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Bicultural and Multilevel: Margarita Cabrera

Margarita Cabrera, whose full-sized soft sculpture Volkswagen was such an enormous success at Art Basel Miami, has been engaging her audience in a multilayered discussion on culture, consumerism, body image and art interactivity for a number of years now.

Margarita Cabrera... VOCHO ... 2004... Vinyl, thread and car parts... 5 X 6 X 13 feet

While her current show at Adair Margo Gallery does not provide a Volkswagen, she is showing her purple hair dryer, orange food processor, black toaster and batter mixer as well as her quilts and water color retablos, all of which are designed to engage the viewer in a variety of levels thought and play.

This viewer interaction is something that is important to her work, which began back while she was an artist/lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was there that she became very aware of and interested in visitors’ reactions. She made large-scale installations designed to engage people by allowing them to enter into and play with and around her work, which at they time she described as “playful, but perhaps cynically engaging.”[1]Her return to the border through the Border Residency Program in New Mexico gave her work a renewed focus. She wrote in the PaperVeins biennial show in 2000, “My main concern is to create disjunction and dislocation in my work.” Dislocation has been something of a factor in her own life.

Born in Monterrey, she was raised in Mexico City until the age of 12, when her family moved to Salt Lake City. She had no trouble learning a new language and “at first there was all the excitement of being in a new country, and then I realized that I was the only person in school who was brown-skinned, with long braids and Catholic. Everyone else was red-haired, white and Mormon.” She found that all of her friends were busy after school with church activities. Although this might have made her feel like something of an outsider, she set up an art studio in her house, took watercolor lessons from a neighbor and concentrated on her art. Four years later her family moved to El Paso, and she initially went to college in San Antonio, where she zipped through every art course offered and hungered for more. Attending first the Maryland Institute College of Art, she later earned first her BFA from Hunter College in New York graduating Magna Cum Laude with a concentration in sculpture and then earned her MFA from the same institution.

Margarita Cabrera... Toaster... 2003... Vinyl, thread, appliance parts... 10

During her residency in New Mexico, she focused on the dynamics between the Mexican and American cultures. She made a full-sized, usable seesaw called Two 2 Tango, which was a palpable commentary on the pull between the two countries and two cultures, played out on the individual level. Cabrera’s initial idea was to place 30 seesaws along the Rio Grande. Touring a maquiladora, or border factory, in Juarez, she became fascinated by the operation and the women who worked there. Noting that while they assemble parts from all over the world, they also add plastic to the products they are assembling, she started making soft sculpture appliances, replacing the plastic with vinyl as a tribute to these workers. She uses bright colors like purples and oranges, not only because they typify Mexican design, but also to make them viewer-friendly. The goal of her gentle political commentary isn’t to alienate, but rather to engage viewers playfully. Cabrera has used Velcro on some of her appliances, such as her coffee maker, so people can open the parts up and interact with the pieces, while also being able to reflect on how the original items are made, who makes them, and what it takes to have all of these bright and shiny objects as a part of everyday life. I noticed that though most of the appliances in the current show are sewn closed, the main body of the food processor could be opened up. Cabrera leaves threads hanging out to emphasize that these are handmade. “I’ve had people joke, you know I can get a scissors and cut those for you but those threads are very important.”

The soft sculptures are designed to inspire multilayered interpretations. Hollow inside, they can collapse into themselves. You can punch them down, though as Cabrera points out, ‘they will spring back up.” Every aspect of her sculptures has been thought out in terms of meaning and symbol — the hollowness, the handmade aspect, and the specific colors are all are meant to provoke thought and interaction. Cabrera sews these exact copies of appliances produced in the maquiladoras on an industrial sewing machine she herself was able to purchase with the sale of one of her first pieces(ironically of an actual appliance), so in a sense she has become a maquiladora of her own work.

Margarita Cabrera... Waffle-maker ... 2003... Vinyl, thread, metal and electric wiring... 11 X 9 X 4 inches

Recently she has added quilts: “I wanted to take something that is very traditionally American and blend it with something from Mexican culture. I noticed that quilts usually have a central image — like hands in the AIDS quilt — so I used an appliance as a repeated image.” Every appliance has its own quilt, again with threads exposed. She has also begun to paint retablos, or painted prayers, in watercolors. These show the shape of an appliance with a saint in the center, such as her Iron with Virgin of Guadalupe shown here. There is also Saint Rita inside a waffle-maker. Some people might see the pairings of saints and cooking gadgets as simply humorous, but Cabrera sees a more profound connection between the two: “There are retablos everywhere in these factories, and for so many of these women this job has become the central factor in their life. They are often completely dependent on this job for their life.”[2]

Cabrera, who is represented by Sara Metzger Gallery, has been featured in New York at Paperveins Biennial 2000, among other shows, at Dallas Center for Contemporary Art, Plan B in Santa Fe, Adair Margo Gallery in El Paso, and internationally. She continues to explore both sides of her own culture as a product of both Mexico and America, as well as more formal questions of sculpture-making. With humor and sensitivity, she invites her audience to join her in that exploration as fellow consumers and neighbors.

1. and 2. All quotes taken from an interview with the artist.[return to the article]

Images courtesy the artist, Sara Metzger Gallery and Adair Margo Gallery.

David Sokolec is a writer living in El Paso.

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