Alva Mooses: Sculpture as Sanctuary

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Alva Mooses, a second-generation Mexican-American artist, has recently relocated to Brooklyn after maintaining her studio in the Hudson Valley for the past two years–this article is based in good part on a visit made upstate, where the author discussed Mooses’s work in her space: a good-sized, well-kept factory no longer in use.  She studied first at Cooper Union in New York City, and then received her graduate degree from Yale. Mooses makes work that reflects a sense of place in her materials, as well as books whose imagery indirectly establishes contact with a geographically biased abstraction. As a Latinx artist, she is inevitably drawn toward border issues, embodiments of place, and the notion that, for the immigrant from Mexico, documented or not, to establish a home in the face of an often hostile environment is to establish a sanctuary. Her work quite literally makes an event of the materials she uses: volcanic stone; an adobe brick from Coahulla, Mexico; other materials related to stone and earth. The use of such materials invests the artist’s work with a deep-seated connection to land in general, but more specifically to the difficult circumstances resulting from immigrant movement to the States, in particular from Mexico, the country of origin of her mother’s family.

Like many artists working today in the United States, Mooses follows a social practice. In her case in particular, it makes sense because of her close connections to Mexico–while growing up in Chicago, she was regularly sent in the summer to her family home in northern Mexico. As happens with many artists in New York, her connection to place is multicentered and hybrid. Mooses is consequently attuned to the rhythms of a life and identity shared in more than one place. Hybridity of mind has been an issue in art for some time. It relates to the unwillingness of many artists to give up the sense of place in which they grew up and where they may still live part of the time or visit on a regular basis. The complexities of such a life are often the building blocks for the kind of intricate creativity someone like Mooses is heir to. She works with materials as metaphor–the substances her art is made of are just as important, in a creative sense, as the work itself, lending a gravitas to the image that may or may not be found easily within the image. This means that a bridge has been constructed between the artwork and the material used to make it, in which the latter receives as much esthetic importance as what we finally see. Inevitably, though, it becomes clear that the identification is double-edged–in the sense that the materials may be appreciated for their metaphorical implications as well as simply being seen, nearly transcendently, as charged substances in their own right.

The importance of Mooses’s practice thus has to do with a theoretical appreciation of place just as much as it is an appreciation, closely linked to the work itself, of art’s ability to construct a place of ceremonial accord. But the concept of place as an abstraction is central to the artist’s esthetic. Material consequently becomes an idea as much as a means for construction. In literature, the landscape is often used metaphorically, in ways that expand the meaning of the land into sites of imaginative sanctuary. In Mooses’s case, the land is not being experienced on an expanded level, at least in a visual sense; instead, we come across it as the fulfillment of a small sculpture or a monoprint. As a result, the art’s imaginative force works in two ways–as an object in its own right, and as a construction embodying the physical identity of whatever land the material may have originated in. At one point, a couple of years ago, when Mooses was teaching at Cornell University, she had the agricultural sciences department legally import an adobe brick from her Mexican home to Ithaca, New York. The poetic implications of this event are marvelously rich: an adobe brick, of course made of earth, was sent from Mexico to the States, where its “foreign” existence became palpable, imaginatively evocative, despite our understanding that the earth is not a geographically specific substance! Thus, it was an immigration of materials rather than people.

The imaginative and philosophical implications of an art based on land itself are both conceptual and physical. Thus the strength of Mooses’s art: looks to an existence at once atmospherically imaginative, in the sense that it is a construct of the mind, and on the ground, quite literally so, at least in some of her artworks, because they are constructed with earth. Can simple dirt have so powerful an esthetic grip on us? Not all of Mooses’s work involves the active use of simple dirt, but when she does work in this manner, it becomes clear that the identification of the artist with her projects is more than merely notional; it is a realization that despite the American truth that we are all immigrants with the exception of course of indigenous peoples, people carry with them not only memories of other lands, but actual, physical reminders that these lands follow them no matter where they go. Enlarging on this insight is essentially a poetic act: How else than by the imagination can we connect to places beyond our sight, to sites we may not know personally but whose existence persists in the memories of earlier generations and is then carried forth? Longing thus becomes something real, not only emotionally nostalgic, and therefore tied to the landscape of a specific place.

This can be seen in the works themselves. In Sin Eje/Without Axis (2019-20), ceramic curving forms, connected to each other without necessarily creating a finished gestalt, imply, despite their fragmentation, the grand geographical reach of their global implications, rather like the stand of a globe on a desk.. It is interesting to note that these pieces, however incomplete they might be, look to the entirety of geographical landscape and its mapping (we remember the famous story by Borges, in which a map existed on a one-to-one basis with the very large expanse of territory it was recording, so that the representation of the territory was equal in both size and meaning to the land itself). Mapping lends itself nicely to the colonial experiment; it divides arbitrarily, much as the high wall we have created divides Mexico from the southern border of the United States. These seeming fragments, made by Mooses, involve a sense of permanent incompleteness, as embodied in their forms. Their graceful curvilinear lines echo modernist practice, but as happens regularly in Mooses’ art, we see a conceptual thematic tie to the land that distances her work from a purely formal analysis.

The volcanic charms, wonderful small sculptures, involving circular or ridged edges, are made with ceramic covered with a volcanic glaze. What is the function of these works, beyond their unusual, rough-cast beauty? Here, as we would easily recognize, the ceramic is a form of clay, or earth, while the volcanic glaze suggests the volcanoes that have been active in the Americas for millennia. Can a simple material be so metaphorically important as to invest a work with the gravitas of centuries? Yes, I think this is possible to happen. Interestingly, the weight of the past serves both as backdrop and foreground for the artwork, but it is atmospheric, or conceptual, in nature. It is not easily perceived if at all in the artwork–this is where the poetic implications of the material itself stand in as a way of documenting a culture that still lacks visibility and, likely, full understanding in the United States. The small sculptures are marvelously suggestive of an international, organic formalism even as they are also indicative as traces of Latin American geology. More than anything else, the art builds a bridge between the very old and the more than notably new, in which the ancient quality of the sculptures is dependent on aspects not necessarily available as visuals alone.

In Se entre ballando/You Enter Dancing (2019), Mooses created an installation, to be used as a site for performance and dance, for the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York City. It is a circular piece composed of a starred form, constructed of pine wood, surrounded by black background made of recycled asphalt and volcanic ash. This is a dance floor meant to reclaim the catastrophic history of the Paricutin volcano erupting in 1943, in the midst of a cornfield, covering the small town of San Juan Parangancutiro, including the local church, with lava and ash. Mooses’ platform is an attempt to recreate a space mimicking the space in the Mexican town of Nuevo San Juan where residents engage in dances to celebrate the cultural merger of  P’urhépecha traditions, Catholicism, and natural events like a volcanic eruption. Scattered throughout the site are concrete casts of sandals, a reference no doubt to local inhabitants as well as to the dancing that occurred on the constructed platform. The installation cannot fully exist without people dancing on its floor, thus reproducing the dancing traditions that occur in Nuevo San Juan, Michoacan, Mexico. As always, Mooses is invested in the creation of ties between her life here in New York and her deep connection to the sites of her forebears, no matter whether they are near to or far from her northern Mexico home.

In her silver pendants of volcanoes, based on the Virgin San Juan de los Lagos image recreated from wax figures (2018-19), Mooses shows us her interest in how silver and gold were a strong part of colonial interests, referring to a period when many objects made of the same materials, from pre-Columbian times, were melted and reused for Catholic paraphernalia. These small, beautifully made pendants would not seem, at first glance, to refer to so large a piece of history, but in fact they do. One of Mooses’s strengths is her ability to transform materials in a way that objectifies history, often colonial in nature. So, like much art dedicated by social practice today, the artist’s efforts make it clear that the substance of her art can actually be seen as an artistic choice with thematic consequences. This is achieved by inference and intuition–qualities we do not associate with the substance the art is made with. Time and again, we return to the poetic implications of the land in Mooses’s imagination, which transmutes a material into a sense of place. She is an alchemist of a very fine sort.

The ties extend beyond sculpture to the monoprints she makes. Igneous rock, for example, is a material she used to make a gray squared image on top of a deep blue in a very beautiful print. Indeed, she regularly works with materials from the earth to deepen the color and mood of her nonobjective, often monochromatic, monoprints. Usually, Mooses works abstractly, but in El Cinco en dos  (2012), she offers a photogravure of her great-grandfather’s land just south of the United States border. The image is of a single landscape, but our experience of it is slightly complicated by the small differentiation in orientation between the right half and the left–the two sides are not perfectly aligned. On the left side, a yucca tree breaks the horizon, while on the right there is a continuation of the dramatic landscape. In the image,we find an expanse of grass, with the tree in its midst, that leads to a lake backed by low mountains and a large expanse of a silver and white, heavily clouded sky. While the images in fact form a single picture (a wooden frame encompasses the entire image), at the same time they are distanced from each other by the disjointed connection between the two halves. The photographic image carries an extraordinary, severe beauty, somehow more than distant from what we regularly see in the United States. In the American stereotypical view of Mexico, the countryside is seen as wild, untamed, an outlook perhaps born out by the romanticism of Mooses’s artwork. Yet the site of the picture is only a short distance from the United States border.

How can sculpture fulfill the role of sanctuary? It can do so by embodying a presence linked to the land itself, in which spirituality–a relatively unspoken but important element in Mooses’s work–looks to sites of unequivocal meaningfulness, even if primary by intuition. This is not to say that Mexico is a figment of the artist’s imagination. That would be a misreading of Mooses’s esthetic by far–Mexico has been part of her life for decades. Instead, there is something else, something not so far from the romantic notion of negative capability, in which the idea of Mexico and the experience of the land loosely combine and merge and re-combine again in ways that keep memory alive. Mooses quietly, and to some extent informally, plans a continuation between her current position as a sophisticated artist from the United States, with a strong academic training that is intellectually driven and of recent history, and the open possibilities of a place that is both home and more than that, being an arena of extraordinary age and a place generating strong feeling. Some of the work, it is true, links historical continuity to ongoing political issues, such as the silver pendants meant to reference Catholic and colonial exploitation, but there is also a deeper level, one based on the ancient associations of the land.

Sanctuary therefore comes into view as an imaginative and physical space, the latter making sure that the former is based on truth and not the imaginary alone. We are living in a time when political art is literalizing the imagination in ways that do it harm; thankfully, Mooses is looking for a place where she might merge her existence as an artist interested in conceptual and visual abstraction and her recognition that the history she refers to is far larger, and older, than what most of us imagine. Thus, the specificity of her references inevitably cancel out the more generalized implications of their politics. It is her job, then, to reify the uncertain ties between the mind and the landscape it is occupied with, in the hope that a place of rest, not pious so much as spiritual, might come to the forefront. One needn’t overemphasize Mooses’s art as an entirely spiritual, nearly religious attempt at communication; it is better than that. Instead, it looks to the imaginary as something unbounded, but also in need of some small constraint, just as we understand the landscape as being notionally endless but limited to the moment in which it is seen. If it is true that sculpture can construct a sanctuary, it can be done now, in the 21st century, only as a place at least as much mentally constructed as it is actually realized. But then the idea of a sanctuary, in contemporary art, may have shifted from a real place to a site in one’s thoughts. Mooses’s alchemic transformations–her silver pendants owing their creation to wax figures, her sculptures derived from ash, her monoprint images created with stone–wonderfully evoke our time, when anything is possible, so long as our imagination, historical and current, is clear.

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