A huge wall drawing of a nude woman crawling forward expresses the title and themes of an unusual exhibit at the Durango Arts Center this month.
“nevertheless: She Persisted” is a solo show of works by Rosemary Meza-DesPlas on view now through March 3. The New Mexico-based Latina artist showcases largely new mixed-media drawings and a wall installation made specifically for DAC. Throughout, Meza-DesPlas makes good on her promise to explore the burdens of the body in unusual media and imagery.
The wall drawing contains delicate, spidery, conte-crayon lines. They create an image of a large woman moving over the earth. In addition, the drawing incorporates dozens of colorful renderings of breasts. They are mounted on white pieces of vinyl and seem to swarm above and around the figure. It’s a disturbing image, underscoring the idea that the body is always with us with burdens to bear.
Renderings of dislocated breasts and buttocks appear elsewhere and set off similar alarm bells. Some float above heads, and it’s easy to conjure various medical matters or simple aging. But in Meza-DesPlas’ artist’s statement and in conversation, she has other things in mind.
“I wrote a paper once about the depiction of breasts and butts in art history,” she said in a telephone interview, “and how that’s changed over time, especially from the 16th century to the present. Until the 20th century, mostly male artists depicted nudes, and I’ve been interested in how the idea of ideal beauty has changed over time.”
She’s right about the long corridor of Western art history lined with tantalizing female nudes painted by male artists. But today, that’s changed. In the last half century, women artists have taken the body as a subject for wide-ranging aesthetic exploration. When the first wave of Feminist Art stirred in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a time of enormous political and social upheaval. We’re still buffeted by cultural change, especially identity politics.
New art genres also emerged in the 1960s to challenge established forms and conventions. Pop, performance and process art spawned conceptual art, and all ran in parallel streams carrying feminist agendas forward.
A focus on the body became a manifesto for many women who questioned the dominant male gaze. Blunt, realistic self-portraits and other variations on the theme of female nudity and its meanings emerged.
Given that deep background, it’s no surprise to see Meza-DesPlas separate body parts and treat them as burdens, subject not to erotic arousal but to time and decay, trouble and pain.
A year ago, DAC mounted another disturbing exhibition of works about women. The Gaia Series had been created by none other than the late Southwest landscape painter Stanton Englehart. The series came from his graduate student days in the 1960s. His intense, often disturbing visions of contorted women twisting in pain expressed a double awakening: an environmentalist’s concern over Mother Earth under siege and the feminist awareness of subordination.
If you were lucky enough to see that remarkable exhibit and remember Englehart’s masterful mixed-media works, bring that memory to mind when you view Meza-DesPlas’ different but equally imaginative treatment of the body and its burdens.
Meza-DesPlas was born in Garland, Texas, and raised in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. She earned her MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a bachelor’s in fine arts from The University of North Texas. Since 2000, she’s been sewing with her own hair as a medium and as a socio-cultural symbol.
A special closing reception for the artist will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. March 2, with a spoken-word performance by Meza-DesPlas at 6 p.m. The reception is free, as is the exhibition.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.