Puerto Rican artist and Penland resident Cristina Córdova explores the elusive conditions of memory, place and family in her new exhibition, “Cerca Y Lejos” (“Near and Far”), in Penland through Nov. 20.
Born in Boston, she grew up in Puerto Rico. Beginning her higher education in engineering, she was drawn increasingly to art. Intending to get her master’s in fine art in the United States and return to Puerto Rico, she met her husband here, won residencies ... and stayed.
This show of figurative installations and drawings reflects those arcs.
The human forms Córdova sculpts are powerful, immediately discernible representations. Each is, as are her mixed media drawings, provocative and lovingly intimate: deeply felt portrayals of her subjects, frequently family members.
For much of her young career, Córdova, 40, has been revered as a figurative sculptor whose subjects convey a sense of dreaming, reverie and the mind’s inner workings, on which she invites viewers to speculate. The visages portrayed tended to the universal. (Her “Preludios y Partidas” is in the Mint’s collection; other work is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Fuller Craft Museum.)
Today, her sculptures are imposing in scale, her surfaces painterly and her inventive approach to figuration has enabled her to push the material properties of clay – and her creative capabilities.
Córdova’s figurative installations are quiet, yet theatrical. Ambiguous, yet available. Child or adult, each is a measure of the subject’s likeness, and this is where the narrative becomes intriguing.
In “Alegoria criolla” (“Native Allegory”), for example, she contrasts the openness, curiosity and hopefulness of a youthful daughter, Eva, against images, one a graphical representation of the spread of malaria. Córdova’s mother, a healthcare clinician, worked extensively with tropical disease — dengue fever, malaria and now Zika — and the maladies born from them.
But there are also other photographs, of people, happenings and places, part of the folklore of the artist’s heritage, and these hover in the background, somewhat blurred, as memories are.
Córdova sculpts with accuracy, and with effects from rugged to delicate. Over time, she has shifted from the small, exquisite early figures for which she became known to feats of conceptual provocation and scale. A prestigious $50,000 USA Artist Fellowship in 2015 enabled Córdova to outfit her studio with large-scale kilns capable of accommodating her newest sculptural ideas. The figures are now completed in one firing, not several. By firing everything together, she achieves a uniformity of surface, glaze, and clay shrinkage – crucial to the aesthetics and integrity of the finished form.
The theatrical backdrops of her installations are simple and meticulous. In “La Persistencia del verdor” (“The persistence of greenery”), for example, an imposing, cloud-capped image of Puerto Rico’s Mount Britton, comprised of 180 discrete photographs, looms large immediately behind a sculpture of the artist’s husband, Pablo Soto, a well-known glass artist and designer. We are drawn to wonder about the interconnectedness of form and image.
Is it simply theater or a deeply personal connection to place and family?
Córdova draws with charcoal and graphite as most might. New to her graphic repertoire, she uses clay slip and other media to animate and convey the physical characteristics of her subjects. Gravity plays a role, too, for as her mud-laden brush touches the drawing surface, it oozes and drips; the resulting marks suggest the passage of time. They accumulate like layers of sediment.
She employs translucent vellum to blur our perception of her work and create a potent surrogate for the memory/time/space continuum.
Córdova seizes on the theatricality of yearnings for wholeness in our lives, and melancholy induced by a life separated from its origins, surroundings and familial connectivity. “Cerca Y Lejos” provides insight into a life joyfully lived, if always negotiated – as a Puerto Rican expatriate, or as any one of us who is from somewhere else, must.
‘Cerca Y Lejos’ (‘Near and Far’)
Through Nov. 20 at Penland Gallery & Visitors Center; www.penland.org/gallery.