David Gill Gallery is pleased to announce the first major UK exhibition of Mexican artist Milena Muzquiz (b.1972). This new body of work comprises 21 ceramic vessels and several large-scale paintings which are ‘like landscapes for the vessels,’ says Muzquiz. ‘Together they create an overarching experience.’
California refers to a kind of Freudian narrative that emerged as Muzquiz began work on the show: vivid memories of her childhood and adolescence in the Californian landscape, visits to beach clubs and banal shopping malls, and journeys across the Mexican border. Given that California was part of Mexico until it became a US state in 1850, the title also questions broader notions of nationalism and identity.
Muzquiz grew up between two houses in the sister cities of Tijuana and San Diego, on either side of the most visited border crossing in the world. ‘There was a little piece of ocean in between and you could swim, illegally, from one side to the other,’ she says, though she took the Interstate 5. ‘It was so easy then, I didn’t even have to show ID.’ At times, she was crossing the border twice a day, from home to high school and back again. ‘Learning to navigate extremes was part of my life and still is: everything gets mixed up, culturally. There is nothing purist about my practice.’
The ‘kitchy yet profound’ aesthetic of the Mexican souvenirs sold at the border was formative, she thinks. ‘It was very intense in the car, objects were thrust at the window, appearing and disappearing – piggy banks, gnomes, Christ figures, Mickey Mouse, and the Virgin of Guadalupe,’ an icon invented to persuade the indigenous people to embrace Catholicism. ‘The virgin of the poor. She was covered in stars and lights. You’re taking it all in super-fast and I guess I repeat this experience as I work, grabbing images, collaging, seeing what happens and then, intuitively, a narrative comes through.’
In a process of cutting and scoring her clay, applying it to the vessel like paper or magazine cut-outs then layering colours, patterns, images, tendrils, baubles and pendants, she creates complex self-portraits, so full of movement, they’re almost performative. ‘My ceramics are not so far from my performance art,’ agrees Muzquiz, whose international reputation was established as one half of the art band Los Super Elegantes, performing for 15 years at museums, art fairs and the Whitney Biennial (2004).
She now works alone, with no assistants, and the presence of the hand is intrinsic to her practice. While her ceramics are functioning vases, tactile and meant to be handled, Muzquiz’ renewed interest in painting brings another dimension to the works. ‘I have added figurative images for the first time, like the dilapidated beach club in Berkley where I went as a student, lying about in bikinis reading Gertrude Stein. So Californian.’
Muzquiz’ California is complicated. ‘California is a very contemporary place but it has a shallow surface and beneath it you can feel the depth of its ghosts. They are howling and hooting into the air at night.’ The erasure of Native American history is ‘dark and concerning,’ she says, yet this wild, ‘non-historical’ environment has long provided artists with the conditions they crave. ‘As an artist, you are confronted with yourself constantly so you really need to find a way of dealing with that. In this vast landscape, you can carve out your existence, get a big studio, focus on work – just a huge freedom.’
Trained at the California College of Fine Arts, San Francisco, Muzquiz then completed an MFA at the Art Centre College of Design, Pasedena, tutored by legendary conceptual artist Mike Kelley. ‘There was a kind of a Californian eco-system, where we’d visit UCLA and Cal Arts for talks, and guys like Chris Burden, Ed Ruchet and John Baldessari would come to see us. But mostly I was learning from Mike.’ They remained close until Kelley’s death in 2012, aged 57, and he left her with ‘a monumental piece of advice. After all the theory he taught me, it was: Just do something with your hands.’