Here at East City Art we don’t allow pesky annoyances like hurricanes to get in our way of bring you the latest exhibition news. As the first bands of rain threatened on horizon, artist Carolina Mayorga and I put aside our pre-Sandy preparations to discuss her upcoming exhibition, Divine Revelations: Passages from the Life of Our Lady at the Gallery at Vivid Solutions in historic Anacostia.
Mayorga’s artistic practice is grounded in performance pieces and installations designed to confront viewers’ perceptions of social and political norms. Followers of her work know she doesn’t shy away from addressing gender and cultural stereotypes with performances that, while playful, hold a mirror up to ways in which the “majority” attempt to define social norms (Maid in the USA, recently staged at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is a great example). For Divine Revelations, Mayorga delves into religion, turning the gallery’s walls into a site-specific, salon-style tableau (ir)reverently honoring the Virgin Mary while simultaneously investigating how religion and the modern art marketplace shape our understanding of religiously-inspired gender stereotypes.
Born in Columbia, Mayorga grew up a “cultural Catholic”, noting that in many Latin-American locales, Catholicism is as much a cultural identity as a religious doctrine. While her personal views on religion have morphed over time, she has a maintained a fascination with the spiritual iconography of her youth. As an artist investigating cultural stereotypes, she also believes that this iconography injects a religiously-based bias to our understanding of gender roles, additionally becoming an instrument of monetary value within the modern art market. By casting herself as a modern day Madonna (with child) she’s challenging herself as much as her audience to see just how the Church’s use of Mary has influenced our views on what denotes the “perfect woman”.
Mayorga tells me she has been thinking about this issue for several years before deciding that the Vivid gallery’s space would provide the perfect backdrop her photographs, manuscripts and performance pieces. Renaissance imagery, especially Raphael’s works Madonna del Granduca and Madonna with Child served as focal point of her investigations, with research visits to sites in Spain and Italy serving as additional artistic fodder for her to ponder. An exhibition of Medieval illuminated manuscripts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles further informed the written components following the life of Mary (which Mayorga has wryly tweaked for her uses; Mary now crosses the Anacostia River rather than the desert).
Upon entering the space, gallery-goers are immediately confronted by a bright red wall containing dozens of versions of Mary in all her grace, hung salon-style without seeming regard for composition or particular ease of view. The wall color as well as jumbled composition harken directly back to the Renaissance, when images of Mary would have covered cathedral walls, and Mary was revered both as a religious icon but also a model of piety and saintly womanhood. Other walls of the gallery remain stark white, with religious “texts” placed uniformly at eye level as one would expect to see in a modern art show.
The images are initially straightforward. A serene-looking Mary, a vision in fabrics of blue and red, gazes sweetly down on the audience, while passages from her life’s story are presented on adjoining walls. But then you begin to see subtle incongruities. Mary is a Latina (something we certainly don’t see in Renaissance works). She’s wearing nail polish. An innocent-looking Jesus is in reality a rubber doll. And those supposed religious manuscripts lauding Mary’s crossing of the Anacostia? An obvious work of fiction. What exactly is she trying to tell us?
It’s a complicated answer. But then religion and its influence on gender norms is a complicated topic. Here Mayorga brings it down to her level, imagining for herself not only as a mother, but also as an image of virtue to which woman are taught to obtain. “I start with myself and hopefully that will reach other people,” she tells me, stressing that,”Catholicism is my experience, but religions are often similar in the way they [personify] women.” How many girls have been raised in the image of Mary and strive to keep those characteristics, never mind the biological impossibilities behind her noteworthy claim to fame? While Mayorga is thinking about her specific, personal experiences (she actually felt stirrings of childhood spirituality when donning the garb), she believes there is a universal dynamic of what it means to be both a woman and a mother that runs through many major religions that her audience will connect with.
While the photos and texts on the wall offer reflective contemplation, Mayorga wants to push our buttons further with her performance component of the exhibition. She requested that few details be written about, so as not to give readers preconceived ideas, but suffice to it say she’s interested in how the art world validates these representations of Mary (as ideal woman) by bestowing worth upon them. Installations featuring multiple mediums are hard to codify, and I asked her what part of her installation is “more important” to her message – the photograph that will stand the test of time, or the performance that, while documented, will be a fleeting experience. She notes that in some of her projects she could answer that question easily, but in this case the performance will be integral to the photos, imbuing them with an art-world context that they otherwise might not have.
In closing, I asked Mayorga what she hopes her audience will take away from the exhibition. She notes that while it’s a statement on how women in general are portrayed in religion, she hopes that using her own likeness will make it easier for viewers to examine how their own religious beliefs effect their understanding of social norms. Will it move you to do so? Find out November 2nd when Mayorga puts each component of her exhibition together for the first time.
Divine Revelations: Passages from the Life of Our Lady opens on Friday, November 2nd from 6-8pm with the performance component beginning approximately 6:15pm. The exhibition runs through December 21st, with additional performance times to be determined. For more information, visit the Gallery at Vivid Solution’s website here. Note: the Gallery has moved to a temporary, satellite location at 1922 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE while the permanent space is being renovated. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Friday noon to 5pm and Saturday 11am to 5pm.