The precarious art of Cecilia Vicuña

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The precarious art of Cecilia Vicuña
An undated photo provided by Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and David Heald shows “Little House to Think What Real Situation Suits Me” (1971), a six-panel screen covered with scenes of political events of that time, in the show “Cecilia Vicuña: Spin Spin Triangulene” at the Guggenheim Museum. Chilean-born, New York-based, Vicuña emerges at the Guggenheim after years under the art-market radar with just the right scrappy feel. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; David Heald via The New York Times.

by Holland Cotter

NEW YORK, NY.- After the spectacle of high-end hoarding that was this spring’s art fair and auction season, it’s refreshing to find a career survey at the Guggenheim Museum of an artist who has always regarded much of her work as disposable — she refers to one series of sculptures as “basuritas” (little garbages) — and has used it to promote the ideal of a socially and environmentally sustainable world.

The artist is Cecilia Vicuña, who was born in Chile in 1948. And the survey, with the wind-chime-sounding title “Cecilia Vicuña: Spin Spin Triangulene,” is her first in New York, where she has lived, pretty much under the mainstream art market radar, for some four decades. This has changed in the past few years. International prizes, honors and major shows have suddenly flooded her way. But why so late?

Over the years, she’s been a tough sell. Like all female artists, she’s probably been viewed, institutionally, as bad box office. As a transcultural figure — Latin American-born but long a resident of the United States; Indigenous by self-election more than by birth — she has been hard to profile. Then there’s the fact that she has a substantial, even primary reputation as a published poet. A large percentage of her creative output has been in the ephemeral form of performed and printed words, all but unsalable and uncollectable, investment-wise, in an art world context.

Finally, her ardent career-long politics, declared and lived — anti-capitalist, eco-activist, pro-underdog — has been and is about as far from a Frieze ethos as you can get.

All of this factors into her Guggenheim show, which has a scrappy, fragmented, improvised feel, exactly right for an artist who has deliberately avoided permanence and polish, and who once said of much of the most familiar art she has made: “We are made of throwaways, and we will be thrown away.”

What’s surprising about the show — organized by Pablo León de la Barra, the museum’s curator at large for Latin America, and Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães, an associate curator at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao — is the dominant presence it gives to painting, a medium not usually associated with this artist. Examples, most modest in size and done in a spirited faux-naïve style inspired by religious folk art, popular political graphics, and 1960s psychedelia, line the two lower ramps of the museum’s rotunda and provide a symbolic account of Vicuña’s life.

In a 1971 painting called “Autobiografía (Autobiography)” she depicts herself at different stages of childhood, as the independent-minded daughter of a middle-class, politically liberal family, which had a history of nurturing female artists. At 11, we see her discovering an interest in dancing, performing. As a teenager she falls triply in love, with a boy, with nature, and with the art of writing, all passions that will sustain her.

A painting titled “Amados (Loved Ones)” is a group portrait of figures who, up to that point, had shaped her intellectual and spiritual development, among them historical poets (William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud), saviors and saints (Jesus, the Buddha, St. Teresa of Avila, Lao Tzu), and at least one painter, Vincent van Gogh. Individual pictures she produced at this 1960s cusp moment include likenesses of Karl Marx and Janis Joplin.

Most ambitious of all is a figure-jammed six-panel screen covered with panoramic views of then-up-to-the-moment political events, from international anti-war and gay rights demonstrations to the efforts of Salvador Allende, Chile’s elected socialist president, to establish a pro-democracy government.

Vicuña made these paintings as a graduate art student in London. It was while she was there that Allende was toppled in a right-wing military coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power and initiated a long, violent reign of anti-leftist suppression in Chile. (Allende shot himself rather than surrender, according to his doctor.) Vicuña stayed on in London until 1975 and then continued her self-exile closer to home by moving to Bogotá, Colombia. In 1980, she relocated permanently to New York, which she had visited years before.

From this point on, it would seem, her art changed, quieted down, became tamer. That, at least, is the impression created by this survey’s spotlighting of brash early 1970s pictures, which are followed by topically less specific ones, and then by what appears to be a different sort of art altogether: language-based, performative, abstract.

In fact, Vicuña had been producing abstract forms of activist work since the 1960s, much of it in response to her deepening love of the natural world and her recognition of its vulnerability in the face of industrial pollution. Her family had a vacation home at a spot called Concón on Chile’s Pacific Coast. The beach there was within sight of a large oil refinery built in 1954 atop a thousands-years-old Indigenous cemetery.

Vicuña remembers her feet being blackened with oil when she waded in the sea there as a child. She also remembers standing on the beach one January day in 1966, still in her teens, and spontaneously gathering bits of tidal debris — sticks, shells, gull feathers — and arranging them, singly or tied together, upright in the sand in what must have been an altarlike configuration, which she associated with an ancient Indigenous presence.

Although her family history is almost entirely Spanish, she early on identified with Indigenous cultures and has been acutely aware of the damage, past and continuing, visited on them and their land, by European colonialism. Much of her art reflects this association. She called the fragile beach sculptures “precarios” (precarious things) and has made countless numbers over years, including more than 400 in 1971 as a personal gesture of protest to the anti-Indigenous Pinochet regime.

She also created a second, similar type of ritual objects, this one from industrial waste materials such as plastic, and gave them a name too: “basuritas.” Both types of objects are, by design and use, ephemeral, meant to be swept away by tides and time, though at the Guggenheim you can find examples in Vicuña’s enchanting 2010 video “Kon Kon,” which is in the show.

Both precarios and basuritas are invented forms, but another that Vicuña has used repeatedly is directly adapted from a pre-Columbian object called the quipu. A kind of openwork weaving made of knotted cords, or thread, the traditional Andean quipus found in burials may have been used as calculation instruments or memory recorders. Feared for their unknown meaning, they were routinely destroyed by Spanish colonials and outlawed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Vicuña has used variations on the quipu form repeatedly, and produced a monumental version for the occasion. Called “Extermination Quipu,” and installed on the first ramp, it’s composed of three ragged-looking cascades of raw wool colored blood-red, funereal black and soiled-white. What gives the piece interest, even mystery, are the things knotted into the wool: dried twigs, lengths of wire, hanks of hair, what could be shards of bone, which turn the whole into a kind of suspended reliquary, a memento mori that is also a power-object of the kind that made the Spanish so nervous.

The artist originally proposed a quipu that would descend from the Guggenheim’s crowning sixth-level skylight down into the rotunda. The museum said no but the idea had logic, since the survey concludes on Ramp 6 (Ramps 3, 4, and 5 are occupied by the Kandinsky show) with a sampling of Vicuña’s language-based performance and protest art.

Much of this work, like the precarios, has roots in 1966, in a series of what the artist called “palabrarmas,” language drawings created by splicing several words together, or dissecting one word into several parts, to form complex and eye-catching visual designs. In the past, palabrarmas — the term combines Spanish words for “word” and “weapons” — have assumed active political life on posters and banners addressing Indigenous rights, women’s rights and environmental issues.

A sampling of word-weapon banners caps this porous but passionate survey, a show that physically skips up and down the museum and skips around in an artist’s history (late work precedes early); that dodges the question of ethnic essentialism and healthily rejects distinctions between poetry and art. If it leaves you sometimes a little off-kilter, with questions, not sure what to think, that seems to be the point, judging by the artist’s metaphor-threaded exhibition title, “Spin Spin Triangulene.”

A triangulene is an unstable molecule in constant spiraling motion. In Latin America, multinational oil and mineral mines drill relentlessly down into the earth. (Vicuña suggests in a recent painting that the Guggenheim was built on money once derived from such a mine.) Certain Indigenous monuments — the celestial observatory at Chichén Itzá — are based on the spiral form. So is Frank Lloyd Wright’s vertigo-inducing light-pool of a museum, which Vicuña thinks she remembers seeing as a young person not long after it opened. It’s great to close a circle and have her, rich in work, years and perspective, back there.

Cecilia Vicuña: Spin Spin Triangulene

Through Sept. 5, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave., Manhattan, (212) 423-3500;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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