’ earlier tendency to control the placement of subjects appears disrupted. Images of 1940s women break or pop out from the structurally divided space. Found vintage prints of anonymous Latin ladies, epitomizing antiquated feminine roles, are randomly positioned, suggesting a shaking off of outworn, but powerful clichés, echoing in fractured form Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills.
These images are placed in ironic juxtaposition to re-photographed art historical newspaper and catalog clippings. A headline reads CUBANOS MODERN, but the image that controls this collage is legendary Mexican photographer Tina Modotti’s portrait and obituary. Peeking from behind are partial views of paintings by Amelia Pelaez (“Mujer Frente al Jardin” or “Woman in the Garden”) and Luis Martínez Pedro (“El Rapto” or “The Rape” or “The Abduction”). Both works were included in Modern Cuban Painters, reinforcing the connection with that exhibition. Humorously, the name of the show’s curator, ALFRED H BARR, is pasted at the lower right as if the artist is ceding authorship to that legendary figure.
Yet, as if to resist the suffocating allure of nostalgia, Martínez-Cañas tries to erase a photograph from the opening of MoMA’s exhibition and two images from an exhibition in Havana – one of a painting by Cundo Bermúdez and one of the artist with his two sisters at the opening for that show. As with Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953), this gesture is homage in the guise of experimentation. The inkjet reproduction proved a metaphor in medium: it was almost impossible to scrape. Martínez-Cañas resorted to sandpaper. The results were “new” surfaces as seductive and sensual as an old Italian fresco: a beguiling demonstration of curiosity and playful intuition as her primary means of navigating notions of constructed memory and issues of materiality, meaning and identity. From the artist’s point of view, this happy accident also allowed her to finally introduce drawing into her practice.
There are references, in REBUS + DIVERSIONS, to Victor Vasarely, Enrique Moret, Maríano Rodríguez, Antonio Gattorno, Mario Carreño. Even a rather homoerotic and voluptuous collage about one of her favorites, Agustin Fernández. But by chance or design, it is Jose Gomez Sicre who emerges as Martínez-Cañas pivotal influence and guide. There is his portrait. There is an investigation of a lecture Gomez Sicre gave on Joaquin Torres-Garcia. Most important, it is while investigating Gomez Sicre’s fascination for English sculptor Henry Moore that Martínez-Cañas’ sense of what is possible is renewed. There are reproductions of Moore’s in which parallel cords connect segments of his colossal sculptures. Trying to capture Moore’s three dimensionality into her work she introduced actual ropes to highlight the surfaces, riffing on that material with a reference to Dadaist Jean Arp’s early rope collages.
The series takes a turn when Martínez-Cañas altered concepts of simplicity go to sudden extremes. Moore ropes segue into Làszlo Moholy-Nagy’s use of wire. The wire thins into quotes of Gego’s Geometric abstractions and Jesus Rafael Soto Kinetic art references. Then the wire is rolled up, made into vortices or eddys and added to the work.
Martínez-Canas’s interest in architecture is manifest in quotes of Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus, Brutal Architecture and the introduction of Plexiglas. She finds architectural objects and structural additions at Ikea or at art supply stores. Their source is immaterial. Everything that surrounds her is a possibility. Glacine envelopes, negatives, Mel Bochner’s catalog covers to balsa wood, cement and garbage bags holders. It is all transformed. She is an alchemist mixing materials, methods and processes. Her custom of always doing her own printing leads her to experiment with unused photographic paper, mostly leftovers from her early Totem series of three decades earlier. She finds that depending on the type of paper the inkjet when exposed goes on changing color. She incorporates the revealed silver prints to the work in a flat or curved manner. In what some might consider a Freudian sadomasochistic gestural moment, she begins to pierce paper, drill Plexiglas and prick the created holes with plastic rods like arrows in a St. Sebastian.
Martínez-Cañas is an artist at the top of her form. This series reveals her intuitive, aleatory, yet highly deliberate process. The ideas are practical. The personal is never forgotten. She introduces her own early photos of landscapes, horizons and stairwells, then takes us on a journey through more elaborate and complex developments. Control is simply another element with which to play and explore. Chance never stops. Her ability to unify imagination, rationality, and passion results in the optic Proustian tale that is REBUS + DIVERSIONS. Her ultimate question is about the role and context of a creative person in present art historical circumstances. Indeed, in present world circumstances. There is no beginning or end, only brilliant possibilities.
Essay provided by Maria Martínez-Cañas.
The artist would like to thank The Pollock-Krasner Foundation for their financial support in the creation of the works included in this exhibition through a 2016 Photography Fellowship.