Dozens of sculptures that resemble vibrantly coloured crumpled pieces of paper hang from the walls of a New York gallery. It is as though someone has taken a giant abstract painting and then scrunched it into a ball, giving it a whole new form, transforming it from two to three-dimensional. In A Street of Many Corners, muralist turned sculptor Marela Zacarias pays homage to the beginnings of the New York art scene in the 1930s, and shines a light on artists who have not yet been satisfactorily recognised in art history.
The title of the exhibition was taken from a painting by Alice Trumbull Mason, an artist who worked in New York during the 1930s as a muralist and whose daughter, Emily Mason, Zacarias has been working with to organise Trumball Mason’s archives. Trumbull Mason’s 1954 canvas Street of Many Corners comprises a muted colour scheme of abstract shapes, and is on display amongst a number of Zacarias’s large sculptures. These include 122-192 Bushwick, 2013, which is made up of the same colours and pattern in Trumbull Mason’s painting, it looks as though Zacarias has manipulated and recycled the painting so that it has been given a new life in a new form, adapting to a new environment.
Zacarias was drawn to sculpture after being invited to stage a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013 in response to the work on display at the time. She was drawn to the Williamsburg murals of Ilya Bolotwsky, Balcomb Green, Paul Kelpe, Albert Swinden and Alice Trumball Mason, who created abstract murals when most artwork at the time was figurative and concerned with social realism. Their work was made with the intention that workers would see the murals in the basement of Williamsburg Houses at the end of the day, providing them with the opportunity to relax through looking at art. However, the murals were painted over, and not uncovered until the 1980s, only being given the opportunity to be viewed in the last thirty years.
Zacarias painted murals until 2009 before moving to New York and looking at textiles and pre-Columbian architecture. Constructed from wood, plaster, window screens, plastic compounds and paint, her colourful sculptures embody a sense of fun and energy. The works merge sculpture with painting; fabricating form out of write screening attached to wooden supports or found objects to which Zacarias applies layers of plaster to create undulating forms. Through a process that involves sanding, polishing and painting, the work has a fabric-like fluidity, carrying a sense of movement, despite being firmly attached to the gallery walls.
The colours and patterns in Zacarias’s works incorporate influences from Mayan textiles and folklore, where certain symbols can tell the viewer about the maker’s beliefs, as well as nature and their place in the universe. Zacarias has also researched Native American tribes and textiles from around the Mediterranean Sea, creating her own language within her work. Part Lebanese, based in New York, and having grown up in Mexico, Zacarias is a conglomerate of many cultures, and so is her work. “We’re at that time when we have to build a new narrative so that we can move forward together and not separated, and not leave women behind, and not leave people of colour behind, and really include everyone in conversation,” Zacarias has been quoted as saying. By referencing cultures in her work that are often overlooked in the artworld, Zacarias focuses the viewer’s attention on art history that has so far failed to gain significant attention in the west.
Zacarias’s sculptural wall pieces are accompanied by a video piece that incorporates the 1999 Tim Robbins-directed film Cradle Will Rock about a group of artists uniting against censorship at the height of the Great Depression in 1930. In an interview with Zacarias, the exhibition’s curator Omar Lopez Chahoud comments on how the issues of censorship in the film are very similar to what we’re experiencing today, nearly a century later in 2018. The clip also considers what we can learn from studying history, particularly those that have been excluded from the mainstream – exactly what Zacarias does within her work – to explore the ways artists comment on the voices that have been silenced by others.
A Street of Many Corners is not merely a visual display of artworks. Like it’s title suggests, the display has many corners: on one level, there is the artwork, on an another, 1930’s New York art history, and in the final corner, there is the presentation of patterns and influences from Mayan and Native American cultures. “I feel like there are so many different things that are meeting in it”, says Zacarias about the exhibition’s soundtrack, “You can take many different routes to get there.”
Marela Zacarias: A Street of Many Corners is on display at Sapar Contemporary, 9 N Moore, NY, NY 10013 until 10th November 2018