Regina A. Root.
College of William & Mary
María Silvia Corcuera Terán has long explored the dynamics of active memory, collective identity, and everyday life in her native Buenos Aires through the abstract form. An artist of increasing international repute, scholars have argued that her work rearticulates the Argentine past as it reflects on the politics of seduction that have come to characterize the neoliberal period.
During Argentina’s transition to democracy, Corcuera Terán began to incorporate a forgotten cultural icon, the exuberant peinetón, in her work. Worn by women in the 1820s and 30s to distance themselves from the customs of Spain, this three-foot by three-foot haircomb quickly emerged as a site of resistance. Following independence, it became an accessory that women used to assert their presence in public, a fashionable statement against the political vanity of nineteenth-century male leaders who had fought Spanish oppression but who then denied women of their emancipation. In recovering this foundational symbol, Corcuera Terán’s work resonates with the voices and dreams of the past while engaging the arched crest and teeth of the peinetón in a battle to reveal contemporary sites of resistance.
Believing, as Borges once professed, that art should be like a mirror that reveals to us our own face, Corcuera Terán explores the collective unconscious by forcing her viewer to face the past and discover the future on the horizon. In earlier works, the nail-like teeth of the peinetón and the blindfolded female subjects within its body ask each viewer to take on the wounds of Argentina’s past, in particular the plight of the “disappeared” and the collective pain of human rights abuses from the dirty war (1978-83). Engaging the legacy of authoritarianism and the politics of memory, this work dares to weave alternative visual narratives into the fabric of public life.
Corcuera Terán’s recent work inverts the peinetón for a most interesting effect. The arch of the comb at times functions as the base for a ship, like one of the many vessels that brought immigrants to the port of Buenos Aires in the late nineteenth century, or for a cityscape wrought with the challenges of global migration. Turned upside down, the teeth of the comb become masts or totem-like towers that ascend towards the sky in a mystical fashion. While revealing the tensions of a fragmented and broken cityscape, Corcuera Terán’s last exhibit at the Andrada Fine Arts Gallery also unites the spaces and experiences of its inhabitants in innovative ways. As a powerful force in constant flux, she shows us that the city combs us and makes us, as if trying to domesticate our ideas. At the same time, the same cityscape reveals to us its aggressions and crises. The viewer must envision resisting its unjust impositions, healing its cuts and bringing about social change. These tensions are at play in The Supplicant, a sculpture in red wood of a trough similar to those used in the north of Argentina to grind grains for popular foods or wash clothing. From this structure, the city of Buenos Aires emerges and grows. Its menacing color remits to the foundational tensions between the elitist ideals of city-dwellers and the popular strength of the countryside during the Rosas regime (1829-52), arguably Argentina’s first dictatorship. In appropriating the past, Corcuera Terán reformulates the tenets of collective identity to include a questioning of the “fracturing of memory” that makes up the present-day process of national reconstitution. In the wake of the economic crisis, she has increasingly integrated into her work newspaper headlines, used paper and cardboard, as well as objects from Argentina’s past that the private sector has discarded. With these materials, she gives voice to those marginalized by neoliberal policies – from the schoolchildren who are forced to reuse the same pages for their handwritten assignments to the cartoneros who recycle for a miserable wage what city inhabitants throw away. With the new migrations of the globalized economy at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Corcuera Terán’s art reminds us of the aggressive dynamics of historical change but also provides us with the humor and hope that the struggle for a universal human ethic requires.
The distinctive work of Corcuera Terán has been recognized both in her native country and abroad. Her paintings, collages and sculptures have been the focus of single artist exhibitions at the Centro Cultural Borges, the Centro Cultural Rougés, and the Andrada Fine Arts Gallery. Having grown up in Europe and Latin America, her work also places itself in dialogue with the international art scene, responding to aesthetic questions at play in the work of Sonia Delaunay, Piet Mondrian, and Joaquín Torres García. Her work on art as a tool for engaged pedagogy is especially unique, having been the sole subject of or an integral part of exhibitions of children’s toys organized at cultural centers such as the Abasto Children’s Museum in Buenos Aires. Corcuera Terán’s artistic renditions of toys appear with vibrant colors, poetic inspirations, and on wheels, as if to proclaim a moving message of the unfinishedness of the human spirit and the radical nature of hope. Corcuera Terán also creates unique jewelry designs that transform the subject matter of her paintings and sculptures into utopian visions that the wearer can use to inspire a loving courage in the everchanging cityscape.
Regina A. Root is a Professor of Hispanic Studies at the College of William & Mary (Williamsburg, Virginia, USA) who writes on the interrelationship between art, fashion and literature. She received her doctorate in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from the University of California at Berkeley. Her work on Couture and Consensus: Fashion and Political Culture in Postcolonial Argentina and Latin American Fashion is forthcoming. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.