On ViewJack Barrett
Guadalupe Maravilla: Saga
September 6 – October 20, 2019
The challenge in writing about Guadalupe Maravilla’s exhibition Saga, on view at Jack Barrett, is where to start and how to fit it all in before the end—much like a saga itself. Maravilla’s exceptional show is teeming with humanity—both on a personal scale and also as a larger picture of contemporary immigration. It is a visceral punch to the stomach. As a child the artist immigrated to the United States from El Salvador by himself, and this collection of new work emanates from this origin and coming-of-age story. A tale of trauma and resilience, Maravilla’s experience echoes that of many Central and North American immigrants, and highlights the often-invisible, lingering effects the perilous journey can have on those that undertake it. In his case, Maravilla’s doctors discovered and treated the artist for intestinal cancer, and the link between his sickness and the treacherous journey he undertook as a child is a central theme in his work.
Saga begins with a monumental centerpiece that incorporates the threads of illness and healing that are in conversation throughout the show. Disease Thrower #5 (2019) is a grand sculpture resembling a shrine that functions as both a therapeutic instrument and as a spiritual altar. Featuring a star-patterned woven structure made from a Mexican medicinal plant and a handmade gong, it is part of a larger series of the artist’s “healing machines” that include handmade and found objects. In Disease Thrower #5, Maravilla places the cancer upon the shrine via anatomical models—one of a tumor and another of a breast, to symbolize his mother’s cancer—and works the ready-mades into a vessel for healing.
A serpentine trail of dried agave leaves on the floor signifies renewal and serves as open arms that welcome those in need of curative powers. Bottles of Florida Water Cologne are placed on the altar, as well as on the floor amongst the agave leaves. It is a holy water of sorts—a superstitious blend of essential oils often used in religious and spiritual ceremonies as a cleanser and healing ointment. Together, the sculptures act as a vehicle for the invocation of healing and exorcism of poisonous energy.
Intestines appear in a series of drawings applied directly to the gallery walls that are modeled after a Salvadorian children’s game entitled Tripa Chuca, or “dirty guts,” in which the goal is to avoid crossing any previously-drawn line. The game gets increasingly difficult the longer you play, as the marks grow more tangled and navigating the paper plane becomes more and more impossible. The abstract forms are a nod to indigenous art forms (the game dates to Pre-Columbian era), and Maravilla created them in collaboration with an undocumented DACA recipient. Commentary on barriers, forging paths, and the danger and stress of the journey are all present. Other drawings are on paper, like Tripa Chuca #1 (Intestine) (2019), and include discs of dehydrated tortilla shells adorned with brightly painted forms and reinforce the link between the drawings and the stomach. Drawing is a metaphor for a map, a route, a game, or a means to understand one’s insides—and is also a nod to the artist’s childhood and ancestral roots. One of the most personal—and clinical—collaborations comes in the form of a rough sketch made by Maravilla’s doctor illustrating the procedure for his intestinal tumor resection. Crude lines on the doctor’s pad reinforce a connection between Maravilla’s sickness and trauma experienced during immigration.
The exhibition comes full circle with the “milagros” series. These ex-voto paintings traditionally express gratitude for surviving difficult circumstances—two in Maravilla’s case: his passage into the United States and his treatment for cancer. The traumatic events punctuate the arc of Maravilla’s personal tale, but by no means indicate a firm beginning or endpoint. The product of collaboration between the artist and a Mexican artisan, each of the three “milagros” includes a description in Spanish at the bottom that articulates the artist’s appreciation for safe passage and a second chance at life. Another altar of sorts, Milagros #1 (2019) is affixed to a woven car seat that hovers above an offering of plastic water jugs, reminiscent of those left by activists in the U.S. desert to save the lives of endangered immigrants. Much like the bottles of Florida Cologne Water, these jugs can be life-saving.
The collaborative works emphasize the importance of others in Maravilla’s journey to wellness as well as the ongoing immigration crisis, which remains at the forefront of the U.S. collective consciousness. Unlike the doctor’s hasty drawing, Saga is more than a sum of its parts. It is a powerful and triumphant celebration of life, serving as an urgent reminder of the human side of the immigration crisis.