There’s a purposeful tension between past and present in Claudia Peňa Salinas’s work. Her installations evoke ancient Mexican history, but through the sparse language of minimalist grid-like sculptures reminiscent of Sol Lewitt. Her site-specific works respond to the architecture of the gallery space, and her exhibition at the emphatically modern Broad Art Museum offers a re-creation of Tepantitla, a compound in ancient Mesoamerican city Teotihuacan. Yet while evoking the ancient past, Salinas’s work also manages to speak to contemporary social issues.
Born in Montemorelos, Mexico, Salinas grew up surrounded by a predominantly flat landscape, and she describes the buildings in the area as “minimalist.” These informed much of her subsequent work, which re-creates historic or mythological locations through reductive sculptural ensembles. At the Broad, a modest network of brass cuboid sculptures stands in for Tepantitla. Airy and almost fragile-looking, they leave much to the imagination, though a massive vinyl reproduction of one of Tepantitla’s famous ancient murals fills a gallery wall, lending the installation geographic specificity. Here we see a host of reveling figures enjoying the lush abundance and fertility offered by the rivers gushing down the sacred mountain of the rain deity Tlaloc. A ceramic sculpture on the floor references an ambiguous form—possibly a temple–found on one of Tepantitla’s other murals. Looking almost like a pre-Columbian artifact, it also serves as a foil to its clearly modern sculptural surrounding.
Salinas incorporates natural elements and found objects into her work, such as the sculpture Teotihuacan, with its large curtain of suspended fragments of wood, obsidian, metal, and other things all dangling from dyed cotton strings. Salinas collected these varied objects while taking walks just outside the periphery of Teotihuacan, where a fence divides the ancient city from the modern town of San Juan de Dios Teotihuacan. The objects not only reference the two cities, but also the tension between ancient and modern: obsidian was used extensively in pre-Columbian cultures and contrasts with the modern and industrial metal.
While referencing Mexico’s ancient past, this exhibit also speaks to current social issues. A short film by Salinas addresses the controversies surrounding the $13 billion airport (designed by Pritzker-winning architect Norman Foster), currently under construction in Mexico City. It promises to be stunning when complete, but the sprawling structure has displaced many of the area’s inhabitants, giving rise to protests.
Claudia Peňa Salinas’s installations are admittedly illusive, requiring that viewers pay close attention to the materials used, and her cerebral works carry associations that aren’t always self-evident. But viewers willing to spend focused time with her work will find the experience rewarding. And while social commentary in her sculpture is understated, the current political discourse in America lends their allusions to veils, boundaries, and walls an uncanny, poignant relevance.
This exhibition runs through July 29. More information on the artist, including images of her other multimedia works, can be found here.