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An Artist's Illness Inspires a Meditation on the Power of Pain

Guadalupe Maravilla’s New York museum show resolutely harnesses the otherness of illness, while never surrendering to the notion of suffering as a totalizing narrative.

My first encounter with the work of the Salvadoran-American artist Guadalupe Maravilla was actually a miss: I wasn’t able to get into the sound-healing session accompanying the artist’s installation at the Museum of Modern Art (it was full) and merely glimpsed through glass doors the blissed-out museum-goers slumbering on the floor in a meditative nirvana. Given such quasi-Zen context, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer fearsomeness of Maravilla’s solo museum exhibition, Tierra Blanca Joven at the Brooklyn Museum, organized by senior curator Eugenie Tsai. The presentation resolutely harnesses the otherness of illness, while never surrendering to the notion of suffering as a totalizing narrative. Where medicine increasingly feigns to expurgate pain through its technological and chemical forces and the pharmaceutical industry produces wellness and lifestyle spinoffs, Maravilla invites viewers to acknowledge pain as one of life’s elemental forces.

The exhibition, titled Tierra Blanca Joven — which means “young white ash/earth” in Spanish, alluding to the concept of renewal through scorching — consists of freestanding sculptural works, video, mixed-media pieces, drawings on walls and pillars, and a small group of pre-Colombian artifacts from the museum’s collection, selected by the artist and displayed in glass vitrines. The show’s focal points are three sculptures: “Disease Thrower “#18” (2021), located at the entrance of the single first-floor gallery that houses the exhibition, “Disease Thrower #12122012”(the date Maravilla learned he had cancer) and “Disease Thrower #0”(both 2022) at the exit. 

With throne-like shapes, spiky ends, hardened organic matter, and numerous protrusions, the “throwers” come across initially as quite ballistic. Closeup viewing reveals further quixotic elements: for instance, in “Disease Thrower #18,” the octopus-like tentacles made of porous loofah and found objects such as metal roses and a large bronze spider at the base. Maravilla indicates in a wall text, reproduced from his conversations with Tsai, that “Disease Thrower #0,” which includes a rattan mat in the middle, could be theoretically crawled into — as a protective nest or a healing womb, I imagine (the wall text mentioned that participants could lie down in them, though no instructions encouraged one to do so). Meanwhile, the sculpture’s black tint, a result of the artist applying ash gathered from previous ritual fires that he lit in performances, and the work’s metal chains, as well as other idiosyncratic details bring to mind myriad references: Mayan amulets and objects alluding to the passage into the underworld, but also surrealist fetishes and death masks, and contemporary Thor-spawned fantasy.

Maravilla calls the Disease Throwers “healing machines.” They’re not mechanical, but the word “machine” captures the particular enchantment that emanates from them — with their wondrous artisanal melding of organic and inorganic forms, they remind viewers that techne isn’t a modern invention, and evoke ancient technologies’ spiritual potencies. Gongs featured in all three sculptures weren’t activated in the exhibition, but I imagine that their sound extends this invitation, permeating bodies with vibrations. “Disease Thrower # 0” features an LCD screen that plays a video of an extreme closeup of a cat’s eye on a loop. Maravilla mentions the animal’s purr as healing (it’s his cat), yet the video’s electronic choral soundtrack is stranger and more plangent, suggesting that the beast sees more than we can fathom. Perhaps, like the blinking cat’s eye, one can only glimpse the underworld; to see more, know more, poses too great a risk.

The power of spirits to enchant the world — and the human propensity to be enchanted by it — is manifest throughout the show. In one of the vitrines, a god springs from a flower in a Mayan ceramic whistle; the musical instrument embodies a human relationship with the occult that relies on intermediaries. Other prehistoric examples Maravilla selected include trumpets, conches, and animal- and human-shaped ritual vessels. In the splendid, tiny “Figurine of a Woman Sheltering a Man” (600-800 CE), which she does within the folds of her stomach, the composition’s uncanny literalness suggests female fertility. But the figure’s doubleness — one body cradling another — also points to the complexity of being.

Allusions to numerology permeate the exhibition, often anchored in personal experience, as in the digits in “Disease Thrower #12122012,” which refer back to the artist’s illness. Numerology is also referenced with the game of tripa chuca, in which players connect pairs of numbers by drawing lines on a piece of paper without touching any other numbers or lines. The winding pattern that results from such a game — which the artist played as a child — is reproduced in the exhibition by the artist and a collaborator, artist Ernesto C., on the bases of the glass vitrines, and on the walls and pillars. It creates a labyrinthian route to guide the visitors’ movements, but also suggests that Maravilla draws on his Salvadoran childhood and heritage for continuity and sustenance, viewing the entry points in his biography not as singular but as part of a pattern.

The illness foregrounds other motifs in the artist’s life, particularly political unrest and immigration. Born in El Salvador in 1976, Maravilla arrived in the United States via Mexico as an unaccompanied minor. He was eight years old, a refugee of his country’s civil war that claimed some of his family members. (One work reveals that Maravilla’s father fled after seeing his brother’s decapitated body hanging from a tree.) An excerpt from the conversation between the artist and the curator, reproduced on the wall, fleshes out the tripa chuca connection: “A lot of us took the journey from Central America to the United States, but a lot of kids didn’t make it. I was one of the blessed ones that managed to get through. Just like the game, migration is the same way.” 

In the cruel game of chance, the artist turns to the stories he’s carried. His retablos, oil-on-tin paintings produced in collaboration with the Mexican painter Daniel Vilchis, framed in wood cotton and glue rims that rhyme visually with the throwers’ spiky forms, are crowded with mountainous landscapes and Mayan archeological sites that Maravilla explored in his childhood, and vistas of volcanic eruptions. One may imagine that the seeds of Maravilla’s art were planted with the first sightings of such mighty, destructive “throwers,” spewing lava and rejuvenating the earth. Animated by a keen sense of what it means to be a survivor, Tierra Blanca Joven translates the earth’s galvanic energies into the body’s primordial quiver.


Guadalupe Maravilla: Tierra Blanca Joven continues at the Brooklyn Museum through September 18. The exhibition was curated by Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum.