Masks and Materials at El Museo

Karen Kedmey
Oct 21, 2013 4:45AM

While the galleries at El Museo del Barrio are currently occupied almost entirely by the lively and youthful La Bienal, the museum has retained a small portion of its small exhibition space for works from its permanent collection. I slipped into this second exhibition, titled Presencia, unknowingly at first, thinking that it was a part of La Bienal. There I found a selection of masks, made by unidentified Central and South American artists and by Luis Mendez, a New York City-based mixed-media artist. These expressive coverings for the human face also present it back to us--in high relief. In the context in which I saw them, midway into viewing La Bienal, in which much of the art is focused on (fraught) identity, the masks seemed perfectly resolved. They are bound up with identity, too, but in a form--garish, morphed, exuberant, extreme--that is direct and full of life.

Self-reflection subtly underlies the work of mixed-media artist Gabriela Salazar, whose poetic installation of individual sculptural forms hugs a gallery corner back in La Bienal. Using scraps and simple materials, she riffs off of the wedge shape and its remarkable weight-bearing ability. Her wedges--too fragile to bear much weight--are portraits of people and places, memories and emotions, and, at base, remarkably elegant expressions of the beauty inherent in the most humble materials. In Salazar's hands, even yellow foam padding becomes lovely to look at, torn into variously sized, rough-edged triangles, pieced together into a large wedge standing on end, and called, cleverly, (for that hard place) (2013).

Among her most poignant works, Even Pressure (2012) is another upright wedge, this time formed of thin wooden shims lashed together by rubber bands and split into a V by a wooden spirit level. The piece is full of tension, held in exquisite balance, with the spirit level working in opposition (dividing) to the rubber bands (binding). The taught stillness of this work is broken in only one place. In the little glass vial embedded in the level is its spirit, a pale yellow liquid in trembling motion, its movement in sync, it seems, with the vibrations in the room as people pass by.

Karen Kedmey