Shifra M. Goldman
Los Angeles, California, USA
Two broad thematic concerns intersect in the work of Mari Mater O'Neill: the portrait - especially the self-portrait - and the landscape. Contained within these currents are a plethora of subthemes that situate the particular painting within the artist's time and space. The point of intersection is at the node of autobiography since both self-portraits and landscapes are subjectivized. That is, they are never descriptive of an objective reality. Rather, like Futurist paintings that explored space not through a rational Renaissance-derived schema of perspective, but as a space location originating within the painter that exited as force fields radiating in multiple directions, or as a vortex in which space took on a widening funnel form, Mari Mater O'Neill centers the world within her own persona and permits it to explode outward.
O'Neill's autobiography proceeds first and foremost with the self-portrait which has been her ongoing preoccupation for almost a decade of artistic life. Portraiture and self-portraiture, of course, has been of interest to most Western artists from the period of the Renaissance which first centered the particularized human individual as a theme - in contrast to the idealized deities and sublime rulers of antiquity and the Middle Ages - until the present. For women, however, portraiture signified an exploration of the woman as individual as seen through the gaze of the male artists who painted them. Not until the long history of women artists emerged through the research of feminist art historians during the last thirty years did the self-portraits of women artists become a category for interpretation and speculation.
As the body of evidence continued to accumulate, it was discovered that though many women worked within broad stylistic categories consistent with their historical moment in time, their choice and rendition of themes often departed from the male norm and the male ideology. In painting women, and themselves, female artists stressed different characteristics and relationships. Limited by the necessity of pleasing the male marketplace so they could survive as professionals, women changed the narrative of widely accepted biblical and personal themes to argue for a different history. For example, within the popular Dutch Baroque subject of panderers and seducers, painter Judith Leyster conveyed with great subtlety a 17th century version of sexual harassment as a leering man obviously forces his attentions and his money on a modest and resisting woman who continues to sew in the face of his importunity. Artemisia Gentileschi bypassed the encounter of David with Goliath as a theme and represented the heroic actions of the Hebrew maiden Judith who decapitated the enemy warrior Holofernes in the privacy of his own tent rather than in the public arena of battle where men functioned. Renditions of the young shepherd David often depict him with the monstrous head of Goliath at his feet. However what model was there for a young and even more vulnerable woman to be shown cutting off the head of a large and powerful man and carrying it off in a burlap sack as proof of her deed? Nothing in the iconography of biblical subjects concerns itself with why or how David moved the head to lie at his feet, or whether he needed it as a proof of accomplishment. Nor was Leyster's seamstress able to resort to law suits, or even physical action to ward off her unwelcome molester.
In the realm of personal anguish or anxiety before the 19th century, traditional art offers few examples that are not clothed in religious or political garments. For example, Michelangelo's depiction on the walls of the Sistine Chapel of his humiliation by a professional rival took the form of a self-portrait as the hanging flayed skin of St. Bartholemew - a personal note that continues to be a source of surprise and wonder.
Only with the triumphal accession of the individuated bourgeoisie to power in the 19th century, and the post-Freudian middle class of the 20th, do personal anguish, anxiety, alienation, sexual desire, happpiness, bliss, celebration, agony and fear take a high road. By the 1940s, for example, both female and homosexual/bisexual artists were able - within limits - to address problems and experiences of concern to their lives. The era of social realism, precisely because of its popular posture, opened up such possibilities, along with the glorification of the working class. Its models were the European modernists, from France, Germany and Central Europe, the surrealists, and the example of the Mexican muralists - particularly Orozco, whose anguished sexuality, however, shared the misogyny of European male artists. Despite the number of women artists in Europe, including such master figures as Kathe Kollwitz, women still functioned at a disadvantage not only as artists, but generally.
In Latin America, a number of women artists from 1930s and 1940s established the parameters of personal expression, social and sexual discovery or anguish, and the self-portrait as a denominator of their differentiated concerns. In Argentina there are the examples of Raquel Forner and Aida Carballo; in Brazil of Tarsila do Amaral; in Cuba of Antonia Eirez; in Puerto Rico of Myrna Báez; in Mexico of María Izquierdo, and (partly due to its open doors for political refugees) of Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. The major figure, of course, was Frida Kahlo who combined with extraordinary candor the themes of personal and sexual suffering confronted with élan and a love of life, with social and political consciousness. However, it was in the 1970s that the woman artist in Latin America, as elsewhere, began to emerge from her chrysalis, not in the name of femininity, but of feminism, now separated from the white middle class venues of Europe and the United States. Feminism was remodeled to provide a metaphoric mirror for the self-portrait of the indigenous, the mestiza, the black and mulatta, the creole woman. As I have said elsewhere, mirrors alone (even metaphoric ones) are obviously insufficient for the Latin American woman. She needs to create an identity that is not only personal, but national; that is not concerned with duplicating European standards of "beauty," but with creating new standards based on her realities and those of her sisters. In Latin America, identity has long been part of a social problem that requires a political posture. The self-portrait is one of a range of possibilities through which this posture can be explored. As already suggested, Mari Mater O'Neill's major vehicle for transversing her world, which is the world of her Puerto Rican nativity as well as the omnipresent United States which holds her country as a colony, is the self-portrait. Through it she explores her personal and social identity in a seemingly frenzied style of expressionist painting that resolves itself with the colors and problematics of Puerto Rico, though her style is obviously related to the varied modes of expressionism available to her during a decade of study in New York before her permanent return to Puerto Rico in 1988. The point of contact with Puerto Rico in all her recent paintings is the geography itself. This she made amply clear with the 1993 series of paintings called «Mapas» which render the map of her island as a small irregular rectangle anchored between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Land, water and sky seen from an aerial location constitute this vision, which metamorphosizes its colors and shapes from painting to painting.
Aside from this stratospheric experiment, Mari Mater O'Neill's paintings are land-based, but hardly more stable since they do not emanate from without, but from within. In a complex mix of narrative and symbolism, space is inner-fixated as experienced in dreams or states of mind. Color is arbitrary, as is scale. Figures and objects are generally flat, described by lines, operating with and within color changes as variable as those of Kandinsky when he was rearranging his world of objects into organic abstractions, or of Matisse when color areas set up their own dynamic within the descriptive matrix. In other words, the linear narrative and the color narrative do not always coincide since line expresses the shape of objects, and color the shape of emotions. Textures do not correspond to real surfaces, but to the violence or suavity of painted surfaces, the admixture of the mediums and the variables of the ground. Mixing oils, acrylics and gouache with oil and encaustic crayons on cotton and linen canvas, leads to a great variety of applied and base textures. In addition, texture owes something to the method of application which is loose and expressive, on occasion to the point of indecipherability. Symbols are frequently buried in the fragmented paint surface as small inserted line drawings, or finely painted details. The size of O'Neill's paintings also violate what has been normative for women in the past, but which many contemporary women have discarded. Her dramas range as large as six and seven feet high and wide.
Grafted on a base of graphics, which - along with calligraphy - has been the core artistic expression of Puerto Rico since the 1940s, O'Neill's training in New York emphasized drawing and painting at the Cooper Union School of Arts and Sciences. There was also experimentation with film, video and computers and a deep involvement with the world of theater, dance and performance to which she pays tribute with her portrait of Viveca Vázquez («Paisaje en Fuego Núm. 5») . Surveying a body of her work, one becomes aware that this is a world of women in action and in meditation, though male friends in the arts also appear as co-portraits with the artist.
The present series of paintings, «Paisaje en Fuego» (1992-94), continues in the trajectory of an older series known as «Paisaje en Tiempo de Ansiedad» (1990), one of which won First Prize at the Third International Biennial of Painting at Cuenca, Ecuador, in 1991. An early work in the present series («Paisaje en Fuego Núm. 2») clearly breaks with the fragmented approach that distinguished the previous search for self and assumes an iconic quality deriving from the frontality and stability of the nude figure immersed to the hips in tumultuous white-capped water, and the seven-pointed halo surmounting her head. Raising her arms calmly, she seems to rise from the ocean like a phoenix or a water goddess, with flaming balls of fire like flowers held high in both hands. Flecks of fire silhouette her body and hair, and fall like burning crisps into the sea. Swimming through the transparent waters are small enigmatic objects that carry the symbolic language of this piece into another dimension. Fragmented and energetic as this painting is, it appears simpler and more controlled than the thickly engaged and multilayered earlier works. No question exists that it is a self-portrait, however the real life history of the work doesn't foreclose on its mystical or symbolic quality. Gathering around herself the four elements, fire, water, air and earth, O'Neill obviously feels powerful and sheltered by the water, an element that is central to her life on an island and one in which she feels safe. No fire can burn or damage her; she herself becomes an island nurtured in this medium.
The psychological trauma that produced this painting and the entire series was the destruction of one of her earlier paintings by fire. Embedded in he work are a series of symbols taken from Puerto Rican proverbs, Catholic imagery, and personal signs. The glass floating in the water refers to the saying "no one can drown in a glass of water". Thus she paints herself with her fiery hands submerged in the water. The halo is a reference to her name which signifies Mother Mary in Latin (Mater Admirabilis), and is also a response to stereotypes imposed on Latino American art. The spectacles hanging around her neck refer to a general lack of vision among those who fail to understand her as a woman and a Puerto Rican. Even with blood in her nostrils, she can still smile, she seems to indicate. There is no danger that she herself can be burned, despite the destruction of her work, because she is immersed in the protective envelope of the water. Having cauterized and healed her personal anguish, she turns for the rest of the series from the individual to the collective in which the self-portrait, as a theme, can be seen as a vehicle of national affirmation.
In painting «No.3», the artist, now fully dressed in black, emerges from the water with the flaming waves behind her; in « «Paisaje en Fuego Núm.4» , the two sections of herself -one submerged in the water with her flaming hair, droplets of water on her nude flesh, and wearing the spectacles of limited vision; the other prowling the night streets on a flaming sidewalk - co-exist in a diptych. In still another («No.7») she returns to the tree and flower-filled landscape (the earth) restored to normalcy but still engulfed in an aureole of fire from her recent experience. Adversity has been confronted and overcome; the artist once again affirms her unseared identity and her courage.
©2008 - María de Mater O'Neill