Marisol Escobar

If I seem a little bizarre,
remember the wild profusion of
my inheritance … perhaps, if one wishes
to remain an individual
in the midst of the teeming
multitudes, one must make
oneself grotesque.
—Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, 1981

In The Party, 1965–66, Venezuelan American sculptor Marisol Escobar sets an assemblage of three wall panels and 14 life-sized, simply shaped block wood sculptures, rudimentarily resembling the upright human form. Grouped to form an outlandish cocktail party, each figure is distinguished by additions and surface embellishments that project a pronounced individuality amidst the crowd. Clothing patterns are painted on some of the wood surfaces. On others, full cocktail dresses (Marisol’s own) are attached. Single shoes and hands pop out as distractingly pinpointed areas of transitional focus. Differences are further pronounced by the addition of faces: Marisol’s face, in particular—photographed or cast in individual representations of the psychic distress involved in social projection.

Cast faces—or fragments of faces— adorn many of the figures and are uniquely constructed, manifesting varying modes of individually uneven attempts at assertion or withdrawal. One face is literally and painfully projected forward at the end of an armature. One is set, contentedly smiling, with a ’60s-era Sony transistor micro television in place of eyes. Embedded in one of the three back panels is a 15th figure: a photograph of Marisol’s face, with a dress pinned underneath—the evident wallflower at the event.

Marisol Escobar, The Party, 1965–1966. Collection of Toledo Museum of Art, Museum Purchase Fund, by exchange, 2005. © Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Marisol was historically ill at ease with the trappings of notoriety. Various forms of social anxiety seem evident here, as well as discomfort with the privilege of inherited wealth. A smaller wooden maid stands at the ready, with a drink tray and blank expression.

The work, completed in 1966, represents a pivot point in the exhibition. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts retrospective comprehensively lays out a six-room exhibition of sculptures, drawings, film clips and ephemera that map the genesis and development of Marisol’s work: from early sculptures and drawings based on pre- Columbian and folk art, through broad fame in the Leo Castelli/pop art scene in ’60s New York. The retrospective continues through a period of surreal travel offshoots toward a mode of totemic portraiture fleshed out with a nuanced intimacy.

Central to the exhibition—the first thing you see at the top of the stairs and the last thing as you exit—is Mi Mama y Yo, 1968, in painted steel and bronze. On a park bench, a child is standing, shielding her sitting mother from the sun with an umbrella. The umbrella is perforated with shapes that produce a patterned light, which adorns the box-like bodies of the figures: surface decoration is rendered by light, mingling with other elements like the protruding bronze bundle of the mother’s brain-like braids. The mother’s face is frozen in a contented smile. Her two hands are clenched in anxiety. The child’s face is pinched in determination. It is similar to an awkward family photo, where more is captured in the moment than the subjects would prefer.

Marisol’s weaving of found objects and imagery, culled from personal archives, book and magazine photos, self-cast body parts (including asses, attached to assemblages of cyclists and sunbathers), wood blocks and found planks, constitutes a dense and varied springboard for sly social critique and identity issues but also provides a range that allows for a unique and incisive introspection.

Each of the six spaces dividing the show is titled. “Material Experimentation,” the first, examines the artist’s work beginning in the ’50s with terracotta, wood and bronze experimentations. “Mutable Forms, Mutable Selves” illustrates her public breakthrough into the well-known folkish block forms of sculptural portraiture. It is a room packed with ’60s milestones: witty portraits of Lyndon Johnson, Andy Warhol, jazz notables and stylish beach scenes, which accompany experimental drawings and looped clips of her appearance in deadpan Warhol film portraits. In the next room, “Self and Society,” are social portraiture and the nuances of identity: The Party is centrally located here. Examples of the scope of her notoriety at the time are on display, such as magazine covers, gallery invitations and feature articles, as well as examples of source materials: photographic clips from books and magazines.

Installation view, “Marisol: A Retrospective,” 2023– 2024, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: Denis Farley. © Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Foreground left: LBJ, 1967, paint and pencil on wood construction, 203 × 71 × 62 centimetres. Foreground right: ABCDEFG & Hi, 1961–1962, wood, paint, graphite, plaster, umbrella, pearl and diamond, overall dimensions 193.68 × 93.34 × 93.34 centimetres.

“Into the Swim” circumscribes a period of Marisol’s fascination with ocean diving during a travel sojourn in the ’70s. Accompanied by film loops from the artist’s underwater footage, large sculptures depict Bosch-like sea creatures, often anthropomorphized by sporting a cast face. Triggerfish 1, 1970, a carefully crafted and lacquered wood rendering of a coral-inhabiting triggerfish’s body, is topped off with the artist’s face, lips puckered outward in a mindless search for food.

The final two spaces, “Troubling Doubles” and “Portraiture, from the Personal to the Political,” depart from the artist’s ocean playground into a compelling and fragmented examination of newly discovered variants: again, with cast bits of her own body integrated into the pieces but with a renewed conversation with the language of folk and pre- Columbian art.

The final space in the exhibition is devoted to large-scale portraiture, from public commissions and works depicting contemporary notables like Desmond Tutu and Picasso, to more intimate portraiture, like My Father, 1977, where a bespectacled figure sits at cross-legged ease on the armchair, his gently amused expression seeming to wonder about the end of the portrait session.

A varied inheritance (including her own background as an outsider), her gender, the Hans Hofmann training, her inclusion of ready-mades and imagery into the push-pull of her own sculptural patois often set her at odds with the constraints of accepted practice, despite the notoriety that placed her firmly in the pop canon.

A contemporary reading through the filter of identity issues gives Marisol—who fell off the popular map after her burst of fame in the ’60s—a fresh relevance. The work itself avoids too reductive a reading, even, and perhaps especially, an art historical one. Because of the consistent variety in her assemblages and the range and versatility of application, Marisol (like her box-like sculptures straining against form) strained consistently against brand, the most contemporary of aesthetic illnesses. ❚

“Marisol: A Retrospective” was exhibited at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, from October 7, 2023, to January 21, 2024.

Cameron Skene is a Canadian painter and writer based in Montreal.

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