On ViewPhillips Collection
March 31 – August 28, 2022
In Restos-Traces, the Puerto Rican Washington, DC-based artist Marta Pérez García raises specters, figuratively and formally constellating creative cycles under thematic auspices of personal and political endurance, and disrupting the definition of remains or ruins (restos). The exhibition addresses perceptual doubt in the face of an unaccountable authority and—as its macaronic Spanish-English title suggests—gestures at notions of transition and translation. Comprising nineteen nameless female torsos constructed of handmade paper—suspended from the ceiling so they hang at a viewer’s height—Restos-Traces divulges the acts of (often unseen) violence perpetrated against women and children, earmarking domestic incidents that occurred amid the stay-at-home orders of the high pandemic.
The fact that some of these crimes, possible homicides among them, have in cases gone unprosecuted is not lost on the artist. Some of her sculptures bear scar-like ruptures, sutured contusions of film, nail, and teeth visible only upon concerted observation. Despite their effaced quietude, the bodies comprise capital letter statements. Pérez García makes clear—as much in her work as in her words—that these torsos resoundingly walk among us. “I try to give, in a way, visibility to the women who are not here anymore,” the artist says, “but at the same time [encourage] us to see in these bodies our own lives.”
Visitors may pass between the nameless bodies, holding space for the solemnity that meets Pérez García’s conjured moment. Without heads or faces, the bodies lack any archaic expressions to identify; nor do they bear the equal-opposite marks of mere vanitas. This process of precluding personality—of keen identity-obliteration—ironically inscribes a kind of humanism, one with a more radical face, into the body of work that makes up Restos-Traces, whispering something more than life into its subjects. The torsos are not head-carriers, and what they necessarily lack in this (cephalic) measure, they make up for in sheer force of countenanced will and narrative. Seeming to communicate in a way more akin to dance, the sculptures’ positions and spin apply floating question marks to Pérez García’s philosophy of mind-referencing flourishes.
In this vein, each sculpture maintains an independent identity while signaling solidarity among each other—and between survivors of abuse. One torso’s cone-shaped breasts splay outward as if in self-defense; another work disintegrates into a spiral of tendril-like paper swirls where a viewer might expect legs and feet. A few of the most dynamic pieces are the color of pitch, most of the others softening between an off-white and a pale yellow. One pink torso, though, bears what appears to be an occupied womb, present along an axis connecting uterus, gut, and the beginnings of a brain stem. It is a poignant and requisite reminder that trauma is intergenerational—that what we carry with us extends beyond the reaches of our agency.
The bodies are necessarily, tautologically imperfect, some expressing a radical and blunt bilateral asymmetry: lopsided, over-sized, or vacant breasts; a countered contrapposto, among other irregularities. Despite these and other differences, what many of the bodies share is an exaggerated, reinforced spine. Some bear the liturgy of the word of scar tissue, other spines bundle outward into bow-like fossil figures. The spines themselves raise the question of the possibility of strength and sheer endurance amid moments of fragility, vulnerability, and victimization.
As a project in their ongoing “Intersections” series, Restos-Traces is paired with two works from the Phillips’s permanent collection: Francis Bacon’s 1952 painting Study of a Figure in a Landscape and Annette Messager’s installation Mes petites effigies (My Little Effigies) (1989–90). The choice of the two pieces, which occupy the gallery’s opposite walls, underline the questioning of place and displacement in Restos-Traces, also offsetting the seeming spatial inertia of the silently swaying torsos. Bacon’s detached, voyeuristic tableau of loss with Messager’s pattern-matched arrays of hanging readymades support a soft gradient of gazes between which Pérez García’s torsos defiantly exist—subtly shifting subjectivities as one traverses the room, a room of remnants.
In spite of its redemptive realism, Restos-Traces does not lack the poignant tenor of narrative climax. In statements, Pérez García has been sure to foreground the impacted communities—namely Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women and children—who have borne the most of COVID’s counter-epidemic of domestic violence and abuse. Recognizing this, it is with a degree of pathos that one must encounter and cautiously consider Restos-Traces. In an epigraph to the exhibition, Pérez García writes of a formless body, one “which not even paper can name.” Her sculptures, thus made of paper and rendered without obvious titles, similarly evince an ostensible futility, that of name-checking each and every vector of violence, every detail of victimization. To do so would be an impossible task, no matter how righteous. Nevertheless, the nineteen bodies reinforce the notion that there is always solidarity—and resolute strength—in numbers.