On ViewInstitute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University
October 10, 2020 – February 28, 2021
The word “sad” appears all over the place in As Everybody, the first solo survey in the US of more than 50 mixed-media works by Buenos Aires-based artist and activist Fernanda Laguna. A writer with multiple books and a legendary art space and publishing platform (Belleza y Felicidad) under her belt, Laguna incorporates her literary output into the exhibition by having English one-liners and three-to-five-line stanzas penciled directly onto the walls surrounding her paintings. “Sad” populates many of these annotations (ex: “The princess in my dreams is so sad this morning … and I don’t know what to do.”)
There is immediacy to this act of drawing on the wall that, to me, recalls the doodles Pope.L periodically added to his MoMA retrospective in 2019. His little cartoon ghosts made the monumental, static notion of a retrospective more of a living project. As Everybody includes works Laguna has made over the past 10 years; her handwritten notes enable the whole exhibition to feel cohesive and particular to its Richmond locale—something I appreciate at a time when seeing art in person is a rarity.
These wall scrawls often act as marginalia for the works on display, with the artist even sketching intricate frames (with playful butterflies and castle turrets) around a handful of them. Colorful paintings and collages are sliced with geometric cutouts or affixed with string, ribbon, feathers, and other bric-a-brac materials. There are also woven tapestries stretched on wooden frames, while a number of the paintings have intricate wicker frames.
A favorite is a ghost-shaped figure made of white cotton fastened to an ombré pink and gray painted canvas. This cartoonish specter is personified with black eyes and a pink and green crocheted headpiece. The word “¿ELLA?” (She?, 2020) is printed on the body. This simple composition brings to mind a popular meme, where the phrase “who is she?” accompanies images of animals or inanimate objects caught in dignified, humanoid positions. Picture a lone pigeon strutting a red carpet or bananas peeled to resemble a pair of high heeled feet.
In a recent interview, Laguna said “I love painting things that are recognizable at first glance, so when people see for instance a black cat, they say, ‘a black cat,’ or after seeing a flower, they say, ‘a flower.’”1 In this act of recognition and reading aloud (as the only visitor in the gallery, I found myself volubly mumbling to myself) the works provide an opportunity for the viewer to pivot mentally. The omnipresent “sad” on the walls tints Laguna’s carnivalesque palette and cheery imagery with a fallible, humanizing tone. Reading it over and over on the walls as I traversed the gallery, I began to recognize sad as a phonetic sound. A single beat, like a full stop. Sad is sad in all its emotional manifestations—disappointment, loss, heartbreak—but it can also become something else entirely. “It’s not sad it’s strange,” is written on the wall.
In a separate room, there is an archive of visual matter from Ni Una Menos (Not One Woman Less)—the Latin American activist movement campaigning against gender-based violence. The bright colors, geometric shapes, and handwritten script in the artist’s individual practice take different forms in a wall-sized banner, triangular pink and green bandanas, and handmade t-shirts from the movement. The triangles in particular point to a shared interest in geometric abstraction and activism found in the work of other living Latin American artists. These include the playful, queer landscape paintings by Ad Minoliti, the sculptural installations of monochrome panels by Mariela Scafati, and in Carlos Motta’s Formas da Liberdade chronology—a timeline marking the global history of the pink triangle from its oppressive, homophobic origins to its liberation in queer activism.
Regarding reclamation, just down the road from the ICA, the monument to confederate general Robert E. Lee has been re-imagined as a memorial to victims of police violence. It now serves as a gathering space and public garden for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In this difficult time, the reclaiming and transforming of established, often onerous, language and symbols feels freeing. It is empowering to think that every time I use a word it can mean something new, a meaning I give to it. A word is powerful in its multiplicity and its possibilities, and so is the lexicon Laguna assembles in her visual, literary, and activist work. Laguna’s experiments with lo-fi matter and a pencil are a testament to how such tools in our more limited, COVID-era worlds can creatively and politically sustain us.
Fernanda Laguna, interview by Chris Kraus, Mousse Magazine, 2020, http://moussemagazine.it/fernanda-laguna-chris-kraus-2020/.