Progression of Art
This drawing shows a lit gas stove burner, as seen from directly above. The metal components are rendered in grey graphite pencil, with only the small central ring of flames in blue. Although the drawing has the appearance of being hastily sketched, due to the imprecise and uneven pencil strokes, the artist has also made an effort to shade the metal trivet on the right-hand side, to give it a more three-dimensional and curved appearance.
This drawing, executed by Hurtado at the age of just eighteen, is deceptively simple. In fact, looking back at this early work, we see the introduction of several central themes and interests that would go on to characterize the artist's oeuvre over the next eighty years. Firstly, the bird's-eye view perspective would go on to become a signature style for Hurtado. In later years she returned to this vantage point repeatedly and most notably in her "I am" paintings of the late 1960s and 1970s (in which she painted her own body and closet floor).
Secondly, the early drawing, shows that the artist is interested in her own distinctly personal experience, and more specifically in a domestic and female experience. Here we see a section of Hurtado's oven, the appliance that she was constantly using to prepare food for her children. In many interviews, Hurtado has remarked upon the challenges she faced in juggling her role as a wife and mother along with her role as an artist, and we see in this drawing, as well as in her "I am paintings", references to the dual aspects of her identity (domestic responsibility and artistic aspirations).
Thirdly, this drawing represents an early attempt at capturing light (the blue ring of flame) on paper, through the use of color. Hurtado recalls, "I was really interested in fire. I remember being very intrigued, and loving those gas stoves, the old black ones, you know, with the ring of fire? I did a whole series of paintings of them." She would return to the challenge of painting fire in her "I am" paintings when depicting the flames of matches held in her hands. Also, later in the 1970s she attempted to depict pure light, most notably in her colorful Moth Lights series. Here she attempted to "paint light" on canvas so convincingly that it might attract moths.
Graphite and coloured pencil on paper
This painting, which is Hurtado's first known work on canvas, depicts two tan-colored deer (represented as mere silhouettes) standing by a shimmering silver lake that occupies the bottom-right corner of the image. One deer is standing in profile, while the other, facing the viewer head-on, is bent downward with its front legs spread wide, drinking from the lake. The dark background contains the silhouette of reddish-black peaks, which appear to be desert sand dunes, under a black and turquoise night sky. Half of a white circle, presumably the moon, peeks out from behind the central peak of the landscape and mirrors the curvature and shimmer of the lake. Culture writer Tess Thackara asserts that this "soulful" work points toward Hurtado's connection with the Mexican Surrealists. The mystical image also references prehistoric cave paintings, like those discovered at Lascaux and Altamira, where Hurtado would later go camping in the late 1950s with her third husband Lee Mullican and their children. However, she painted this work in 1942, before having visited the caves. The composition was a sort of experiment for the artist, who thought that animals look quite funny when stooping down to drink. As is typical for Hurtado, there is often a very simple starting point for her work and always an appreciation staying lighthearted and keeping oneself amused. Later, looking back at the work, she felt so proud of the composition that she decided to recreate it in 1981.
Oil on canvas
This work is comprised of abstract geometric lines and shapes, using only five colors in flat, monochromatic sections: black, white, red, orange, and pink. A sense of texture is created by the way the ink puddles around the wax crayon.
Many of Hurtado's works from the 1940s through the early 1960s experimented with geometric abstraction in this way, and utilized bright colors. This particular piece, executed while she was living in Mexico, includes a fair amount of pink. Hurtado explains that she has generally avoided using pink in her art, as it reminds her of being forced to wear pink dresses in church when she was young, however she experimented with using the color while living in Mexico.
The influence of Dynaton artists (most notably, Hurtado's husband at the time, Wolfgang Paalen, and his friend Lee Mullican, who would soon become Hurtado's third husband) is apparent in Hurtado's works of this period. Much like in this work by Hurtado, Dynaton artists frequently produced boldly colored abstract patterns that appear to be woven together.
Hurtado recalls that she made a great deal of these crayon and ink pieces. It was a vast series that was all completed late at night once her children were sleeping, and as such the materials and scale (much smaller than her paintings on canvas) lend themselves to a slightly restricted practice. In this respect we are reminded of the career and words of Nancy Spero, who also worked late at night whilst her sons were sleeping. Spero produced very dark paintings during this time, and Hurtado's are angular. There is the sense that the combination of being a parent of young dependent children and being an artist brings struggle through which one must persevere to emerge stronger.
Wax, crayon, ink, and watercolor on board
At the bottom of this painting is a large yellow form, shaded to give the impression of softly rounded peaks, appearing like a desert landscape made up of sandy dunes. However, the addition of human toes peeking out beyond the form, and two partial human hands at the edges of the frame, reveal that we are in fact looking at a woman's radically foreshortened nude body as she would see it herself were she looking down at the floor. (In fact, many other paintings by Hurtado represent the foreshortened female form in exactly the same manner, placing it beneath an open sky, further blending the connection between body and landscape). Beyond (or rather, below) the human form in this painting is a red, black, and blue Navajo patterned carpet. In the centre of the rug sits a circular handcrafted object, a placemat.
This work is from Hurtado's series of "Yo soy" ("I am" in Spanish) paintings. In these works, Hurtado aligns the viewer's gaze with her own, and juxtaposes the soft lines of the body with the strong, hard lines of the geometric pattern on the rug. In many of these "I am" paintings, Hurtado includes objects from her own home, such as the placemat in this image, or children's toys in others. As well, in this painting, a thin beam of light falls across the floor. In fact, Hurtado painted these works in the small closet she used as a studio in her home in Chile, and the beam of light here comes from the slightly ajar door of the enclosed space. Art critic Skye Sherwin argues that this is "an extreme example of Virginia Woolf's 'a room of one's own', the space so often denied to female artists.
Around the time that she was creating these "I am" paintings, Hurtado was becoming involved in the women's liberation movement in Los Angeles, and connecting with like-minded female/feminist artists, like Judy Chicago, Joyce Kozloff, Vija Celmins, Mako Idemitsu, Alexis Smith, and Miriam Schapiro. A significant project undertaken by many of these feminist artists was that of challenging and subverting the male gaze. Curator Dextra Frankel writes that Hurtado "looks down and sees herself in a way men never see women." Likewise, Curator Anne Ellegood notes that "When you think of [Hurtado's 'I am' paintings] as works from the 1970s, you can imagine how meaningful they were at that time in terms of female artists taking back the ability to represent their own bodies and shifting the so-called male gaze," yet Ellegood also remarks that the works remain "fresh" and "in the moment".
Moreover, Hurtado considers these works to be an "affirmation of self". As curator Hans Ulrich Obrist explains, "Women artists have not had the visibility they should have and we need to protest, systematically, against forgetting - through books and exhibitions," and thus women/feminist artists active in the 1970s, like Hurtado, worked hard to assert their own presence and power. Perhaps though it is also important to remember that Hurtado's "affirmation of self" here is more basic. Art becomes a means for survival in as far as to acknowledge the existence of one's own individuality whilst nurturing and giving out so much energy to family. When entwined with children and a lover, it is easy to start experiencing identity only as a shared concept, whist these paintings regain ownership and assert that "I am" is still one, whole person.
Oil on canvas
This work, another from Hurtado's "I Am" series, shows a foreshortened nude, yellow, female body from the subject's perspective, whereby she looks downward toward the floor. In this particular work, the figure is holding a red strawberry close to her body with her left hand, and her right arm is outstretched, with the hand holding another strawberry, that appears to have been just picked up from a small plate in front of her, upon which sit more berries. As in her other "I am" paintings, Hurtado's predominantly red Navajo rug, with black, yellow, and purple geometric pattern, creates the background for this scene depicted with a bird's-eye perspective.
However, unlike the previous example, this particular work demonstrates Hurtado's experimentation with materials (being painted on paper instead of canvas) and style (here, being rendered much more loosely). A number of other works from Hurtado's "I Am" painting series also use this looser style, such as one painting that includes cherries instead of strawberries.
Although the objects included in each "I Am" painting vary, each carries a particular significance. For instance, the fruit (apples, pears, and berries) that Hurtado included in other "I Am" paintings, as well as other works throughout her lifetime, allude to fertility and sexuality. For Hurtado, the multiple connotations connected to fruit verge on tongue-in-cheek humor, as fruit (particularly apples) are common symbols in Catholicism, yet at the same time much fruit (particularly pears) elicit ideas of sexuality, and the sensuous curves of a woman's body.
Indeed, another important project of many feminist artists in the 1970s was that of reclaiming their sexuality. Hurtado explains, "I've always been a very sexy person, and I've accepted sex as part of life. The Catholic Church has made it a dark thing, as a way of controlling people. They've made it into something soiled." New York Times arts writer Anna Furman writes that Hurtado "incorporated womb imagery into her work before the feminist art movement made popular the same subject matter in the late '70s."
In a number of other "I Am" paintings, executed in the looser style shown here, Hurtado depicts the subject holding a cigarette in the left hand, and a lit match in the right. Hurtado recalls that people at that time "didn't know smoking was unhealthy". She says, "I started when I was living in New York and working, looking after two children and so much freelance work to do, and so I went to a pharmacy and said, 'I want to have something that will help me stay awake.' And the man was very upset with me. He said, 'You New Yorkers just want to work all day and play all night. No, I'm not giving you anything. 'Then a friend of mine said, 'Don't be silly. All you have to do is smoke cigarettes to stay awake.' And so I did, and it worked." Cigarettes at the time were marketed to female consumers as "torches of freedom", and promoted smoking as a way for women to challenge taboos and express their newfound strength.
Oil on paper
Untitled (Moth Lights)
This work consists of twenty-four rectangular panels (which Hurtado refers to as "light portal paintings"), arranged into a grid, each of which features a central pristine white rectangle (of varying dimensions and sizes) surrounded by washes of varying bright colors.
Hurtado explains that, with these panels, she was attempting to "paint light" so successfully that it would attract moths. These works were created around the same time as James Turrell was creating his "Skyspaces", architectural features comprised of chambers with a rectangular opening in the centre of the ceiling, revealing the sky. The similarity between the two series is striking.
The result here for Hurtado's is very ethereal and draws attention to the importance for the artist of trying to make visible that which we cannot touch. She has a longstanding interest in the depiction of fire, and furthermore, tries to encapsulate memory and feelings. Ultimately, Hurtado insightfully recognizes that what is worth preserving in this life cannot actually be held onto. She attempts to show traces of small joy, and to paint moments that people experience when they inexplicably, but most certainly, feel the force of life.
Oil on 24 canvas and canvasette panels
The Umbilical Cord of the Earth is the Moon
In this painting, which is stylistically reminiscent of Magritte, the viewer appears to be looking up toward a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, which is framed on three sides (left, top, and right) by rock faces. In the lower central portion of the work, a small white circle shines brightly (the title tells us that this is the moon). Seven grey feathers float against the sky, three in a triangular formation in the top half of the image, and four surrounding the moon in the bottom half of the work.
Arts writer Louis Wise writes, "Hurtado's dreamy, colourful canvases tend to resist definition. Whether you call them surrealist or magical realist or even tribal, they reflect her deep concern with nature and the indigenous cultures she has encountered in a life that has been action-packed." Art writer and curator Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer explains that Hurtado "refers to this body of works as 'Sky Skins' because many present an opening onto the sky that extends to the four corners of the picture plane, surrounded on all sides - but not continuously - by land. The central shape resembles a calf skin or animal hide pulled taut like a sail or screen, laid flat on the floor like a rug, or strung up overhead from posts like a canopy, a Surrealist trompe l'oeil shade structure. Seeing the sky as a stretched skin entails a perceptual flip that inverts positive and negative space. Performing that subtle but enormous spatial shift exercises the slack eye-brain connection, training us to better interrogate received forms and assumed relationships between things." She continues, asserting that "Fusing body and environment, self and cosmos through that figure-ground transposition, the 'Sky Skins' tip us off to Hurtado's passionate environmentalism which has become increasingly central and explicit in her art of recent years as her concern, and ours, grows ever more urgent."
Feathers featured frequently in Hurtado's works from this period. She has explained, "The feather for me has always been a very mysterious symbol [...] It's almost a religious element." She became very interested in the image of the feather after witnessing an indigenous ritual in which feathers (seen as a symbol of good luck) were placed over a bonfire and left to float in the air. Feathers also bring up fond personal memories for Hurtado, who recalls one day when she was with her son Matt near the Museum of Natural history. The pair found several feathers on the ground, began collecting them, and wore the feathers in their hair. She says "we really enjoyed that time in our life". And once again this anecdote reminds the viewer that Hurtado's work comes first and foremost from an intuitive perspective. She is living her life and allowing art to be made of her experiences, rather than forcing any sort of rigid or didactic message.
Oil on canvas
This painting features the words AIR, WATER, EARTH, and FIRE painted in large capital letters, one above the other, filling the entire frame. AIR and WATER are painted in white, and EARTH and FIRE in orange-red. The word AIR sits against a sky-blue background, while the other three words are painted against a solid, bright, grass-green background.
Later in life, Hurtado has become increasingly concerned with environmental issues, and has taken to using her art as a way to highlight the environmental crisis that the global community is currently facing. She explains, "I'm very involved with what's happening in the world today, and it's the end of the world, and nobody wants to listen. That's how I came to 'air, water, fire ...' It's one way to make a statement without going full placards. I'm too old to hold placards anymore. I used to, but I don't do it anymore [...] Now it's air and water and fire, earth. The elements. It's the earth, and that's what I'm worried about. When I saw the first photographs of the world, where you saw this little planet in the darkness of space, it gave me the same feeling of tenderness that you have for family, for your own children. I feel very much that I'm part of this planet. That's been very strong and influential all my life. That's why I recognize that a tree is my cousin. I have a responsibility to the world, to my planet."
Hurtado's use of written text in her paintings dates back several decades. She explains that in 1974, "I was having a show at Grandview in six months and I began to paint word paintings toward it. I painted large paintings, all messages, some right side up, some on their side, some cut, set apart, as life does, and sewed together again. Some were in layers, one atop the other." In these works, Hurtado painted words like ME, KILL, ONLY, ALONE, LONELY, I AM, YO, DEATH, DIE, BIRTH, SKY, EARTH, AIR, WATER, FIRE, ABYSS, VENEZUELA, WOMB, LOVE, and YET, however in most of these paintings, the text is so heavily layered that it becomes almost entirely illegible, appearing as striped geometric patterns, rather than words. Interestingly, it was at the time of making these over-layered word paintings that Hurtado met Agnes Martin and felt deeply inspired by her work. So although the words that Hurtado chooses could be considered agitating and provocative, the end result (which seems like a mass of woven colored lines) is tranquil and meditative and much on a par with the work of Martin.
Acrylic on canvas
This work is one of many "birthing paintings" done by Hurtado, which represent the moment of birth as seen from the mother's viewpoint. The simple composition includes a rounded arch at the bottom (representing the pregnant woman's swollen belly in the foreground of her vision) with a darkened mark in the centre, representing her navel. Above this arch emerge two slightly curved lines, extending from the centre up and out to the top corners of the frame, representing the woman's legs spread open during childbirth. Between these, a small rounded shape appears at the point of the legs' convergence, representing the emerging head of the infant.
Many of Hurtado's works consider birth and motherhood, as she feels that these experiences are some of the moments in which we feel most strongly our connection to the natural world. She says "This one is about birth, a very painful process ... It's an amazing thing. There is a feeling about a child in your arms that is...you know, the smell of the head, the whole thing. You become nature. We are all related. And there is this absolute love that you have for your offspring that doesn't exist anywhere else. It's a very animal experience. Terrestrial." In all of Hurtado's "birthing paintings", two spots, representing eyes, are visible on the infant's head. She explains that this is a significant aspect of the works, having the baby looking back at the mother, as it represents reproduction as a cyclical process.
Hurtado first began depicting the female body from its own vantage point in the 1970s, most notably in her "I am" paintings when she was involved with the Feminist Art movement, and close friends with many feminist artists, such as Judy Chicago. Now, she picks up this strategy once again, often combining it with environmentalist ideas, for instance, replacing the crowning baby's head in some works with globes, and displays the birthing pictures directly alongside human figures that are also trees in forests, and reproductive organs that merge with flowers and fruits. The overarching message here - as was also the case with Louise Bourgeois' repeated late drawings of birth - is that towards the end of life we see the beginning and that birth and death are inextricably linked, as indeed is everything on this planet. Interestingly though, Hurtado takes a different viewpoint to Bourgeois. Whilst Bourgeois draws for her audience, and the viewer looks on upon the event that is birth, Hurtado offers her own perspective and the moment that she and her child first lay eyes upon one another. The result is that Hurtado's images are more intimate, revealing that the work is made first and foremost for the artist herself (and her loved ones) and that the audience is not really the focus.
Acrylic and ink on paper