Contributed by Katarina Wong / In Zilia Sánchez’s retrospective currently on view at The Phillips Collection, a video shows her on the beach, casting one of her shaped paintings “Soy Isla (I Am an Island)” into the waves. This piece sets the tone for an exceptional exhibition from a fiercely independent artist. Born in Cuba in 1926, and continuing to work in Puerto Rico, Sánchez makes drawings and paintings embedding the experience of being surrounded by the sea. Her work exudes the vulnerability as well as the power and resiliency that comes from of being self-reliant and self-contained. The show comprises more than 60 of her pieces, including the early intricate line drawings that she revisited throughout her career, sometimes incorporating them into flat paintings and later onto her sculptural canvases.
In the early work, Sánchez’s curiosity seemed boundless. She made a series of paintings thickly encrusted with dirt and paint around the same time she was making her flat paintings and drawings. In pieces like Tierra (The Earth), she incorporated the land under her feet into the painting itself.
The physicality of her work became even more prominent when she began making sculptural canvases that ballooned out from their stretchers. She wrapped the canvas around an underlying three-dimensional shape using a machine that stretched the canvas taut. This body of work seems to hover off the walls weightlessly, but it also has a mass that disrupts the space around it.
In a documentary shown in the exhibition (and viewable on the Phillips Collection website), Sánchez recalls the inspiration for this work. When her father was on his deathbed, she stepped out of his room to collect herself and saw a white sheet flapping against a protruding pipe. She noticed how a new shape emerged. The interview makes it clear that her memory of this moment is still tinged with sadness, but that it also caused her to think of her work differently.
Her pieces became larger and her palette more muted, usually a range of black, grey, light blue, light pink, and white. Some she inscribed with mysterious drawings she refers to as “tatuajes” (tattoos). Are they maps of some unknown place? A secret language traced by the finger of a lover across their beloved?
“I’ve always considered that in the erotic there is a beauty, a sense,” Sánchez states in the documentary. The erotic is an undeniable current that runs through her work. She often incorporates pairs of shapes, which represent what she describes as “equilibrium and unity.” Sometimes they seem to clasp one another as in “Lunar V (Moon V)” or to merge into hidden slit-like spaces.
Her canvases literally push and pull, straining against their hidden structures. To experience their tension and appreciate their physical presence, they must be viewed from as many sides as possible. “Sin título (Untitled),” for example, is a massive piece that stretches across an entire wall. Set against a dark grey background, bisected concentric ovals converge in the center in identical protuberances. They look like lips puckered behind a sheet, touching and not touching. The piece shifts as one walks in front of it, from one end to the other, noticing its curves and its indentations.
Sánchez often references heroic women from history and transforms them into iconic forms. Troyanas (Trojan Women), a multiple-panel piece, calls to mind the waves that beat against the shores of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Greek isles. They can also be read as breasts or thorns that stick out sharply, daring to be touched. Like the waters that surround those islands, the shapes have the power to protect or inflict damage.
One of the last rooms of the exhibition features Juana de Arco (Joan of Arc), a vaulting piece that extends upwards. The light blue areas seem to emerge from the center division and then splay out in the gesture reminiscent of Christ on the cross. The canvas undulates tightly between breast and vulva-like shapes, painted in white.
In a room tucked in the back, Sánchez’s only self-portrait hangs alongside work by her artistic influences. In this drawing, her nude body fills the frame in a runner-like pose. A wild mane of hair flows atop her head like a flame. She’s wedged between the background and the foreground, both covered in the “tattoo” markings seen in her later paintings. Despite the dynamic energy of the piece, her face is calm but intent, her eyes focused on the future. The drawing conveys the resilience that Sánchez has drawn upon throughout her life, most poignantly in the last two years when Hurricane Irma bore down on her home and studio in San Juan.
Like the islands that shape her identity and work, Sánchez has weathered storms and droughts, her work overlooked until recently. Still, Sánchez remains fierce like her Troyanas, deeply rooted in her vision, and, like the islands she loves, she endures.
Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island), is on view at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. through May 19, 2019.
About the author: Katarina Wong is an artist, curator and writer. She is also the program manager of the Arts Administration graduate program at Teachers College Columbia University. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.