1 Anna Maria Maiolino in the studio, 2014.
Despite its lyric intensity and overt sensuality, the work of Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino isn’t easy to look at. The work is confrontational and uncomfortable, a profound experience of the banned, inhibited, and repressed. Her work is about the body: mouths, organs, intestines, cavities, and its functions: sex, eating, and excretion, the cycles of living and dying. While it elevates the abject, it also celebrates the senses; the sculpture strikes you at an innate, preverbal, and visceral level.
Elimination and sensual pleasure are joined in her objects, as she says, “the intestine is a hole we can never fill, just as we can never fulfill desire.” She finds it “impossible not to talk, not to poetize about what comes in and out of the body, when these experiences are fundamental, corporal, and vital to us.” Aside from the visceral, her work is a record of moments in transition, constructed situations that encourage chance. Her work represents a series of linked oppositions, object/void, sensation/information, beautiful/grotesque, inside/outside, and pure/impure. Her objects merge material with idea; the nature of clay and all it represents gives her both imagery and meaning. Her work is elegant but is somehow too crude and direct to be obviously aesthetic.
There is an autobiographical subtext in her work; Maiolino, now a Brazilian resident, spent the early part of her life as an immigrant. She was born in 1942 in Italy; her family emigrated to Venezuela and to Brazil when she was 18. She now lives in both Rio de Janiero, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her immigrant experience gave her the feeling of having a divided identity, of being a, as she says, “nomad, a pilgrim, of being—incomplete.” This experience became the conceptual foundation for her work. She was also deeply influenced by the hazardous political environment of Brazil in the 1960s, which was then undergoing a period of repressive military dictatorship. In response to the atmosphere of violence and repression, Maiolino and other Brazilian artists rejected Modernism in favor of art forms that emphasized the body, subjectivity, audience participation, and popular and indigenous culture.
Maiolino started working with clay in 1989 after many years of work in other media (film, painting, printmaking, drawing, and glass-blowing). She is invested in the totality of the working process including the preparation done before the work comes into being. Titles result from the way the work is executed but also reference different realities. She feels that the metaphor of the body is part of her own subconscious but states, “the linkage of sexuality and bodily aspects are the interpretation of others.” Her techniques include an idiosyncratic use of molds as well as standard handbuilding procedures; rolling and coiling, making cobritas and rollitos, (little snakes and rolls). The articulation of touch is very important to her; making forms from press molds, slabs, gripping, all involving gestures she considers primal and intuitive. Although much of her work is fired, she has created enormous installations where the clay was left raw.
“Between Senses,” her exhibition at Hauser and Wirth in New York City, is the first solo show in the US of this internationally known artist. For several decades her work has been represented worldwide in shows such as “documenta13” and the Venice Biennale. The exhibition is summed up by its title as her objects propose a multiplicity of sensorial references and evoke an awareness of the body. The show offered a glimpse of the vast and varied body of work she has produced during the past decade as well as her exploratory and highly idiosyncratic use of clay.
2 Installation photo of Prepositions Series (left to right: More than One, They are 25, They are 21), 4 ft. 1 in. (1.2 m) in height, raku-fired ceramics, metal wire, metal framework, 2013.
Among her most intricate and mysterious works in Between Senses are a group from 2013, New Others a series of square, table-mounted, plaster or cement objects with numerous clay pieces scattered on top and inside of them. These pieces are made in a mold by layering wet plaster or cement over pieces of wet clay. When the mold has set, the clay elements are excavated, gouged out, leaving a series of swellings, voids, and tunnels. She often repeats the process, creating distinct layers visible from the side. Hollowness is a characteristic of Maiolino’s work and is part of its sensual and ambiguous nature; the voids suggest intestines, caves, or lava flows. Pieces of clay are arranged on top of or within the concavities and resemble fossils, animal scat, or artifacts. These objects seem simultaneously anatomical and archeological. The sculptures are presented on elegant steel tables at about hip level allowing the viewer to look down into them.
3 Untitled (New Others Series), 18 in. (46 cm) in height, molded, pigmented, cement and raku pieces on metal table, 2013. 4 Untitled (New Others Series), 18 in. (46 cm) in height, molded, pigmented, cement and raku pieces on metal table, 2013. 1–4 Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth Gallery.
Her 2013 Prepositions, a three-piece installation from a larger series, were theatrically presented in their own space. All clay parts used in this series were raku fired. The pieces are structured within thin, elegant, dark steel frames; each bearing strands of raku pieces hung from wires suspended within these tall rectangular forms. Each frame holds clusters of specific shapes, a collection of long, smooth, gourd-like forms, or strings of small, irregular, stone or pod-like shapes. The surfaces are delicately and unevenly smoked with a range of blacks and grays over a smooth, white clay body. The steel stands are at chest height, forcing the viewer to crouch to look at the parts.
I am a Multiple of Eight (left), I am One in Eight (right) (edition of 8), each 22 in. (56 cm) in height, raku-fired ceramic, cement, acrylic resin, varnish on metal table, 2012. Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth Gallery.
The most elegant and unambiguously beautiful pieces in the show are Jean Arp-like and part of a 2012 series entitled I am One in Eight. Both pieces are quite large with coarsely modeled surfaces. One is raku fired to an extremely dark black, while the other is white with a satin finish. They are recumbent, bulbous, ovoid, and pod-shaped with each partially embedded in a husk-like cement shell.
While Maiolino’s work is not explicitly feminist, the work emphasizes thematic concerns that are traditionally perceived as female, implying fecundity, sensuality, and nurturance. She has said that her objects are about the earth and the cycles of growth and decay. Maiolino is particularly interested in making work that embodies healing qualities and evokes strong emotion. Although this “feminine” aspect is strongly present, her work transcends gender, achieving universal values that subtly speak for themselves. As she has said, her work invites exploration of “the big and transcendental things.”
the author Kathleen Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is a sculptor and writer living in Los Angeles, California.