Internationally Acclaimed Artist Puts Down Roots in Nashville
WORDS Sara Lee Burd
Moving to Nashville from Boston where María Magdalena Campos-Pons taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is quite a leap geographically, culturally, and perhaps in other ways that will be uncovered as time passes. What is constant is her ability, as an artist and educator, to move people. Internationally accomplished, she is known for her fluid use of media and experimentation. Often taking an autobiographical approach, she also employs ethnographic imagery and objects to process cross-cultural and cross-generational themes.
Beginning Spring 2018 students in Campos-Pons’s Vanderbilt University classes will explore the practices of drawing and installation. Her teaching methods mirror her way of thinking. With her vast knowledge and courageous drive, she pushes herself beyond singular definition as an artist and inspires students to do the same. Campos-Pons encourages them to engage ambiguous ideas. “In my class we explore the possibility of why drawing is so persistent and is necessary to create. What is the meaning of drawing? What can it be?” The basis for this complex discussion: “The boundaries and the language of visuality have expanded and are malleable. If you look carefully through history, you will see it’s not that art is totally new, it is how it is refreshed or culturally understood.”
In a January 2018 exhibit in Milan’s Galleria Pack, Estado de Tiempo-Weather Report, Campos-Pons created a series of mixed-media drawings to push the boundaries of what drawing should do in the 21st century. As the artist explains, “I see it as more expansive than the practice of drawing with a model and traditional materials.” For her it is more holistic and evolutionary. The materials used to make a drawing offer a space for creativity and relevance. She explains, “I would never say there is material that is too old; it is how they function. A pencil drawing is one of the most beautiful things that can happen.”
The skills of seeing and thinking garnered through her classroom methods of creative thinking shape the way students see the world whether they continue studying art or not. “I’m excited to have the privilege to teach at Vanderbilt and the opportunity to work with these great thinkers.”
In 2011 Campos-Pons was invited for a solo exhibition at the Frist Center which resulted in a collboration between the Frist and Vanderbilt through an invitation by the Center for Latin American Studies. In a mission to collaborate, the center invited Studio Arts, the Fine Arts Gallery, History of Art, and the Curb Center so that early interactions with Vanderbilt students, when she came to campus, provided opportunities to work with the visiting artist. Creating a performative installation piece with art and art history majors, Campos- Pons invited the students to put on white coveralls and plant bulbs in existing marked-off areas. The artist explains, “The students wore working coveralls to protect clothing but also to unify the experience as we planted the garden. There was no distinction between our appearance.” This aesthetic leveling of the group allowed the artist to permeate the hierarchical boundaries related to the traditional student/professor relationship and also disrupt the notion of the unique hand of the artist. As Campos-Pons explains, “We were all working together to make art.”
For this work entitled Imole Blue (Blue Earth), the group planted 4,400 grape hyacinth bulbs in the shape of her home state Matanzas and indicating the streets of her town Manguito, Cuba. It was an interactive experience of literally working in the soil while conceptually closely tending to the artist’s endemic roots. While the work is an installation on the Peabody campus and the students participating were contributing to the performance of the art, the artist asserts that it is fundamentally also a sketch. As she explains, “The garden is as much a drawing as a living organism that becomes blue. Inspired but tracing from Google Maps, the blue lines of the hyacinths’ blossoms trace a remembrance of architects’ blueprints.” The complex levels of communication the artist employs provide territory for interpretation and curiosity.
At that same time of Imole Blue’s installation, Campos-Pons had concurrent exhibitions at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery and the Frist Center. In the former, an assortment of large-scale drawings were organized into MAMA/RECIPROCAL ENERGY, a show curated by Gallery Director Joseph Mella. The mixed-media drawings focused on identity and displacement as a woman with Afro-Chinese-Cuban heritage living in the United States. Mella’s poignant explanation reveals the layers of meaning packed within Campos-Pons’s art: “I think that like a lot of her practice, it’s rooted in a deeply close, self-reflective perspective she maintains.” Speaking of a work now part of the Vanderbilt collection, Warrior Reservoir, he continues,”It looks at the yin and yang of her being a powerful black woman. It points to her Cuban roots on the right and her African roots on the left. It brings together strength and nurturing.” A spear-like drawing extends across the work and goes down to a clear container, which Mella explains references the sugar and rum production in Cuba. He notes, “The tip is like a sword red from blood but dripping from the tip instead is green paint. This goes back to nurturing and nature and the complexity of what it means to be human.” The work includes a woman, most likely the artist, sitting within the backdrop imagery of her origins. The figure’s hair appears animated, climbing above her head like a living creature out of nature. In essence this work, which is currently on display at Prospect 4 in New Orleans, makes an impact through scale, imagery, and inventive cultural indicators that inform her identity.
The Frist Center’s exhibit Journeys featured an installation of commanding sculptures that appear like objects for ritual or warfare. The structures have visual links to her familial lineage—the violence of being torn from Africa, slavery and indentured servitude in Cuba, and now her own life in the United States. The exhibition at the museum included a performance that evoked a healing act in collaboration with her husband, composer and saxophonist Neil Leonard. A common theme Campos-Pons approaches is the body within traditions and rituals. She explains the impetus for keeping a range of communication methods is that she believes connecting with a work of art can be a curative experience in and of itself. It can heal the viewer in ways that cannot be explained but can be perceived.
Another lesson Campos-Pons relays in her work and in the classroom is that all art-making is performative at its core.
In her practice of installation and performance, she uses her body as a material and her movements as a means to exchange information. She explains, “Sometimes I don’t feel I can completely communicate with just the visual items on display, whether a drawing, a painting, a sculpture . . . I need the physicality of my body to complete that particular gesture.”
Continuing her idea more broadly, Campos-Pons states, “Every artist in every history in every culture has always involved their body in their art. Different artists in different moments have different rituals by which they live in their studios. When an artist is completely alone, he, she, or they have an entire immersion of their body in the making of the work. The proximity of the body permits a performance process.” Adding a charming example she says, “When I saw Botticelli in Florence I thought, oh my god, it is like he is working with Photoshop, and with Raphael’s School of Athens I could feel in myself the pressure he was applying to the material to make the line.” The ultimate lesson for artists and viewers from Campos-Pons is: “When you see a painting, all that you see is the remains of the body of the artist there. This is my perception, and this is what good art does. It hits people profoundly in the body.”
Her performance Habla La Madre, co-authored with composer/saxophonist Neil Leonard at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2014, provides another example of a powerful corporeality-based artwork. She recalls, “My body became the building by the form of the dress. I positioned myself in the center of the atrium, and in that moment I became a member of the audience as it relates to form, my position.” The circular shape of the dress echoed the concentric circles that compose the architectural wonder. The structure, designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, supplies a dynamic experience itself— one that signals the progressive art that occupies the galleries and attracts attention to the museum in contrast with its Upper East Side location. The space provides an inherent sense of movement with visitors navigating curved ramps with inclines or declines, depending on approach, to walk the spiral-shaped edifice. Campos-Pons reminisces, “With the centrifugal force of my spinning body, I became the centerpoint of reference to the building.”
Viewers encountered Campos-Pons’s performance on the ground and from the museum balconies within the context of Carrie Mae Weems’s exhibition Three Decades of Photography and Video and music by the band Textualizing. In connection with that energy, Campos-Pons began collaborating using her body. “In that particular moment I was thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright. I was thinking of this as an homage to him. I wanted to continue with the idea of what was really in his mind. I don’t know that he would ever think that a woman like me would be there doing that.
There was humor, but I was serious in my reverie of the privilege in that moment to be in such an iconic place,” she recalls. Referring to her conversation with the exhibition and music from her experience she says, “I was not alone, and it created a new way to look at that space.”
In her January 2018 show If I Were a Poet at San Francisco’s Gallery Wendi Norris, Campos-Pons continues ways of engaging nature and her hybrid roots. In a work entitled Nesting II she bridges a human/animal connection in a triptych featuring a large-scale Polaroid of herself with flanking photographs of carved wooden owls. The artist playfully obscures her face with her hands, revealing only her eyes through her fingers. Patterns in paint surround her orbital bones, highlighting her penetrating, otherworldly gaze. One of a Santeria priest, a shaman, an African warrior, it’s not specific. The birds seem to relate to the artist’s journey, perhaps the future and present ungrounded movement, wisdom, and vision, and the search for the comfort.
With time and gathering associations, much more meaning can be squeezed from Campos-Pons’s conceptually ripe works. In La Llamada/ The Calling she presents herself in what appear to be tribal patterns enshrouded in diaphanous textile that hides her hair and envelops her body. The bundle of flowers she extends over her arched upper torso conveys tension between disciplined and improvised movement. It commands attention and speaks to her interests in nature, ritual, and hybrid identity.
In part for motivation to do her best work, Campos-Pons withholds an immediate sense of accomplishment and success from herself. “The beauty and scary part of making art is that you always risk something . . . everything really: ridiculing yourself, worried about being totally dismissed, fear of not making the point, if it is communicating and brilliant. It takes a lot of effort and energy to make those moments. It’s very intense.” While she relies on herself to make the art, external response indicating that she has communicated and touched her audience is her real reward.
Grateful for the warm welcome she has received from the university and the art department in particular, Campos-Pons is arriving with a celebrated reputation. Former Chair of Studio Arts Department Mel Ziegler thanks his former dean, Lauren Denton, saying, “She understood the vision was to continue strengthening the department’s standing on campus and among other universities.” He continues, “The opportunities Magda brings to develop new connections for our students and Studio Arts are definite. She is a brilliant addition to our faculty.”
The role of professor inspires María Magdalena Campos-Pons personally and creatively: “I was very lucky to have people who affected my life in a positive way. I believe a good professor can be somebody who can do that. They can leave a mark in the heart and mind of an individual.”
It seems likely she will find rewards in teaching and making/doing in Nashville. Her presence here will provide an infusion of new ideas and ways of seeing, which she is ready to share. “I am here and want to learn the city and the people. Once I know the temperature of the community, the arts, and the vibe, then I would like to share what I think I could give.”
Nashville Arts Magazine would like to thank Galleria PACK, Milan; Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA; Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, Vanderbilt University Department of Art, Nashville; and Toshiki Yashiro for their help with this article. Campos-Pons is represented by Gallery Wendi Norris, www.gallerywendinorris.com.