A review by Will Heinrich for the New York Times.
One of the stickier problems facing galleries and museums these days is how to give more attention to marginalized voices without letting the marginalization itself dominate the conversation.
Arden Sherman, director and curator of Hunter East Harlem Gallery, found a simple solution in “Queenie,” a group show of overlooked works by Latin, Latin American, and Caribbean women from the permanent collection of El Museo del Barrio: staggering variety. With the help of Elizaveta Shneyderman and Olivia Gauthier of Hunter, on Third Avenue at 119th Street, and El Museo’s permanent collection manager, Noel Valentin, Ms. Sherman has assembled about as wide a range of genres and approaches as you could fit into a single room.
Carmen Herrera, the Cuban-American abstract artist, has a starkly handsome 1978 painting “Díptico,” which hasn’t been shown in decades: it is a simple black and green design of plunging angles across two canvases. María Fernanda Cardoso and Ross Rudesch Harley’s 1997 video “Cardoso Flea Circus (Circo de pulgas Cardoso)” is a confident bout of high-concept silliness. And the East Harlem painter Nitza Tufiño’s fabulously trippy “Pareja Taína (Taíno Couple)” depicts a buoyant pair of bug-eyed figures, their features inspired by artifacts of the indigenous Taíno people of the Caribbean, using a thin mix of acrylic and charcoal that leaves them wavering like an underwater mirage.
Not every piece in the show is equally strong, and not every strong piece is necessarily well served by even a discreet use of gender and ethnicity as an organizing principle — it risks reducing distinctive and distinctively self-sufficient artworks like Ms. Herrera’s painting into mere specimens of type. Two works from the Italian-born Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino’s wonderful “Codicilli” series, sand-colored concrete panels covered with embossments that look like a rain of tiny potatoes and a stately river of baguettes, seem to chafe against their company.
But altogether the work in the show significantly amplifies the force of its handful of explicitly political pieces, reflecting and expanding each declaration of female experience. The piece the show is named after, a bubblegum-pink horse skull adorned with nine-point epoxy antlers by Alessandra Expósito, is a good précis. Mounted on a lavender wall, the skull is decorated with Swarovski crystals, painted flowers and a cute oval funerary portrait of the mare itself under an ornate rendering of its name.
Such a concatenation of conventional gender markers can’t help but feel like irony, and inscribing the picture of a living animal on a gaudily decorated bit of its carcass seems like a bitter joke about the price of being a woman. It suggests a kind of psychic death going unacknowledged, even as its victim is held up as a trophy. Of course, it isn’t exactly irony, because it’s certainly not a joke — but it neatly conveys a painfully exaggerated anxiety about social cues and gender roles.
An even more jarring, joke-like incongruity characterizes four placemat-size “arpilleras,” the colorful wall-hangings documenting everyday brutalities, made by anonymous Chilean women during the Pinochet regime. Their naïve style enabled many of the works to be smuggled out of the country, though these four were collected in Chile. One shows a family of three seated around a table set for four under a portrait of the disappeared father; the best of the group elegantly depicts a group of protesters gathered around a body on fire.
A large documentary color photograph of the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s late-90s performance “The Burden of Guilt,” in which she swallowed balls of dirt while wearing a flayed lamb as a breastplate, takes the shock of dissonance in a more intentional direction. (Some Taíno supposedly killed themselves by eating dirt rather than submit to the Spanish.) If there’s ambiguity about whether the artist herself is playing officiant or sacrifice, her self-possessed expression makes clear that the performance itself is a way of taking control of the story.
Hidden away in the gallery’s back corner like an incandescent fuse, though, is the exhibition’s real power source: a grainy short video called “Blood Sign” that the great Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta made in 1974, when she was still a student at the University of Iowa, and which powerfully asserts her own body and person as universal values of their own.
The video opens on Ms. Mendieta, in nondescript clothing and with her long black hair hanging loose, pressing herself against a blank white wall. She could be trying to make an imprint on it or disappear into it. Then she reaches down into a painter’s tray of animal blood at her feet, wets her hands, and carefully traces a palm-thick line around her body and over her head. When she steps aside, she reveals a hollow column with a curved peak that could read as a phallic herm, an extended tombstone, or an emphatic cartoon of her own long hair. Inside this fiery but ambiguous picture, Ms. Mendieta writes the phrase “There is a Devil inside me;” her brief glance at the camera as she walks out of frame is the only glimpse the viewer gets of her face. It’s a total exposure of the self that reveals nothing.