Flor Garduño’s New Work
Phyllis Thompson Reid
A work of art is a revelation: a disclosure of something unknown or not yet realized in its particularity until the point of its making. It is not uncommon for an artist to describe herself as a channel for— rather than a generator of—visions, ideas, and age-old stories. In this spirit, Flor Garduño and her recent series, “Inner Light,” bear word from the world of myth. Each picture in the project is a small legend about beauty, sex, wonder, and women’s intimate lives.
For the past ten years, Garduño has concentrated on this project (her book Inner Light is forthcoming this year from Bulfinch): a series of female nudes twinned with a series of still lifes, which she terms natures silencieuses. In this work she has turned the bodies of her friends, and of her own young daughter Azul, into vessels for the myths and revelations of her own private world. With these models, she examines the measure, magic, and connotive power of the female body. Women are transformed by Garduño’s hands into animals or emblems. She is an alchemist who breathes symbolic life into the gently scuffed objects she selects for her still lifes.
Garduño has known since she was a child growing up on a farm in Mexico that she wanted to be an artist. From the age of eighteen, she attended the School of Fine Arts at the National University in Mexico City, where she studied painting, drawing, literature, and art history. Fier first photography teacher, Katie Horna, taught Garduño something she has never forgotten: an artist’s first task is to cultivate good ideas, and the second is to find a technique to express them. After her studies, Manuel
Alvarez Bravo hired Garduño as a darkroom assistant, and his compositional skill and the sensitivity of his portraits are an obvious and important influence on her.
Garduño’s first independent job was with the Mexican Secretary of Public Education, an assignment to photograph the everyday activities of native Indians in remote villages throughout Mexico. Over time, these studies led to three books, Magia del juego eterno (The magic of the eternal game), Bestiarium, and Witnesses of Time. Without being anthropological in her focus, Garduño has captured in these volumes the imaginative sweep of native cultures, their festivals, myths, and daily life.
With the birth of her second child, it became clear to Garduño that a life of traveling from village to village would no longer be practical. So she gave herself permission to explore the interior landscape of obsessions and dreams through which she had already been journeying for years. The visions in “Inner Light” have always been with her in embryonic form—the project is a self-portrait, a fairy tale told through bodies and objects.
For years Garduño has collected objects at flea markets. She feels that, like the onionskin patina of use that an object gains over time, its power to insinuate itself into your imagination grows. There is little pattern to her acquisition—she buys dolls, mirrors, taxidermied animals, and scientific instruments. She buys objects with her friends in mind, imagining their reactions, sculpting tableaux in her mind. Sometimes she photographs the objects alone. For her, taking pictures of objects “is like taking portraits of people I haven’t met before.” Even these meetings can be quite personal: having encountered an ordinary pear, Garduño shows it tucked into a corner, a suggestive vertical slash making its succulence explicit.
Garduño sets her subjects against simple walls—as Renaissance portraitists used gold backgrounds to symbolize timelessness. Her images too have a quality of the eternal, each poised a hair’s breadth from motion, at what T. S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.” Whether overtly posed or caught in mid-gesture, even her human subjects have the quality of sculpture. Through her imagination, her handling of light, and the careful carving of the space within her frame, Garduño captures the ephemeral processes of emotional and physical life.
Her primary studio space in Mexico is a simple three-walled shelter, one side open to her garden and the sun. It is a place where otherworldly equivalences happen: totemic objects are animated and people become plastic objects within the frame.
Unlike the elaborate studio setups of some photographers, Garduño’s work room truly is nothing more than box of natural light.
Some of Garduño’s most important images have come from a well of desperation. She may work for days with a friend, trying different poses, incorporating different objects, never finding the image she wants. In Roses, a woman’s face is upturned—with the beatific voluptuousness of Edvard Munch’s Madonna. The woman’s throat is framed by roses, as by the lush neckline of a bridal gown. Garduño had worked with this friend for days, she says, before she remembered that she had roses in her bedroom.
She describes her working process as “a collaboration of love and complicity.” Most of her models are her close friends. Garduño believes that the women who pose for her go through a process of self-acceptance, of creating intimacy with their own bodies and with their womanhood. She knows that she also can project her own feelings into the process; injecting it with her appreciation of a woman’s beauty. One young woman she had photographed told her that she had never before understood her body to be beautiful.
An extraordinary manifestation of this new understanding is this: many of the women who pose for Garduño become pregnant shortly thereafter. After the first two models posed nude for “Inner Light," each found out soon after that she was carrying a child. Hearing of this, an old friend, who had been trying with medical assistance to get pregnant for a year, asked to pose—a month later she was pregnant. And so was another woman, a sculptor whose theme was maternity, but who had not yet achieved it herself. And still another. It is as if, in the world of Garduño, the incomprehensible and the marvelous share equal ground with the tangible.
Indeed, a reflection of the themes and effects of Garduño’s work may be found in Magical Realism, a genre that began its life in Latin American visual arts but is perhaps better known in its literary form; one thinks of Gabriel Garcia Marquéz, Isabel Allende, Jorge Amado. In Magical Realism, the supernatural is a condition of being; it is both innate within people and a part of the daily world they inhabit.
Garduño herself has a particular interest in the liminal territory where human and animal, human and vegetal converge. Such hybrid creatures have long been a way to represent ideas, gods, truths, and dreams, and are common to many cultures, reaching back thousands of years. Like Hieronymus Bosch, Garduño has a fabulist streak, enhancing the powers of her human subjects with the strengths of other creatures. A pair of bare human ankles support the haughty, splendid-feathered body of a peacock. A woman, her back turned in the semidarkness, juts her hip as she reaches to stroke the bodies of the silver-skinned eels that cascade from her scalp down her back. A third figure has sprouted wings— a large pair of fanlike leaves between her shoulder blades.
Such juxtapositions also recall the traditions of Surrealism, with its attempts to render the oneiric, and to challenge the assumption that there is any such thing as an objective eye. Garduño mentions the work of Giorgio de Chirico as an influence, and indeed echoes of his sorrowful, stylized world can be felt in hers. However, in the photographs of (continued from page 32) the “Inner Light” series there are no optical illusions: objects play a symbolic role, startling at times, but the artifice of their inclusion is obvious. These objects address biological and emotional processes overtly: a snake held back from the body, a pomegranate spilling seed, a skeletal pod cradling a pregnant woman, a child, a skull. These are plainly both culturally invested symbols and objets trouvés, but this body of work refuses to refer explicitly to its antecedents. As Garduño observes: “Every time somebody takes a picture of the agave plant, a critic will say they are influenced by Alvarez Bravo. But Alvarez Bravo isn’t the owner of the agave. Every artist has the right to present to the world their feeling about the plant.” Each of us owns our own stories and preoccupations. The greatest themes are universal—love, fate, the cycles of biological life—but each of us comes to them raw and experiences them afresh.
Garduño has a particular interest in the liminal territory where human and animal, human and vegetal converge. . . . Like Hieronymus Bosch, she has a fabulist streak, enhancing the powers of her human subjects with the strengths of other creatures.
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Many female photographers have turned to nonrealist representation of the human body in their work to create the possibility of a feminine
imagery, an alternate worldview that more closely fits their own—among them Francesca Woodman and Marta María
Pérez Bravo. In this vein, Garduño follows her internal visual logic to explore the web of relationships between women’s identities and bodies and between individuals and cultural ideas of “the female body.” Garduño insists that her work is not political in a propagandist sense. She is not, she says, making a statement about the world, just revealing something of her most private self. In other hands, this impulse might seem self-indulgent, although it may be the stimulus that makes creating possible. In Garduño’s work, however, it creates parables about the limits and abilities of female power. Just as she gives her models wings, she also sets them within dress-shaped cages and behind veils, sequences their images against those of ripe fruit. These are visions from her own psychological quests. It could be said that she wishes politics weren’t the owner of the “agave” of the female body.
Many have noted that the depiction of a woman by a woman for purposes other than male titillation is a powerful statement of ownership, agency, purpose, politics. The more “beautiful” the woman, the greater the risk of collapsing into the conventions of
exploitation—and thus the stronger the statement. Garduño’s images of the female nude are unapologetically sensuous. Yet, she says she is surprised that men tend to find her work erotic. It can be inferred that when she offers a nude in the pose of Rembrandt’s reclining odalisque, it is because it is a beautiful posture, not because she refers to the history of the odalisque. Sexuality itself touches everything in “Inner Light,” just as it underpins our daily lives. Nevertheless, like most of our impulses, sexuality is both biological and a historical construction, continually modified and reinforced.
The prints in “Inner Light” are beautiful as well—lush, with a painterly softness. Garduño offers a plateful of lemons, lumpskinned, lit as if by Vermeer’s candle, against the backdrop of a recumbent woman’s torso—a study in the infinitude of textures and
tones. This artist embraces beauty in photography, an idea under postmodernist siege. Beauty, though, as Garduño understands it, will always provoke a visceral, prerational response in the viewer. There is a drive to be near it, to touch it, to follow it with our eyes—sometimes even against our will. Beauty consoles, is a balm for hurt. For her, it is one more tool to bring her work closer to the glossed state of dreams.
But beauty is not the endpoint of the dream. These models are friends of the artist, and thus specific personalities for her camera. Yet they are intentionally not portrayed as individuals. They are actors in a fantasy. Modernist formalism, to which Garduño’s compositional sense is indebted, demands bodies as pure form. Garduño has complicated this tradition in involving her subjects in the staging of the photographs, and in making their emotional states crucial to the images. These women participate in the creation of ritual and symbolism, and their steel and passion is that of the photographs as well. This is an act of supreme generosity and kindness—she provides the opportunity for each person who poses for her to create and occupy an expanded world.
Garduño hopes that some viewers may also experience the shift of internal tides this work has brought about in her. The ideas in these photographs have been with her for as long as she can remember. They catalyze in her a kind of paramnesia: making these pictures, she says, has been like encountering the ghost of a memory that she had forgotten. ©
These women participate in the creation of ritual and symbolism, and their steel and passion is that of the photographs as well.