Aluna Art Foundation - Exhibition Catalogue

January  2014

Body, Maps and Territories - Personal Geographies


Essay by Adriana Herrera 


Patricia Schnall Gutiérrez’s ouvre refers us to – and reactivates − that crucial expressionist alternative opposing cold minimalism which was inaugurated by “Eccentric Abstraction”, the historical exhibition curated by Luccy Lippard in 1966 in New York. Schnall reflects the long-standing validity of the influence of post-minimalism, which had then reconnected art and life through the work of artists such as Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgois and Yayoi Kusama. These three women artists -among others- are key referents in the artistic history of Schnall, who explores through materials and conceptual visions of her own, the relation between autobiography and representation, between the gaze on the body and feminine identity, strengthening awareness of the fact that the ontology of the woman of the third millennium is undergoing a transition towards new modes of re-cognition. She herself creates with the awareness that she is paving the way, work after work, for other maps of access to oneself, overlapping the territory of the days. On the other hand, her works disrupt the famous indifference with which Marcel Duchamp chose his ready-mades: Schnall chooses the objects she incorporates in her installations based on their association with life and their clear connection with the feminine. In this way she eliminates the separation not only between common objects in general and art, but between the specific world of the domestic and the exhibition space. In several cases, such as in the installations Body Language and Inherintance made with antiques machines she assigns to found objects a key function: she makes them appear − through the insertion of photographs or photocopies − as kinds of image-producing machines that put in crisis the iconography with which, during her teen years −in the late 1960s − the roles of woman were still being defined. Schnall manipulates found objects − which have in common their belonging to an earlier era and eventually fulfilling a function associated to domestic chores − inserting in them a new function: that of producing unique portraits of women. They thus become machines whose product is the representation of the feminine identity which introduces a discontinuity in the collective imaginaries of the domestic. In a post-modernist practice that reactivates in its own way the post-minimalist legacy, but also the Duchampian learning experiences, Schnall uses home-made materials such as the plastic garbage bags she utilizes as metaphor for the uterine membrane in the installation Missing, or like the steel wool with which she produces a three-dimensional installation reminiscent of a women coat in Memoir, in such a way that she transforms a material associated to cleaning into an impeccable abstract piece open to the viewer’s reading: he/she may well enjoy its formal structure per se, or go farther and associate it with that intelligent “disobedience” with which instead of using a kitchen material, Schnall creates an artistic piece that may be connected to a body shape, as a sort of new, created identity.Thus, the choice of materials is essential to her way of giving visibility to phenomena such as mass female feticide. In fact, she cleverly associates it to the accumulation of bags containing garbage, and to the mirror of a culture that garbage represents: what is discarded is as significant, or even more so, than that which is considered valuable. That strategy to analyze the social gaze on women reveals how the way in which they are seen, or rather denied, may even turn out to be lethal, for as it is evidenced by this global phenomenon, their underestimation encourages practices of mass elimination even before they are born, when they are still in a state of development. Likewise, Schnall reveals another aspect of the social gaze on women: the connection between garments and standardizing roles. This perception of feminine beauty that may be incarnated, in a metonymic way, in the fetish of dancers’ tutus, functions as a trap-gaze insofar as it imprisons women in fixed roles, distancing them from their own creative potential.The spectator is not wrong when he/she feels the latent, disturbing force of destruction in the installation featuring small pictures comprised of found portraits of women in black and white and with superimposed tutus. There is a sort of insubordination in the images of women artists − such as Hesse and Bourgeois, among many others − or writers, whose photocopied images appear in a way that creates tension between their inner world and the garments that covers them. Many materials appeal, in fact, to the ambiguity between strength and delicacy, and suggest the latent potency for transformation, visualizing at the same time homogenization or mass use, and unappeasable individuality. The title of the installation Herd clearly illustrates this characteristic of the gregarious associated to forms of social imposition that it renders visible through some kinds of skirts or bodies represented in a uniform way with animal wool. But at the same time, the image of the photocopied legs in each small picture is unique: it confirms the irrepressible nature of self-identity.  In Untitled (cocoon installation), the cocoons are made up of recycled paper, ropes tied by hand in such a way that repetition distances itself completely from the minimalist emotional asepsis and reaffirms the unique character of each cocoon. What they actually share is the potential for growth. In this work, as in other works of hers − including previous performances associated to several of her pieces − a material included is the rope that alludes to the umbilical chord, to the link with the source of life, but also to death, since it is an allusion to those creators –such as Arshile Gorky that committed suicide, and even to a family related women that in a stage of anguish tried to hang herself.    

The connection between the performance and the use of materials and the function of catharsis transports the space where her oeuvres are materialized to the inner world connected to the collective unconscious and the crisis in the social definition of roles. Both in the serial photographs Self Portraits with Polka Dots, or in the diptych White Smoke, Black Smoke, the artist dresses herself in white bed sheets, a substitute for nudity, although tied together in such a way that the atmosphere of oppression leads to the scene of her fall, which expresses the effect of enduring an internal violence illustrated by the superimposed red polka dots. In the same way, in the second series the clouds − black or white − are resources for the expression of emotional chaos in scenes with a theatrical content.

The neutrality of materials such as burlap in the installation Sound of the Womb refers to the body itself, divested of investiture, represented in an abstract manner, deprived of all content and referred to a space of contemplation in which what is important is not the social content but the bare perception of its own form, feminized on this occasion through sound: the complementary audio is the sound of falling drops of water, building a representation of the fluidity of the female body. Here repetition enhances the common strength in a piece that suggests a mode of recognition of the nature of the being, which in the case of Schnall, does not fear to assert an ontology that turns out to be more powerful as it repeats forms as modes of connection with the essential bond with other women. The aesthetic, more minimalistic here than in other works, contains however a gender alliance. 
Schnall also breaks certain cycles that occur once and again − like the allusion to the endless trade of folding clothes which was for a long time a role attributed to women − using the recourse to repetition but in participatory processes that arouse a renovating conscience. Thus in The Package Project, comprised of paper envelopes covered in wax, sealed, and not meant for any form of mail art but to build a stacked-up installation, challenges the closed notion of authorship and the perception of roles. To assemble this work she invited other persons − initially only women, but later also men  − to wax, crumple, smooth, fold, tie and knot the packages, or envelopes, many times including personal notes wrapped inside, which remained hidden inside the work. “This simple act of writing these thoughts down and giving them away however, has a very powerful and liberating  effect on people.  The packages will continue to grow, and the energies of the participants will remain inside them… I feel that once the packages are all together, the energy evoked by the hundreds of personal human thoughts will be felt by those that view and understand this piece”, says the artist.

Thus the process of repetition, which may refer to the domestic routine surrounded by processes carried out once and again − and which although they might constitute an organized order, may also constitute imposed forms, asphyxiating molds − becomes a liberating resource contributing a language under construction that goes beyond self-referential inquiry to nourish the imaginaries in transit of women in the third millennium.