Phallocentric Specters

Notes on the (Absent) Female Presence in CCS-10

October 28, 2016

This is one of several articles commissioned for and published in conjunction with the 2016 Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Show & Tell. Read the editorial text to learn more about the other commissioned articles that are or will be published.

I’ve been asked to delve into a zone of absences, to follow the trail of potential appearances at an event that, like a specter, comes back to question us about a past time and its resonances in the present; to ask us how we might conceive of absences within this larger story and to urge us to draw an image of what was and what was not. So prior to attempting a gesture of “symbolic restitution” that functions within the context of an alternate narrative, I think it is essential to begin by working from events, from a place of facts.

Caracas, October 1993. National Gallery of Art (GAN). CCS-10 / Arte Venezolano Actual (CCS-10 / Current Venezuelan Art)

CCS-10. Arte Venezolano Actual. Galería de Arte Nacional. Caracas, 1993. Photo: Ricardo Armas. Courtesy of Archivo CINAP-GAN

CCS-10 was without a doubt one of Venezuela’s most important and representative art exhibitions; it is one of those exhibitions that make art history, that enable the construction of new narratives and open new registers for expository experience. For contemporary Venezuelan art, CCS-10 represented a milestone that coincided with the “start”[1] of a (brief) period that, in the light of distance and longing, has taken on a “magnificent” image within the institutional development of the arts in the country.

Emerging from the desire to foster an experience (in all caps), to transform space into a medium, a foundation for the work and not a container, CCS-10 can be remembered as a transition, as a coming together of proposals that evolved into works and an on-site exhibition in the galleries of the GAN, in Carlos Raúl Villanueva’s neoclassical building that made use of large-scale installation and site-specific practices. Curated and conceived by renowned Venezuelan designer Álvaro Sotillo, CCS-10 not only fostered the desire to propose “a new sentiment with regard to contemporary art”[2] but also to summarize, to place on exhibit, the concerns and interests shared out of friendship[3] among a group of Venezuelan creators over the course of years and decades. They were a contingent of artists—Sigfredo Chacón, Eugenio Espinoza, Héctor Fuenmayor, Roberto Obregón, Alfred Wenemoser—in the seventies whose conceptual or procedural practices were generally labeled as “non-conventional” art, and who in recent years have been experiencing a powerful reinsertion[4] into the art scene after a period of absences, silences, or erratic appearances. Added to this list of names were those of a new generation of artists who, by the light of new media (video, installation, photography) or through neo-conceptual and neo-pop vocabularies, successfully broke through, beginning in the mid-eighties, both in the local context (Sammy Cucher, José Gabriel Fernández, José Antonio Hernández-Diez, Oscar Machado) and internationally (Meyer Vaisman), as well as the fact that at the time of CCS-10 they enjoyed the support of renowned curators and the recognition of both critics and a significant segment of collectors.

Eugenio Espinoza. Dama de noche / Meyer Vaisman. Verde por fuera, rojo por dentro / Héctor Fuenmayor. La multiplicación de los panes / Alfred Wenemoser. Miracaribe / Sigfredo Chacón. 18 bandejas y rejilla camuflada. CCS-10. Arte Venezolano Actual, Galería de arte Nacional, Caracas, 1993. Photos Ricardo Armas. Courtesy of Archivo CINAP-GAN

In this way, under the innocent title CCS-10: Current Venezuelan Art, this generational crossroads that could only feature ten artists due to the exhibition spaces of the GAN, beyond seeming like the Top 10 in the Venezuelan art of the moment, seemed to bring with it the need to open up the main doorways and make way for an agenda for contemporary art in a moment in which all the conditions were in place.[5] The execution of the symposium Curatorship: Alliance or Critical Confrontation with the presence of renowned international guests,[6] as well as the series of encounters promoted under the title Curatorship and the Contemporary led by Venezuelan artists, curators, critics, and museum directors with philosophers, writers, and architects, highlighted the need to place the notion of the contemporary on the table. We might venture to say that with CCS-10 contemporary art—and the then-controversial figure of the curator—was definitively established as the leading and privileged visual regime in Venezuelan art from the nineties on. From this perspective—the rupture of paradigms associated with commonly accepted media—the malaise and controversy surrounding CCS-10[7] would generate all types of stumbling blocks, obstacles, and blockages. They point out the show’s “sterility”, the lack of correspondence between the works and the context, the consternation and boredom produced by the works, the copying of imported vocabularies, and more, but whispers can also be heard regarding exclusions, “cronyism,” and absences regarding the complete absence of women artists.

If there are ten boys, there could be eleven girls[8]

Press photo of the exhibition Paralelo 11. From left to right: Isbecia Llavaneras, Mailén García, Margarita Scannone, Nan González, Teresa Gabaldón

In this era of updates to the field of art in Venezuela, it was no coincidence that another exhibition should take place parallel to CCS-10, as was the case with Paralelo 11 (Parallel 11, Alejandro Otero Museum of Visual Arts, later MAO, 1993), whose only apparent intention was to bring together eleven—not ten—women artists (Teresa Gabaldón, Mailén García, Dulce Gómez, Nan González, Beatriz Inglessis, Diana López, Isbelia Llavaneras, María Eugenia Manrique, Sydia Reyes, Margarita Scannone, Gisela Tello) who aside from their gender had nothing in common, with works torn right from their studios. This element is noteworthy as a premise employed to denote a difference from CCS-10: while one had produced works for a specific occasion and locale, the other made use of work developed by the women in their own spaces. But beyond these illustrative differences, the most symptomatic element of this show is that its (in)visibility is dependent upon CCS-10. Such was the case at the time, when it was read as the female counterpart to the hegemonically masculine “exhibition of the moment,” and it continues to be the case now, when only dedicated research can reinstate it into a new narrative, using the few existing fragments: the show had neither a catalogue nor a curatorial text, and even the public institutions charged with conserving its records (photos, press notes or reviews) no longer have them in their possession today.

Invitation to the exhibition Paralelo 11 / Nan González. Entre espinas. Paralelo 11. Museo de Artes Visuales Alejandro Otero, Caracas 1993. Photo courtesy of Nan González

However, it is relevant that out of this absence of reasoning and “opportune synchronicity,” the show’s curator Jorge Gutiérrez (who was also director of the institution at that time) when announcing it to the press, insisted on not defining it as a feminist exhibition but rather as a chance for reflection on the categorizations of art and the exercise of curatorship as a rigid conductor of meaning. It is also notable that while the press of the time sought to echo a supposed malaise that was being aired—at least in hushed voices—against the supposed sexism of CCS-10, they failed to stir up controversy among the artists of Paralelo 11, who instead added nuance and perspective, one of them even pointing out the prevailing role of women in the management of the country’s artistic institutions. Mailén García, who was the most potent in her declarations, even dared to take the problem elsewhere: “Yes I think there is a touch of sexism in some recent exhibitions, but what’s worse is that there is a lot of play among friends, ‘these are my friends, the little group I want to highlight.’”[9]

In the end, what Paralelo 11 permitted was the verification that there were indeed an important number of women artists working at that time, with an approach that offered a general overview of the topics, media, and vocabularies (painting, photography, video installation, sculpture) they were addressing, while also fostering an encounter between different generations of creators: the more experienced ones like González, Gabaldón and Tello, those who had been working on solidifying a young career (Reyes, García), and those very young artists who were just starting to exhibit work on the local scene (Gómez, López, Inglessis).

Pre-Recorded Appearances: Five Speculations and a Conclusion

If we focus strictly on the configuration of the artistic scene in the year 1993, rather than asking in the abstract about the absence of women artists in CCS-10, it is important to consider which artists had been developing a body of work capable of responding to at least some of the premises or proposals of the exhibition. And the question “Who were the ‘contemporary women artists’ of the moment?” is always immediately followed by “Why wasn’t Antonieta Sosa included?” Regardless of the response, this unanswered question bursts through.

Antonieta Sosa (New York, 1940) is without a doubt one of Venezuela’s most important artists. At once solid and dodgy, silent and powerful, over the course of the decades she has found a way to exhibit while protecting herself from schemes unrelated to her mission of taking on life as creation, reflection, and teaching.

Antonieta Sosa. Anto: 163 cm a la medida de mi cuerpo, ni un milímetro más, ni un milímetro menos, 1984–1991. Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro. Wenemoser, Fuenmayor, Obregón, Sosa. Museo de Bellas Artes. Caracas, 1991, p. 25. Photo: Ricardo Armas. Colección Fundación Museos Nacionales — MBA

A conceptual artist emerging in the sixties, her work evades attempts at synthesis and expands out of her own body into space. Her autobiographical and anthropometric oeuvre, as it was characterized by Luis Enrique Pérez Oramas,[10] spatial and procedural, reflexive and corporeal, starting with Anto—163 cm, the measure of her feminine body—has challenged the conventions of the systems that standardize exteriority from the self. An investigator of pictorial problems working from her own self-conscience and a place of intimacy, Sosa has developed a body of work that began with the legacy of geometric abstraction, passed through the vocabulary of performance and participatory action and evolved into objects, structures and situations that establish an insoluble link between her body and everything that lies beyond it, situated outside its limits.

Antonieta Sosa. Casa, 1981. India ink and graphite on paper and color photograph. 62 x 110 cm. Photo: Miguel Ángel Clemente: Archivo CINAP – GAN

While the piece “1 Anto: 163 cm Made to Measure to My Body, Not a Millimeter More, Not a Millimeter Less,” exhibited in 1991 in the Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas (MBA) in the exhibition Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro: Wenemoser, Fuenmayor, Obregón, Sosa, precisely illustrates the linkages that Sosa’s work establishes between subject, body, volume, space and self-referentiality, in this context it is relevant to make reference to two expository experiences undertaken by the artist in which she inserted private and domestic space, an individual habitat, into the public space of the museum: Casa (House, 1981), which consisted of placing a farm within the MBA and Cas(a)nto, her solo show in 1998, in which she made the museum into her own home.

One of the artists who perhaps could have been considered among the group of 10 was Mailén García (Aragua de Barcelona, Venezuela, 1964), as she was one of the young artists on the Venezuelan art scene who was breaking through with the greatest potency and support. She had begun to participate in several exhibitions and group competitions toward the end of the 80s, receiving important awards. In 1991, under the curatorship of Jesús Fuenmayor she had her first individual exhibition in RG Hall, which at the time was one of the most advanced and experimental art spaces in the country, featuring large-scale sculpture pieces in solid iron. “The effect of the works of Mailén García on the space is so violent and disturbing as to alter its coordinates and its relation to the spectator,”[11] writer Vicente Lecuna noted in the exhibition catalogue, in which he also observed, “In reality, this disturbance is neither theoretical nor conceptual, but rather aesthetic, given that the proposal does not suggest, nor does it conceal, a discourse…”

Mailén García. Cinturón de Castidad, 1993. 3.4 x 3 Ø mt. 1st Salón de Jóvenes Artistas, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofía Imber, Caracas, 1993, pp. 75, 3. Photograph: Morella Muñoz-Tebar. Colección Fundación Museos Nacionales – MAC

In 1993, while CCS-10 was taking place at the GAN, García was participating in the above-mentioned exhibition Paralelo 11 and in the 1st Pirelli Salon for Young Artists, which was being held in the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofía Imber, in which she received First Prize for her work titled Chastity Belt. This sculpture, 3.4 m x 3 m in diameter, is part of a series of large-scale sculptures in which the artist depicts instruments of torture, and which, in the analysis of curator Carmen Hernández, “acted as a possible metaphor about the oppressive condition experienced by many women in response to the exercise of their sexuality, since freely taking on their own desire might offend the masculine collectivity that still imagines women as a submissive territory to be conquered.”[12]

While a quick jog of the memory would situate Magdalena Fernández (Caracas, Venezuela, 1964) at the site of these events, it was precisely in 1993 that this artist was breaking into the arthritic Venezuelan scene. After having undertaken studies at the studio of A.G. Fronzoni in Milan, Italy, it was in the month of October of that very year that Fernández had her first significant participation at the national level: as part of a collective in the 1st Pirelli Salon of Young Artists and as an individual with the exhibition titled Structures (Estructuras) in the Sala Mendoza, a sound installation consisting of spheres of black rubber and nylon in the main hall, and in the adjoining gallery, an assemblage of small and mid-sized pieces whose only fundamental element was transparency.

Magdalena Fernández. Untitled, 1993. 1st Salón de Jóvenes Artistas, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofía Imber, Caracas, 1993. Fotografía cortesía: Magdalena Fernández

In the exhibition’s catalogue, her mentor A.G. Fronzoni wrote that “the project undertaken by Fernández, with regard to the installations, confronts the available space in its totality, reinvents it and encourages the visitor to interact with the work. The real space of the Sala Mendoza is no longer what it was before, it is a new space, the visual is re-visualized, the architecture is transformed into something different. The essential contribution by Fernández is…having understood space as something that is constructed through form and no longer as a site where form is constructed.”[13]

Magdalena Fernández. Estructuras, 1993. Sala Mendoza, Caracas, 1993. Photo courtesy of: Magdalena Fernández. A video can be found here:

Widely known in Venezuela for her experimental artistic practice or “non-conventional art” developed through performance, photography and video, together with Jennifer Hackshaw, with whom she formed the creative duo Yeni and Nan from 1979 to 1986, in her solo career, Nan González (Caracas, 1956) broke ground on many topics that had previously been tackled in an importunate manner: human identity, space, nature, the body, the ephemeral, the ethereal, and increasingly taking on video installations as her preferred approach.

Nan González. El vuelo del cristal. Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, 1991. Photo courtesy of Nan González

Toward the beginning of the nineties González found herself in a new and important period in her career: in 1991 in the Museo de Bellas Artes she had her first multimedia exhibition titled “The Crystal Flight” (“El vuelo del cristal”) under the curatorship of Federica Palomero, in which fifteen monitors emitting the same image were placed in the shape of a pyramid in order to create a persistent and repetitive atmosphere. That same year she had participated in the exhibition Video-Sculpture 91 (Video-escultura 91) in RG Hall along with Sammy Cucher and José Antonio Hernández-Diez under the curatorship of Luis Angel Duque. At the time of CCS-10 her work was included in the Paralelo 11 exhibition.

Educated in contemporary dance, an interest in the study of human body language developed by Nela Ochoa (Caracas, 1952) brought González to use video in the eighties as a resource for exploration and creation, and within a few years it had become, through the development of a series of pieces, one of the primary points of reference for Venezuelan video art during that period. Single-channel video was followed by video sculpture and video installations as well as the incorporation of new foundations for the development of two-dimensional pieces. These were the new proposals that could be contemplated together in her first individual show, titled Alter Altare, held in RG Hall in September of 1993. Here, Ochoa drew a roadmap providing access to a comprehension of the universe by way of the human body, relying on disciplines such as the sciences as well as the resources offered by technology. In a telling spin on the controversy with CCS-10, critic Roberto Guevara titled one of the installments of his column “Caracas Ten Plus One,” illustrating it with Ochoa’s work as well as broadly reviewing the show.[14]

Nela Ochoa. Topos, Video still included in the piece Invernadero, 1987. Premio Arte No Objetual, Salón Michelena, Ateneo de Valencia, Venezuela, 1987 / Water Rituals, 1993. Final Frontier, New Museum, New York, 1993. Photographs courtesy of Nela Ochoa

A list of women artists who at that time had ample and solidly developed careers beginning in the seventies or eighties, and who remained active, would necessarily include names such as Ana María Mazzei, Valerie Brathwaite, or María Eugenia Arria.

Finally, it is essential to note that with the proliferation of salons, prizes, biennials, and group exhibitions that were later developed over the course of the nineties, a number of important women artists were incorporated into Venezuelan art history whose practices metabolized the diversity of media, vocabularies, discourses and predicaments of their own times. Although a number of them would give up their artistic careers, the names of Dulce Gómez, Emilia Azcárate, Sandra Vivas, Diana López, Sara Maneiro, Angela Bonadies, Maggy Navarro, Mariana Bunimov, Argelia Bravo, Beatriz Inglessis, Daniela Lovera (Nascimento-Lovera), María Cristina Carbonell, Marylee Coll, Conny Viera, Mariana Collet, Gisela Romero, Mayleen Gutiérrez and María Bernárdez resonated in their time, and they resonate still through the influence of their works.

[1] 1993 was an important year for the arts in Venezuela. An electoral contest year, in December Rafael Caldera was elected President of the Republic. The artistic scene was active and attractive, with daring propositions, events, and exhibitions of an international nature, and the emergence of new spaces and salons. The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofía Imber put together the 1st Pirelli Salon for Young Artists, which over the course of its successive editions became an obligatory reference for new art in the country. / Exhibited in El Mavao were: Ante América, an important traveling exhibition of Latin American art organized by the Luis Angel Arango Library and curated by Gerardo Mosquera, Carolina Ponce de León and Rachel Weiss, which at the time represented a rupture in the way of thinking about art in the region and which included the work of José Antonio Hernández-Diez as well as Cartographies, another important exhibition of Latin American art, which included the work of Alfred Wenemoser. Curated by Ivo Mesquita, its itinerary began in Winnipeg (Canada) and continued on a lengthy tour through Caracas, Bogotá, Ottawa, New York, and Madrid, from 1993 to 1995. / The Latin American Encounter of Photography Caracas 93 took place in several locales, allowing for access to and reflection on the recent photographic production of the region. /  Espacios Unión, an exhibition space owned by Banco Unión, was inaugurated, and for some years it hosted group exhibitions on diverse topics with contemporary artists. / Sophie Calle had a solo show in Mendoza Hall. / Meyer Vaisman presented his first solo show in Venezuela in the Consolidated Cultural Center.
[2] GUANIPA, Moraima. “The Contemporary as Interrogation“ (“Lo contemporáneo como interrogación”). In: El Globo. Caracas, 3 October 1993, pp 32 and 33.
[3] This aspect was not only identified in some of the interviews that accompanied the promotion of the exhibition but was also noted in the forum titled Pregnancias in the context of a cycle called Interlocutions held in conjunction with the exhibition Paintings for the Colorblind by Sigfredo Chacón in TAC Hall of Caracas, 29 August 2016.
[4] One, Two Three, Four: Wenemoser, Fuenmayor, Obregón, Sosa (Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro. Wenemoser, Fuenmayor, Obregón, Sosa). Museo de Bellas Artes, 1991. Curator: Rina Carvajal; The Spirit of the Times (El espíritu de los tiempos). Claudio Perna, José Antonio Hernández-Diez, José Gabriel Fernández, Alfred Wenemoser, Susana Amundaraín. Warm Spaces Gallery (Galería de los Espacios Cálidos), Ateneo de Caracas, 1991; Nothing Fodder (Pasto nada). Alfred Wenemoser. RG Hall, 1991; Recent Work (Obra reciente). Sigfredo Chacón, Oscar Machado. Mendoza Hall, 1992; Eugenio Espinoza. Orla. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofía Imber, 1992; Eugenio Espinoza. Paramount Pictures. Sotavento Gallery, Caracas. 1989; Roberto Obregón: Dissections (Roberto Obregón. Disecciones). Sotavento Gallery, 1990; Roberto Obregón. Deefeobe. Sotavento Gallery, Caracas, 1992, among others.  
[5] There were numerous artists, museums with distinguished profiles, an important number of curators, critics, galleries, dealers, publications, collectors, and even an art fair that had been inaugurated the year before.
[6] The symposium Curatorship: Alliance or Critical Confrontation, organized by Rina Carvajal and taking place the October 6 and 7, 1993, counted among its foreign invitees Ivo Mesquita (Brazil), Dan Cameron (USA), Carolina Ponce de León (Colombia), Richard Rhodes (Canada), Jeffrey Deitch (USA), Manuel Borja-Villel (Spain), Carlos Basualdo (Argentina), Kurt Hollander (Mexico), Catherine David (France), Justo Pastor Mellado (Chile), Sandra Antelo Suarez (Bolivia), Karin Stempel (Germany) and Berta Sichel (Brazil), among others.
[7] Félix Suazo makes reference to the controversy unleashed in the press by artist Felipe Márquez in the exhibition catalogue “Reaction and Controversy in Venezuelan Art,” National Gallery of Art, Caracas, 2000, p. 116.
[8] Quote from curator Jorge Gutiérrez in: WISOTZKI, Rubén. “The Vertical Smile Defends its Spaces in Art” (“La sonrisa vertical defiende sus espacios en el arte”). In: Diario de Caracas. Caracas, Thursday, 11 November 1993. Arts and Entertainment, p. 42.
[9] Idem
[10] PÉREZ ORAMAS, Luis Enrique. Antonieta Sosa: Home Anthropometries (Antonieta Sosa: Antropometrías de la Casa). Caracas, Museo de Bellas Artes, 1998, p. 10.
[11] LECUNA, Vicente. High-Impact Sculpure: Mailen García (Escultura de alto impacto. Mailen García) (exhibition catalogue). Caracas, RG Hall, Celarg Foundation (Rómulo Gallegos Center for Latin American Studies), p. 2.
[12] HERNANDEZ, Carmen. From the Body: Allegories of the Feminine. A Vision of Contemporary Art (Desde el cuerpo: Alegorías de lo femenino. Una visión del arte contemporáneo). Caracas, Monte Avila Editores Latinoamericana, 2007, p. 138.
[13] FRONZONI, A.G. Fronzoni. Structures: Magdalena Fernández (Estructuras, Magdalena Fernández) (exhibition catalogue). Luisa de Mendoza Civil Association for Culture, Caracas, 1993.
[14] GUEVARA, Roberto. “Caracas Ten Plus One” (“Caracas diez más una”). En: El Nacional. Caracas, 2 November 1993, p. C6.

Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen