We visit Sandra Vásquez de la Horra at her studio apartment in Berlin—along with her macabre creatures. Little did we know we were entering a world of great sensibility, adorned with dark artwork that would leave our minds a bit brighter.
Minutes after the necessary small-talk and informal conversation, Sandra Vásquez de la Horra gets down to business as she begins to unpack her drawings and laying them across her huge living room table. Let me be honest: I did not like them. They were disturbing to a point that I felt like a five year-old boy having nightmares again. I somehow recognized myself in one of the drawings that showed two boys in the water; I felt suffocated. I imagined it was my twin brother and I in the water, very close to drowning. Things got worse after the conversation carried on. After mentioning that I was from Brazil, she began talking about her trip to Salvador de Bahia, a big city in the seacoast of the Brazilian northeast. "I felt in love with Pomba Gira," she said with a very proud tone in her voice. I laughed—not because it was funny, but because it made me nervous.
Into The Dark Side
Let me explain: Pomba Gira is an entity of Umbanda, a Brazilian religion that blends African religions with Catholicism and Spiritism. During her adventure in Brazil, Sandra discovered Pomba Gira while visiting a "macumba" slot – a place where religious practitioners perform rituals. The reason I was shocked is because of macumbas' status as "black magic" in Brazil. You see, I grew up in a protestant family and was raised to believe that this was the work of the devil. So there I was, facing things that I've tried to avoid my whole life, surrounded by death figures, demons and creepy anthropomorphic beings. Don't get me wrong, it did not take long for me to turn off my judgmental mode and start to understand her drawings better. Believing that every artwork carries the artist's biography, I had to go back to her as a person and comprehend the meaning of her work within the context of her life.
Vásquez de la Horra was born in Chile during the hard times of an oppressive dictatorship. She was raised in a typical patriarchal society with a very strict family. If every family has a black sheep, the artist was the one in hers. At least, this is how she describes herself in comparison to her siblings. "I used to argue a lot with my father and he would send me to eat in the kitchen with the cooks or to spend time with the maids." In the kitchen, she would interact and learn from the family's employees.
Consequently, she also found refuge in literature. These two forms of escapism would help define the artist as she is now: someone with intellectual rigor that loves books as much as connecting with people of humble means. She travels the world in search of shamans and people with spiritual knowledge—there is no doubt that this has had a huge impact in her art. Her drawings may not be about a specific religion, but it would not be wrong to say they possess spiritual qualities. They appear as a collection of childhood nightmares mixed with a teenager's sexual desires and the wisdom of an old shaman.
Yet Vásquez de la Horra avoids all stereotypes: She deals with death, but not portraying it as a negative thing; she deals with female sexuality, but not as a preachy feminist. What she presents in her personal beliefs – and her art – is a skeptical cultural relativism. These are the drawings of someone who does not believe in Western society's norms. And maybe this explains the themes from her artwork: surreal mystical creatures that offer not a complete escape from the real world but a way of trying to connect to something more; something that goes beyond our usual understanding. This 'something more' in the drawings of Vásquez de la Horra is what I had initially missed—and that's where the beauty of her art is. She also took long to recognize the value of it; before having her art bought by big collectors or renowned art institutions such as the Centre Pompidou, the artist would never sign any of her work.
Ultimately, I left her studio apartment feeling wiser. The power of art is to open one's mind; her artwork reminded me that going out of my comfort zone could often teach me valuable lessons. My initial fear was transformed into admiration. Before leaving, I had to look at the drawings on the table once more. Maybe I will never find the reptilians that she draws or join an orgy of mermaids (perhaps only in my dreams), but I did meet an artist that showed me that even in the darkest of darks there is a great deal of brightness. -Chris Phillips
Although very well established in Europe, Chilean-born, Berlin-based Vásquez de la Horra is still being discovered by collectors on this side of the Atlantic, but her base here is growing: Four American visitors to this show's opening who has not heard of the artist purchased works on the spot. In the very first days of the exhibition, whose title translates to "Between Heaven and Earth," nearly half of the 91 wax-dipped graphite drawings, priced between $2,000 and $12,000, were sold. The drawings feature texts, magical underworld demons, and reptilian femail nudes in quasispiritual, political, and intensely personal narratives that over the years have formed a kind of intricate, fragmented folklore. The gallery has previously sold to many European collections, including Centre Pompidou, in Paris, which had acquired no fewer than 30 drawings from the gallery. (The Guerlain Foundation has since donated an additional large group, bringing the museum's total to nearly 100.) Immediately after the artist's participation in the Sao Paulo Bienal, still more museums came forward to purchase small groups of drawings.Download PDF (1 MB)
A Chilean artist who grew up under the oppressive Pinochet regime, Sandra Vásquez de la Horra studied graphic design and typography in her homeland before moving to Germany in 1995. Arriving in Düsseldorf at age 28, she studied at the prestigious Kunstakademie, developing a psychologically charged style of figurative drawings done on modestly sized pieces of paper that are then dipped in beeswax and pinned to the wall in poetic, nonnarrative arrangements. For her second solo show in New York, the artist presents nearly 100 of these raw graphite works, which boldly examine sex, death, politics and religion.
The largest grouping best expresses the exhibition’s title (which translates to “between heaven and earth”). Seven drawings into a chain of 41 images, we see the upper torso of a squatting female depicted as a transparent network of blood vessels, while her lower body is made of bricks. Near the center of the arrangement, another image shows a smoking man reclining next to the figure of Death; they float above a hand-lettered Spanish text that translates as “good company.” Nearby, a diptych captures reptilian people engaged in an orgy, while in the final piece, a dancing woman reveals an inner self of branches and leaves. With centaurs, mermaids, saints and demons taking part, the whole exhibition resembles a huge game of exquisite corpse, with each element providing a point of entry to an imaginary realm.
"Elles@centrepompidou" at the Centre Pompidou
Through Feb. 21, 2011
"Elles@centrepompidou" comprises works, culled from the Pompidou's own collection, created by more than 200 women artists from the early Modernist era to the present day. The exhibition touts itself as the first of its kind at a major national museum, and indeed, it makes one wonder why there have not been more shows devoted to women's contributions to art. Featuring photographs, documents, and films of such celebrated feminist works as the groundbreaking, body-oriented performance piece Meat Joy (1964) by Carolee Schneemann and similar pieces by Orlan and Valie Export, "Elles" presents the woman's movement as one of the most crucial political and cultural developments since World War II. Andrea Fraser comments on museums' power hierarchies with her famous performance piece Museum Highlights (1989), displayed as a video alongside other institutional critiques by 1980s artists like Louise Lawler. Drawings by the contemporary Chilean artist Sandra Vásquez de la Horra offer a humorous and dark vision of her personal world, marked by violence and carnal desire. Charlotte Perriand and Zaha Hadid round out the exhibition, representing exceptional women in the male-dominated fields of design and architecture. Organized by themes such as the Activist Body and A Room of One's Own, "Elles" does not attempt to rewrite the history of women's art or to make any grand statements about gender inequalities in the galleries of prominent arts institutions. What it does do is to reveal the extraordinary talents of women artists and celebrate them with flair. - Katherine Chan
The Chilean artist's surrealistic, cannily crude wax-coated pencil drawings split differences between Goyaesque phantasmagoria and op-ed illustration. Themes of sexual abjection, political violence, and death are advanced with sardonic, ambiguous zeal—relishing as much as deploring the depicted horrors. The use of wax gives the drawings, which often incorporate titles or captions, arresting physical density, but Vásquez de la Horra's imaginative project gains little in being displayed that it couldn't achieve in reproduction or, for that matter, in poetic paraphrase. How she thinks intrigues more strongly than what she makes. Through Jan. 31. (Nolan, 527 W.
29th St. 212-925-6190.)
Alighiero e Boetti used to say that writing with the left hand is drawing. William Black depicted Urizen, the Zoa (or emanation of the fallen primal man) representing repressive reason and authority, as an old man writing with both hands. In Sandra Vàsquez de la Horra's video "Hemispherios: Eine politische Biografie im Kontext der Chilenischen Diktaturzeit (Hemispherios: A Political Biography in the Context of the Chilean Dictatorship)," 2002, the camera looks down from the Chilean artist, who, like an allegory of Justice, is blindfolded and writes page after page with both hands in a large volume, each hand mirroring the other so that the letters on each left-hand page are reversed. As she leans forward to write, her body blocks our view, making it impossible to read her words; but as each spread is filled, she sits back, revealing its content for a moment before she flips the page and goes on. Her life story is inscribed in a litany of phrases, names, sometimes just detached words--not a narrative or even a chronicle, yet eloquent enough for the viewer to discern the artist's sense of incapacity in the face of murder, disappearances, torture, exile, and mourning, but also of solidarity and hope.Download PDF (2.7 MB)