By Sophie Mindes
“I am an island. Understand me and leave.”
This is how Cuban-born artist Zilia Sánchez describes herself and her current exhibition, now on display at the Phillips Collection. The exhibition, entitled “Soy Isla (I am an Island),” explores 70 years of Sánchez’ prolific works.
At almost 93 years old, Sánchez has spent a life living on islands — from her birthplace in Havana, to Manhattan, and finally to Puerto Rico, where she currently resides in San Juan. She takes inspiration from all aspects of her life: from Afro-Cuban culture and mythological heroines to her beliefs in isolation and unity, from post-war expressionism to the Caribbean moon.
The exhibition starts as you walk up the spiral staircase to the third floor of the museum, with works coming into view as you ascend. A large black moon welcomes you into the gallery that follows Sánchez’ work in chronological order.
It begins with 1950s Afro-Cuban inspired works of soft colors and “delicate meandering line [drawings]” that would later influence her tattoo-style paintings. “She is like a sponge; always taking things and transforming them into her language,” Dr. Vesela Sretenovic, Phillips’ Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, describes, as the exhibit moves forward into Sánchez’ life in 1960s Manhattan. Though she has always supported movements — feminism, the anti-Batista resistance in Cuba, the underrepresented Latino and queer communities of New York and Puerto Rico — she has always considered herself an outsider, “staying aside, being an island within an island.”
The gradual shift towards her signature style — a union of “the wiggly line, the shaped canvas, the reductive palette” is seen as she uses wood and found objects to push “the painting into the space,” viewing the body as a landscape. Her mission has always been “to create a work that does not follow the rules.” Ambiguity is present in every piece; her art defies being put into a category of its own. In a short documentary towards the end of the exhibit, she asserts, “I’m between painting and sculpture, and the curator describes her with a mix of admiration and frustration: “It’s hard to pin her down. It’s impossible.”
The largest space in the gallery holds her shaped canvas works from the 70s and 80s. You walk through and feel as if you are in a room surrounded by bodies — curves that sometimes seem to breathe, objects from behind the canvas that reach for you like outstretched hands. Quiet colors of light peach and pale blue add to the fluidity and sensuality of her work. Sánchez, like a bored schoolgirl, covers some of the canvases in delicate scribbles while leaving others blank.
She has a habit of recurrence, frequently going back to old pieces, reworking and re-dating them. This idea connects with a video clip at the beginning of the exhibit in which she puts one of her paintings into the ocean and watches as the tide pushes and pulls it back and forth from the shore. “It’s about letting go,” Sánchez explains. “Seeing how far into the ocean the work can go.”
The exhibit’s last room seems to have sapped the color from all the previous ones; the walls are saturated in a deep blue. It is also the smallest, and in this confined space we come face-to-face with Zilia in the documentary. She speaks in short clips about her influences, her life as a teacher, and about the destruction of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Much of Sánchez’ work was destroyed in the storm: “the windows opened and the water came in.” And yet, like her painting in the ocean, she is able to let go and return to her art, creating and recreating. Sitting on the bench facing her, Zilia pulls us in until the video is over, until it is time to let go, and leave.
Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I am an Island) will be on display at the Phillips Collection through May 19, 2019.