For centuries, both painting and sculpture were synonymous with the representation of figures; the earliest images we know are figurative. The foundation of Cristina Córdova’s work lies squarely within this global tradition. Her work is deeply poetic and highly theatrical; its sensual, playful, and mysterious qualities are a provocative mix of religious imagery, popular culture, and social issues. Like traditional sculpture and tribal art, it’s grounded in the principles of catharsis, spiritual drama, and philosophical abstraction.
Although Córdova’s work is tightly realist in nature, it’s also profoundly conceptual. As she has said, she wants to make figures that navigate the territory between “the sensorial experience of an object and the psychological nature of our involuntary dialogs with the self-referential.” She provides the screen; the viewers project their own responses onto it. She uses the figure as a vehicle for broad concerns and representations, creating an intangible atmosphere that surrounds her figures and tableaux like a bubble. Her figures have nothing to do with a specific person, they are not portraits; although they are generally conventionally beautiful, their faces, bodies, and poses are universal and often duplicated. Their features are pan-racial and their emotional temperatures are open to interpretation. The work is not subtle, it’s dramatically confrontational; the psychological status of her figures proclaims itself to the viewer via the theatrical positioning of the bodies; they present an encyclopedia of gesture language. Córdova is able to widen the viewer’s dialog with the objects because the expressions she depicts are often ambiguous; the viewer fills in the blanks with private desires.
Cristina Córdova working in her studio.
Colonia, 5 ft. 1 in. (1.5 m) in height, ceramic, resin, steel, 2014. Photo: Steve Mann.
One of the most notable aspects of her work is the impression of frozen movement; this may be due to Córdova’s lifelong interest in dance. She’s also been influenced by a number of contemporary artists including Doug Jeck, Susana Espinoza, Jaime Suárez, and Judy Fox. There are marked resemblances between her work and that of Arthur Gonzalez. She is also drawn to Ife terra-cotta heads and early Roman busts. Córdova’s deepest influences and aesthetic inclinations have evolved from her Puerto Rican heritage and Catholic upbringing. Her interests in intense coloration, dramatic or surrealist contrasts, and heightened emotion are drawn from these two richly personal and traditional sources.
Córdova’s sculptural technique is a variation on slab-building. The slabs are manipulated, pinched, pulled, carved, cut apart, and reassembled. She has recently started using solid construction techniques as well. Working at a variety of scales from small and intimate to life sized; her pieces often consist of a number of grouped sections. Although many of her figures are made entirely of clay, her work is frequently mixed media, including materials such as metals, glass, and wood. The glazed and sometimes painted surfaces are varied, textured, and worn, or smooth and defined. Her use of color ranges from pale and faded to saturated and intense. Recent work includes surfaces created using serigraphic underglaze prints. In all cases, the color tightly fits the object; it’s integral to the visual impact and determines the emotional environment.
Córdova’s work is eerie and introspective; her characters often seem melancholic and displaced. They are representations of complex beings isolated within some mysterious drama and immersed in dreamy insularity. Many of the figures are placed in classical poses marked with hyper-realistic detailing including glassy, life-like eyes and teeth. She sculpts women more often than men; her figures are both dark and light-skinned. Often the serious content of the work is at odds with the expressions on the faces. Her series of heads of women, some with flowers in their hair, are simply decorative and represent a celebration of Puerto Rican life and tradition. She does not translate the Spanish titles because she feels that the language she pulls from is colloquial and nuanced and often does not translate specifically word for word without losing something.
Que Mamen! 26 in. (66 cm) in height, ceramic, lusters, 2014.
Córdova’s Colonia (Colony) references the complicated political relationship between the US and Puerto Rico. It is a metaphor for a proud yet disenfranchised territory held back by an uncertain political status. Colonia is a small, gesturing figure with short curly hair, yellow eyes, and white teeth glowing from a dark face. She’s standing on a large, golden shell precariously balanced on one of a series of coppery rock-like forms. These seem to be slipping away from beneath her leaving her suspended in mid-air. The entire assemblage is mounted on the wall. A single strip of steel resembling the outlines of a state on a map constrains the forms.
Que Mamen depicts two darkly glazed ceramic figures reminiscent of bronze that hang from the wall; a reclining mother with sleeping child. There are random splashes of gold paint on their bodies that refer to the use of gold in Renaissance religious paintings. One of the woman’s arms is under her head, one knee crooked so that her sprawling, extravagant body seems to be twisting off the wall. Her infant son lies asleep on her arm; she seems half awake. There is nothing of goddess or Madonna about her; she is relaxed and sexy, nude rather than naked. Córdova explains the title: Que Mamen translates into “Let them suck!” (from the verb mamar (to suck)). For Córdova it is a metaphor for an unsustainable socio-political limbo, “drawing life from foreign resources without mutual accountability. . . .” The title is Goya-esque, reminiscent of those used in his Disasters of War.
El Rey is a mixed-media, wall-supported, life-sized upper torso of a man accompanied by a dog-like creature standing before him on the floor. They resemble African fetish figures as they are paved with hundreds of wooden pieces that both define and obscure their bodies. The wood fragments are splintery, charred, painted or left raw with pieces of rusty steel randomly
interspersed among them. Córdova attached these elements to each other and the figures with wire and epoxy. The animal’s black feet can be seen but its features are totally concealed. The man’s left hand is just visible under his thicket of sticks; he stares regally into the middle distance. She sourced all the materials from Puerto Rico and Penland, North Carolina, where she currently resides, including beer cans and barn wood from dilapidated structures. Fabricated primarily from discarded materials, El Rey (The King) speaks to a richness and power that falls outside the normal currency of value in the same realm as culture and identity.
Jinete is the result of Córdova’s collaboration with glass artist Martin Janeckey. It is a wall-mounted, sexually ambiguous figure astride the neck of an earless, polka-dotted animal resembling a horse. The head, neck, and arms are clay; the creature and lower parts of the figure are glass. The roughly textured, truncated torso stands in high contrast to the glassy neck of the animal. The vaguely medieval costume of the rider is derived from a different reality than that of his mount, which looks like a portion of a child’s toy.
Traditionally, it’s been the role of figurative sculpture to convey, connote, or stand in for assertions regarding the sensuality of the body and the immateriality of the soul. Even portraiture, although specific to an individual, is about the humanity of the model. This is especially true for Córdova who has stated that her investigation of the figure allows her “to understand the indeterminate and ever changing aspects of our humanity.” Córdova has taken the figurative tradition and turned it to her own purposes, her work evokes rich psychological and social experiences.
the author Kathleen Whitney is a sculptor and writer living in Los Angeles, California.