Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’ most recent solo show If I Were a Poet is a winding journey through nearly 30 years of personal mythology. She centers herself, as a woman of mixed background and experience, in a calculated move away from the single colonial narrative of art history and towards a world where the stories of women of color are championed.
The show opens with a triptych of large-scale Polaroid photographs titled Nesting II. The center frame shows the artist holding her hands to her eyes and peering through rounded fingers, mimicking the owl that flanks her on either side. The owl is one of those wooden sentries you see placed by building owners to keep the other birds at bay. Real or not it’s the symbol, the all-knowing and ever-watching wisdom of it, that Campos-Pons taps into. Her work is rich in these associations even as she moves across media and through time.
Meanwhile the Girls Were Playing (1999-2000) is a multimedia installation tucked into the back of the gallery behind a thick black curtain.
As you move through the space, peering down into the puddles of silk dotted with glass flowers you see videos of hands washing and separating fabrics, lingering auspicious symbols and children at play. Macro images of lines turn to crosses, then recede further and become the exposed scalp in divisions of parted hair as recorded voices chime and chant together.
The installation offers a literal alternate narrative through these girls by turning attention towards them while whatever it is running parallel to their fun happens elsewhere. It invites you to think back to how you first learned to navigate the world through games. Play is a gateway to experience in an honest and visceral way that can be difficult to tap into when you’ve passed the “playing age”. Campos-Pons maintains this playful, cutting honesty throughout the show, even when the subject-matter is grim.
The other large installation Matanzas Sound Map (2017) speaks to the migrant crisis and was recently exhibited at Documenta 14 in Athens, Greece.
The title of the piece takes its name from the artist’s hometown and her objects here tie directly to her Cuban heritage but in our globalized world, or maybe just my Southern Californian experience, their form and materials are not foreign. The iron fences, wall of wooden crates, lush green walls and tropical plants place the viewer in an outdoor space. The blown glass vessels are human-scaled and thinking of them technically having a foot, body, shoulder, neck, and mouth, they become easy analogs for the figure.
All the objects here touch on time, experience, and fragility in a very human way. These are the things you might search for or surround yourself with to feel more at home when the real thing is out of reach. I found out later via her talk that the glass vases are scaled up tear catchers, to contain the grief of those taken far from home or those who no longer have a home to go back to. Thinking on the masses of people displaced in the last 5 years, I’m sure they would need emptying frequently.
There is no way to talk about this exhibition briefly and completely, it’s just too layered. And calling these two pieces highlights is hardly fair when so much of the work is so good. But I can say without a doubt that Magda is a poet and if you make the trip, you will not be disappointed.
If I Were a Poet is on view through January 28th at Gallery Wendi Norris’ offsite location.
649 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA
Thurs- Sun 12pm-6pm
Feature image via gallery Wendi Norris