A Review of Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London
There is a lot to take in from Luchita Hurtado’s first public solo exhibition. Her lengthy career, still continuing today, is exhibited in a near 80-year chronology by the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. The cyclical nature of the exhibition pays homage to the environmental themes and of course the exhibition’s very own title. The Serpentine presents Hurtado as possessing contemporary relevance, yet, the news today is filled with Climate Emergency disasters and protests, questioning whether the cycle and rebirth of nature will continue. However, Hurtado’s concerns with ecology, feminism and activism are present, active and highly developed throughout all of her works, from her early experimentation with figures in nature, almost like branching trees; to surrealist ‘I Am’ paintings, which take self-portraiture inside of the body of the artist to show what she directly sees.
The single self-portrait of Hurtado including her face, emerges at the very beginning of the exhibition but the strong and unassuming gaze is present throughout. Hurtado seems unconcerned with her self-image, rather she is interested in her own self-being. This portrait amongst other early works, including the oldest work in the exhibition from 1938, seems to show a tentative start for the young Hurtado. After listening to the Rebecca Lewin’s narration of the oldest work, ‘Untitled’, describing it as an attempt to “capture the fire and energy of a gas hob” and as “both a recognisable shape and an abstract form”, the importance of Hurtado’s earlier navigations of her surroundings became clear.
The more experimental phase of the exhibition sees Hurtado coming into her stride, of surrealist abstraction of the figure, pattern finding in nature, and the incorporation of bright almost tribal-like motifs. Limbs become intertwined, extending and dividing producing cell-like structures separated by bold, black lines on saturated backgrounds. At the beginning of this section, the figures disappear into abstraction, but by the end, towards the 1960s, the figures re-emerge with a new sense of surrealist space and an intimate interaction with the surroundings, preparing the viewer for the self- portraits to come.
Known for her ‘I Am’ self-portraits, the back gallery was dedicated to these curious and intimate images. Representative of art as a lived experience and Hurtado’s own family experience in the changing environment of a diasporic existence, these paintings are from the perspective of Hurtado herself, looking down upon her own body interacting with her surroundings. Her hands and feet are prominent, as are brightly coloured rugs beneath her. She interacts with apples, pears, matches, even another figure who Hurtado appears to be conversing with – very familiar scenes to the everyday individual. The spatial ambiguity and the fact that we know it is Hurtado’s body gives the works a sense of poignancy due to the vulnerability and loneliness of the nude single female form, yet we are also comforted and empowered by the naturalistic interactions.
Up until this point in this exhibition the developmental flow is fairly obvious and natural, however proceeding, the works seem too categorised and distinct from each other, perhaps due to the retreat of the figure in favour of words, something Hurtado describes as a “linguistic form of self- portraiture”. Alongside language, Hurtado turns to the sky and to her own more painterly ideas of light, manifested in her ‘Moth Light’ works. In both the light and language works, the paintings become increasingly abstract, however with that abstraction comes a detachment from Hurtado herself, after her undoubted presence in previous works. Described as creating a “link between the body and the cosmos” the works feels more like an ascent to the cosmos leaving the body behind.
The ‘Language and Abstraction’ and ‘Language and Archetype’ works seemed further out of place. They are refreshing, but a lot more commercial than previous works, and in a separate gallery room. There are hidden words in the paintings, phrases relating to the sky and the earth, obscured as the canvas had been cut up and sewn back together. A nice sentiment, but perhaps a little cliché.
The final step in the chronology; ‘Activism and Ecology’, seems rather crude in comparison to some of the more complex image constructions of Hurtado’s self-portraits or her more obscure Language works. There certainly were elements of a lifetime of experimentation, pattern formation and metamorphosis, yet the addition of text give the works a poster or protest-sign feel. Alongside some abstracted figures, fruits and earth word-associations, were several iterations of (I assume Hurtado) giving birth. They were rather disturbing images, with the new-born child staring up at its mother from between her legs. The works seem quite crudely painted, however I wonder whether this is the intention, as though the child is looking for responsibility and culpability in the mother for its life and to the mother for natural connection and protection.
Wife and mother to an artistic family, I feel the art was never Hurtado’s child, but her way of life. In her global travels and residence, perhaps her self-portraits and ecological works are a way of connecting her to a place; not a city nor a time, but the Earth.
Hurtado, known to have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Frida Kahlo, André Breton and the Dyanton group to name a few, has remained largely under the radar. The lack of exposure gives the Serpentine a hard task: to curate a kind of retrospective and first solo exhibition all in one. They haven’t failed, I imagine that Hurtado would be pleased with the exhibition. She speaks of the themes the Serpentine highlights, of light and space, pattern and surroundings, colour and shape, body and mind. However, rather than the activism, the ecofeminism speaks to me, and I’m sure to many young women concerned with the present climate crisis. There is a push and pull of nature throughout, a connectedness but also interruption – extremely relevant themes to the present day.
In trying to display everything, the gems of Hurtado’s career are somewhat lost amongst the mass. It isn’t the Serpentine’s fault that Hurtado hasn’t had a solo public exhibition before, but they don’t have the space to push an agenda as they must display a large amount of context. What is the motive behind this exhibition? Exposure? Celebration? Activism? The Serpentine does touch on all of these, giving a tantalising hint at the life and work of the near-centenarian , but one feels that Hurtado’s exhibition and creative career is far from over and there is much more to come.
Written by Alison Poon, a Contributor to Arteviste