Mercedes Elena González: Vulvosas: A Feminine Ecology

Mercedes Elena González’s Feminine Ecology

Jenni Sorkin

From 1976 to 1985, Mercedes Elena González produced this first body of mature drawings, making images that correspond to the lived experience of inhabiting the female body. The precise, tight orbs that permeate her drawings are filled with fleshy landscapes and cell division, abstracted ova, spirals, conch shells, as well as carefully articulated openings and explicitly vaginal orifices, offering the syncopated fecundity of the monthly female reproductive cycle and situating it firmly within the natural world. González celebrates the female body as a rapturous but complex ecology steeped in growth, development, processes of absorption and excretion, and, finally, regeneration. In the highly textured monoprint series, Terrarium (1979-82), for instance, González depicts the verdant world of womanhood upon which pink, green, and mauve layers of gouache and colored pencil conceive of the pubis as a metaphoric planting enclosed but highly visible, as terrariums themselves are marked by the transparency of being located in ornamental glass containers.

In other early works, González conjures carefully wrought vegetation, claws, teeth, and tentacles, visual markers of desire, which are paired with the ripeness of the female body as simultaneously fruitful and willful, punctuated by the insistent rhythms of reproduction. González orients each image as a microcosm: a little world unto which each woman becomes highly attenuated, attuned to her own biology, an interior landscape that is made imaginative and playful by an enlarged sense of scientific tools: using the framing devices of a microscope and a gridded chart with circles inscribed within squares. This insistent roundness becomes a consistent metaphor for the enclosure and protection of the womb.

These prints and drawings span two continents: North and South America. A native of Caracas, where she currently lives, González studied architecture and design before deciding to matriculate abroad, to gain additional social freedoms, as the decision to become an artist was not so easily accepted by her family. From 1976 to 1980, González attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The works included in this exhibition highlight this early period of her career, as well as the first five years after her return to Venezuela.

Unbeknownst to González at the time, she produced these paintings and works on paper at the height of the American feminist movement. In 1972, several years before her arrival, the Boston Women’s Health Collective had produced the groundbreaking pamphlet, and later, book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, the first primer to offer knowledge about the female health and sexual education authored by women, for women. Such information was still passed largely in secret, rendered inaccessible to a then 24-year old native Spanish speaker. Yet the zeitgeist of the enterprise lingered on: for self-exploration and discovery are key ideas in González’s paintings and drawings, as she explored her own sexuality and femininity. Vulvosas (1979-1980) are a series of tightly clustered petals, a vegetal genitalia that blossoms across multiple works into emboldened holes: vaginal openings poetically rendered, and full-bloom roses (a later series, Vulvarrosas, 1983). As tender close ups, they are purposefully divorced from the body as a whole so as to minimize any erotic pleasure in favor of examining the vulva itself as a form. One such version blends evocative hatching, the texture of the skin, with a pseudo-scientific study of as a series of alternating hollows: the vagina, urethra, and anus, all in a linear arrangement, slightly right of center on an intimately-sized canvas.

The female body was a common trope for multiple generations of U.S.-based artists, particularly the one older than González, which included Faith Wilding (b. 1943) and Hannah Wilke (1940-1993). Theirs was a language that embraced fragmentation, choosing to depict the body in pieces, as a metaphor for the fractured experiences of being a modern woman, subjected to sexism, voyeurism, and objectification. Throughout the 1970s, Wilding produced numerous abstract colored pencil drawings of symbolic nature—fruit, flowers, winged insects, seashells—while Wilke sculpted vulva-like forms out of chewing gum, clay, and latex. For U.S.-based feminists, the eroticism of biomorphic abstraction became one of the most powerful means of addressing female representation, collectively forming a feminist corpus of artistic production throughout the 1960s through 1990s.

In Latin America, the history has been quite different. Given the climate of military dictatorships throughout the continent, gender has often been a secondary concern, subsumed by avant-garde political resistance. Yet the dominant form of painting, geometric abstraction has always had women artists such as Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Gego, and Mira Schendel at the helm of its production, though without feminism as an explicit label or requirement.[1] Instead, as art historian Andrea Guinta argues, “Though they did not call themselves feminists, they undertook intensive research into subjectivity and the problematic status of women in society and as biologically and culturally conditioned beings.”[2]

Curator Cecilia Fajardo-Hill argues that in Venezuela, geometric abstraction was especially dominant during the 1950s, making it nearly impossible for video or performance, more conceptual or performance-based media, to emerge in later decades.[3] Painting, then, has remained a dominant medium in which to experiment.

As González writes,  “I've never liked to ‘follow movements’ because my production was—and still is—very private, constantly using my body as the main subject. I was very young in those days and had recently discovered my own sexuality, so I created my unique visual language to relate with the flesh.”[4] The recent exhibition, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 (Hammer Museum, Los Angeles), co-curated by Giunta and Fajardo-Hill, in which González was included, demonstrates that her work fits within a genealogy of bold experimentalism that reconsiders the iconography of the body and the complexity of its pivotal role in social and cultural repression and subsequent representations of female identity.

Mercedes Elena González (Caracas, Venezuela, 1952) studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, from 1976-1980. Her work has been featured in solo exhibitions including September 1955, Henrique Faria, New York (2014); Pelikan, Faría + Fábregas Galería, Caracas (2009); Obra Recente, Galería Valu Oria, São Paulo (2008); Bichus Invasion, Signature Art Gallery, Miami (2006); Entretejimientos, Sala Alternativa, Caracas (2001) and Dibujos, La Librería, Sala Mendoza, Caracas (1982 and 1977), among others. She has participated in group shows such as Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2017); Ciudad Volátil, Centro Cultural Chacao, Caracas (2011); Figuración-Fabulación, Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas (2004); Muestra 2, Sala Alternativa, Mexico City (2003); La mujer venezolana en las artes, Wang Fu Gallery, Beijing and Festival Internacional de La Pinturee, Cagnes-sur-Mer, France (1995); Salón Nacional de Jóvenes Artistas, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Sofía Imber, Caracas (1981) and Once Tipos, Sala Mendoza, Caracas (1978). González has won numerous awards for her work, including the Premio Armando Reverón, from Salón Michelena, Caracas (2002); the Gran Premio Salón Nacional de Arte Aragua, Salón Aragua (2001) and the Bolsa de Trabajo Conac, (1976). Her work is included in both private and public collections internationally. She lives and works in Caracas.

[1] See Inverted Utopias: Avant-garde Art in Latin America (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2004).

[2] Andrea Giunta, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 (Los Angeles and New York: Hammer Museum and DelMonico Books, 2017),

[3] Cecilia Fajarado-Hill, “Singular Women: Experimental Art in Venezuela,” Radical Women, 305.

[4] Mercedes Elena González, December 16, 2017, e-mail to the author.