Maria Elena González and I met for the first time on a street corner in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, near her apartment and studio, and had lunch on Smith Street. Afterward, as we climbed the front steps of her building, she greeted her Hispanic middle-aged neighbor sitting on the stoop. She told me later that he had lived in this neighborhood since he was four years old. This gatekeeper reminded me how today’s street culture transforms the original Victorian row houses through the persistence of deeply ingrained cultural patterns and memories.
González’s sculpture approaches the subject of architecture and memory. As a Cuban American artist, her memory becomes an identity and, as such, is reconstructed with many inaccuracies and contradictions. Her sculptures embody this condition. They are sublime, sensual objects loaded with questions.
What follows is a conversation between a sculptor and an architect who share the privilege and the burden of growing up biculturally. We talked in early October across an antique marriage table in her sunny living room.
Carlos Brillembourg Maria Elena, how long have you been living in this apartment, here in Brooklyn?
Maria Elena González For ten years, and I’ve had my studio in this area since ’88.
CB And you studied in San Francisco?
MEG Yes. San Francisco State attracted me because its sculpture department had an outdoor yard—and I could afford it. I still had to have two jobs, but I didn’t have to take out a student loan. I didn’t walk out of school owing thousands of dollars like a lot of people I know.
CB One of your jobs was in a restoration shop.
MEG Seven AM to noon. If I came in at 7:02, the owner would say, “Good afternoon.”
CB (laughter) So you’re an early riser.
MEG I actually am. I like my working hours with the sun. I’m a blue-collar artist, I don’t work at night.
CB That was enough money to live on and go to school?
MEG I was also the graduate assistant at the university; that was my second job
CB And after graduating from San Francisco, where did you go?
MEG I worked in San Francisco for a year, to save some money, and then I moved to New York where I worked with a friend who did painting work for interior decorators, and I was able to offer my restoration services to them. My business took off and it gave me the ability to manage my time.
CB When did you start living off your sculpture?
MEG In ’97 I began receiving what I call grants that count, grants that make a difference, an Anonymous Was a Woman grant, and a Louis Comfort Tiffany grant. After I received the Tiffany, I said, "I’m closing the business." And that was the end of that.
CB And since then you’ve survived off grants?
MEG In ’98 I received Joan Mitchell and Pollock-Krasner grants. In ’99, Creative Capital, and in 2001 I got the second round from that. This past December I received a Penny McCall Foundation Award. Also honorariums, lectures, and sales of my work help.
CB What was your early life in Cuba like?
MEG We lived with my aunt and my uncle for a certain period of time, until my parents moved across the street; I had two sets of parents. In fact, when my parents moved across the street, I didn’t want to go and live with them, and they let me stay at my aunt’s house. So I had an incredible sense of independence. I actually didn’t live with my parents until we came to the United States.
CB You’ve mentioned that there was a carpentry shop in your hometown.
MEG Five doors from where we lived. The carpentry shop was my playground.
CB What else did this little town have?
MEG Aguacate had a sugar mill nearby, a park, a church, a primary and a secondary school, a funeral home (very important), a bus depot, and one beauty parlor, which was my aunt’s.
CB And your family was finally able to get out in 1968?
MEG Yes, they waited seven years to get the okay to leave. We moved to Miami when I was 11, to Havana del Norte.
CB And when you came to the States did your uncle and aunt move as well?
MEG Later on.
CB Did you lose that sense of extended family?
MEG To a certain degree, but there were so many other aunts and uncles and cousins. There were always, and still are, big family gatherings.
CB How does the sense of family inform your work?
MEG I’ve made more reference to my family since my parents died. That is when it became an issue in the work. In the exhibition in Baltimore is a piece called Nucleus; four oval-shaped tiled stools, 18 inches high, are placed at the cardinal points. The title refers to the nuclear family; in my case there were four of us, my father, my mother, my brother, and I. This is a continuation of a body of works that were memorials, which I produced between 1996 and 1999. A recent piece, Basebowl, in the end became an offering to my dad rather than a memorial. I link baseball and my father (he was a huge fan and played as a young man). The piece is very architectural. When you look at the bowl from the outside, it looks like a stadium. The interior is lined with a material that looks and feels like what baseballs are made of; in the interior’s center is a mound of baseballs and from that center, baseballs are strung like a pearl necklace, installed vertically so they look like they are going through the ceiling.
CB For you, what is essential to the condition of sculpture?
MEG The physical scale and aspect of it. There’s nothing compared to actually having the physical experience.
CB So this is about a confrontation between the body of the sculpture and your own body?
MEG In my view it is. I certainly take that into consideration when I make things. The body is used to doing things in a particular way. For example, across the board, pretty much all chairs are 18 inches high. Your body is used to sitting at that height. In untitled (confessional) and Resting Spots I use that format. These works are tiled objects/stools; in the former, two people can sit across from each other with their knees touching. In the latter, one of these objects is placed close to the wall where my parents’ names are inscribed in Braille onto a band of black rubber. You can sit and “read.” These sculptures use the language of a chair to let people’s bodies know they can sit on them.
CB Simply because of the scale reference, even if it doesn’t look at all like a chair?
MEG Exactly. For example, sometimes we don’t remember telephone numbers, but if you put your hand on a telephone pad your fingers will remember the telephone number.
CB It’s a corporeal memory.
MEG It’s stored information in the body cells. I like how the body and the subconscious work. I’m also interested in how one’s mind tries to remember more than what it actually does remember. I’m interested in that process.
CB This is present in all your work.
MEG I choose materials that suggest an idea. For example, reflective glass beads, in my mind, behave like memory. You see it and you don’t see it. It’s clear, it’s sharp; it reflects, it doesn’t. I used this material in the installation Mnemonic Architecture to draw the floor plan or footprint of the house where I grew up. And the floor plan was made up from a 32-year old memory. As you walk through the “house,” parts of it become visible and others disappear. The proportions are all wrong. Since I work in a very minimal and abstract way with some images here and there as reference, the material has to convey very specific things.
CB I wouldn’t say that your work is minimal. I would say its sensual—
MEG One does not preclude the other; Eva Hesse’s minimalism is sensual.
CB —and material oriented, but not minimal.
MEG My educational aesthetic backdrop was minimalist and conceptual art. Minimalism has allowed me to deal with material issues that I’m concerned with as a sculptor, which include density, objects in space, format, et cetera. However, to embody content or address certain psychological issues, I devise other strategies.
CB On your living room wall here I see a drawing by a friend of yours, Dennis Oppenheim; he’s one of that movement’s founders.
MEG I’m a different generation. For me, you inject it and you take it someplace other than they did.
CB So you’re interested in continuing this tradition in a new way?
MEG In a completely new way.
CB That’s what I think we should all be doing. (laughter) Take, for example, this other drawing that I’m looking at now, which was made . . . five years ago?
MEG That was ’90. Twelve years ago.
CB It’s a binary image of a dark and a light oval. The dark oval is on a white background and the lighter oval is on the gray background. Is that somehow about memory?
MEG Not directly. The gesture that made the black oval was mimicking the one that made the lighter oval. This gesture was remembering what it had done in the other one.
CB So the second image is playing off its memory of the first one.
MEG In reverse of its mirror image.
CB A reversal of the previous image?
MEG Mirrors always reverse.
CB Mirrors contain memory.
MEG The mirror as a reflection, a reflection of yourself—it holds the image ever so briefly.
CB You know that poem by Borges called “Everness”?
Everything is there. The thousand reflections
that between dawn and twilight
your face has left behind many mirrors
and those faces it has yet to leave.
And everything is part of that diverse
and mirroring memory, the universe:
There is no end to its exigent corridors
and the doors that close behind you as you pass . . .
MEG I didn’t, but I like it.
CB What’s this new work that you were developing at Eternit?
MEG Eternit gave me the opportunity to do an artist’s residency in their factory. They’re an industrial manufacturer that produces fiber cement, a kind of exterior insulation that is used for facing buildings and houses. It is lightweight, velvety gray, and high in strength. They had never done an artist’s residency before on their premises, but I really wanted to work with that material, so I submitted a proposal anyway. They agreed to give me a space in the plant, all the material I needed, and the technical assistance to produce new work. I made two small editions, S-Sweep and Arched Back and several large-scale installations, Flying Apartment Flotilla, Wave, and Weave. The installations are made up of multiple modules.
MEG Anyway, after I finished doing my investigative period with Eternit, I went back with very specific ideas of what I wanted to make. And I spent the next five months producing a lot of work. This fall at DiverseWorks in Houston an exhibition opens of three large installations made with the Eternit material plus rubber casts of floor plans that I produced in New York. They’re all culminations of these different flying carpets.
CB We’re looking at the flying-apartment flotilla images. Very beautiful images, by the way. These are floor plans imprinted in fiber cement, and they’re molded so that they lift themselves off the floor via different folds. Where do these flying carpets come from?
MEG I went to Turkey, and once you’re there you can’t help but imagine flying carpets—in Istanbul, everybody tries to sell you a carpet. I was spending a lot of time in airplanes, fantasizing, “Wouldn’t it be great to be on a magic carpet!” It wasn’t until the following year that I put the magic carpet and the floor plan together as a flying house in Magic Carpet/Home, a public art piece. But that was actually a literary reference. I was reading The Agüero Sisters by Cristina García. A young character in that book collects stuffed animals and the mother says, “If you bring one more stuffed bird into this house, the house will fly away.” That’s when I thought of the image of a flying house. In 1998 I made Carpet. It’s a feathered carpet with a specific reference to the bird flying: if the carpet has feathers, it must fly. There you have my referents to materials and to events. I like the implications and connotations of the image of flying carpets. I have not exhausted it.
CB Does the flying-carpet flotilla refer to the condition of Cuba as an island?
MEG No, not to the condition of Cuba, but to my condition of relocating again and again in my life, starting with my family’s emigration from Cuba. Once one is uprooted, one devises methods of rooting oneself. Rather than leaving home, I’d prefer to say I’m always coming home. Today I travel back and forth between two homes. I come home to Basel; I come home to Brooklyn.
I took that idea of being anywhere you want into this idea of taking your apartment anywhere you go. You don’t have to move, you just relocate your apartment. The flying-carpet flotilla is a relocatable city. Never mind what that would do to urban planning. I would hate to be on that end of it.
CB But let’s talk about the urban planning implicit in your flying-carpet flotilla. It’s an imaginary city, a utopian city. And it has to do with continuous displacement and continuous identity.
MEG And continuous access.
CB It’s an urban structure where the urban relations are always being redefined.
MEG Yes. I’m interested in the implications of desire, not in actually building a city.
CB Well, just as your chair is not a chair, these are not cities.
MEG Exactly. It’s a utopian desire of being able to be anywhere when you want.
CB Is a projection of your desire to be in the whole world at once, with your flying carpets?
MEG Perhaps. But my desire is also other people’s desire. There is a part of my work that has a universal appeal. Much of the work comes from very personal events, but its totality and its implications touch on things that many people can plug into.
CB Tell me about your solo show at The Project in New York.
MEG That exhibition is all about anxiety—good and bad, but anxiety nonetheless. It’s a very sparse exhibition; there are only four elements and some drawings. For this show the image on the invitation is very much a part of the exhibition. That is being sent first so you get a piece of the situation. Then, when you walk into the first floor of The Project, you get another piece of the situation and then you finish up the exhibition with the situation upstairs.
The invitation is an image of a hand opening the window shutters and you see a most strange-looking sunrise. The first-floor elements consist of two pedestals, one supporting a fragile glass rendering of an electrical tower, the other a drawing of an electric tower rendered with fingernail clippings or, I should say, shredded chewings—the nervous chewing of fingernails. The last element upstairs is the floor of the gallery itself, which rises to the windowsill as if it were a wave or carpet right up to, or even out the window. It’s an architectural alteration with several references to flight: flying out the window as a liberating experience, or on the darker side, jumping out the window to die.
CB Are they your fingernails?
MEG Mine and my girlfriend’s—eight months’ collection of fingernail clippings.
CB The anxiety the electric tower refers to?
MEG The zzzz, that nervous energy one feels when one is anxious. The potential danger of electric shock or of being electrocuted. But electricity is also wonderful. One talks of electrical energy as exciting. So I use the icon of the electric tower as an image that represents this energy.
CB Do you feel that both the good and the bad aspects are present simultaneously, or is the anxiety in this moment of transition?
MEG They’re usually present at the same time, but sometimes one overrides the other.
CB Would you say that your work is abstract?
MEG It keeps evolving. In the past it has been more abstract than it is now. In the last few years I’ve started to use recognizable iconic imagery such as this electrical tower. When I started working with floor plans, you could tell it was a floor plan of an apartment. And juxtaposing that with an undulating ramp in reference to a flying carpet, that’s also a recognizable icon: a blueprint on a flying carpet equals a flying home.
CB So what you’re saying is that your work is no longer abstract?
CB And you’re interested in what the object references outside the work. So your sculptures work like language. They refer to things in the real world.
CB And yet they’re not those things.
CB Is this exhibition very different from all your previous ones?
MEG Very different, in the sense that I am not creating an installation. I see it as a conglomeration of situations rather than an installation. This started last year when I did Basebowl for the Queens Museum. Aside from my installation, I supplied a sound excerpt for an artist—Stephen Vitiello—whose contribution to the exhibition was a CD-ROM, and I also supplied an image, a photograph for the catalog. I liked this disparity of elements that in my mind were about the same piece but different. The photograph here, the sound piece there, and then the installation/sculptural piece. The Project exhibition will be that again, this time purposely using the “disparity” of elements to create a whole.
CB So you are looking at the work more as—
CB Might you think of it as a theatrical experience?
MEG I am not sure about its theatrical aspects. Theater has a stationary site: as a viewer you sit and experience whatever is on the stage.
CB No, not all theater.
MEG Not all theater, but that is the way I perceive theater. I am fragmenting information that the viewer puts together at different points in time. There is that element of time delivery to these images and information.
CB Like a mental exercise, where you are confronted with a generic image and you put together an image in your mind of your own—
CB And history. You’re interested in doing this not just between the piece and the viewer, but between each part of the piece in order to create a more complex story, yes?
MEG The story doesn’t have a beginning, middle, or end. It’s probably the way things are for many people right now—it’s an accumulation of fragments of information that have no conclusion.
CB This open-ended question of trying to get at the process of thinking through a buildup of images released over time . . . The viewer confronts the work, and while the associations are distinct for each person, there is a sense of accumulated information being approached in a sequential pattern. That approaching is not necessarily performance, but there is certainly a narrative aspect to the work. Would you agree with that?
MEG No, I think the narrative is fabricated by the individual, there is no narrative in the sequential presentation per se. But you know, I do not analyze my work.
CB Ah, well, but I am trying to analyze it. (laughter)
MEG I know. When I begin, I see the parts in my mind but I really haven’t experienced them in space. I try not to analyze my work because when I do that I get into editing and I don’t want to lose—not the momentum, but what started me going in that direction, the visceral, the parts that have no words yet, that made me do this or made me think this way. If I analyze that too much, it gets diluted.
CB The whole establishment of curators and galleries and museums creates the demand to translate the visual into written words.
MEG Absolutely. Sound bites. Once, at an opening, a curator was telling someone about the work in the exhibition and he was quoting from the press release verbatim. There was not a shred of originality in looking at the work, processing it and talking about it in his own words. It was the most appalling moment I have ever experienced in New York.
CB I was reading an interview with the sculptor Marisol that was published in a Venezuelan newspaper. She was very funny. They were asking her all these questions and she said, “I am sorry, I just don’t think with words, I think with objects.” Would you have any empathy for that?
MEG I certainly do. I think in images, in objects, in situations, in scale and space. It’s not till afterward that I start thinking in words because of a certain demand placed on me. if I have to write a grant I have to talk about my work. If I have to present my work in a lecture . . . it’s in the aftermath that I put things into words.
CB The word icon usually connotes a mystical reference. Are you interested in that?
MEG Well, a flying carpet is certainly a mystical reference; it doesn’t exist. I’m using the word “icon” to encompass generic images. For example, cake always equates with a moment of celebration of some sort.
CB So, you are interested in the generic image of cultural objects.
MEG I’m interested in language that most of us can relate to without thinking about it too much. Things that we see or use all the time. You don’t think about where it comes from, but it brings out x amount of information, x amount of references. I use materials in almost the same way. Certain materials present particular information. It’s built into them. Glass is fragile, you know it can break; plastic is not. The rubber castings I mentioned before are part of a show at DiverseWorks in Houston that opens November first—we’re tinting them to look like glass, but when you get up close and touch them, they’re rubbery, you’ll have that clash of information. What you see immediately registers as breakable and then you see it undulating; when you touch it, it registers as something bouncy. They are large floor-mat-size castings with two different floor plans, a small edition of each.
CB Are you interested in that multiplicity of meaning that can seem contradictory?
MEG Sometimes, as a kind of subtext. My work has several layers built into it.
CB But when you make your work, are you thinking about those layers?
MEG I cannot start from a list of things that I want my work to do. I just start working. It becomes second nature to me. Then after I have something concrete like a drawing or some tests, then I analyze it and clarify exactly what it is that I want it to be, to say, and deduct, delete, add or not.
CB What is your process like? How does a piece evolve? Is it first a conceptual image and then a drawing? Take me through the evolution of one of your pieces.
MEG Prior to working at Eternit, I had been working with certain themes. I’m still interested in exploring imagery of the flying carpet and the closet. I mentioned several aspects of my work previously; addressing my own personal position as a lesbian has not been stated, and I should say that I do this as well. But at Eternit I was confronted with a new material, a blank slate. Here the material itself—its properties, color, malleability, and so on—gave me ideas on how to proceed. So I just started working. I said, Okay, I’m going to take an imaginary floor plan that seems to refer to a closet. And let’s make it into a room that almost looks like a game court. Let’s start with that. And then I did another one. I thought let’s make an edition of these two images. To make an edition, you have to fabricate many pieces, you pull the ones that are exactly alike and the rest are discarded. Except I did not discard them. I just kept producing and making more of these pieces, which then became modules of larger installations.
CB Did you make a drawing first?
MEG I had a drawing first. But I didn’t make it thinking of Eternit. I draw all the time.
CB What do you draw with?
MEG I draw with a graphite square. Sometimes I use inks and wash. So I had these drawings that I used as reference points. I also did a lot of reading, thinking that I would use something of what I read for this project, but I ended up not using any of it.
CB What were you reading?
MEG I was reading my mother’s journals. She kept journals and she wrote poetry. When she died she left me a pretty big package.
CB Wow, wonderful!
MEG I spent three months going through the material.
CB Your mother was very literary?
MEG She was a schoolteacher and a writer and very supportive of everything I did, no matter what I did.
CB And did your father understand your work?
MEG No, but he was also supportive. My father said such a curious thing to me one time: “I am no longer Vincente, now I am Maria Elena’s father.” (laughter) He was very important for me as well. In a different way. You know, he took me to play baseball with him, my athleticism was realized through my father. My father was the one who took the training wheels off my bicycle and pushed me off.
CB We were talking previously, about the generic image. You’re interested in an image that is understandable, clear.
MEG Or using an image as a tool to draw someone in because of its familiarity: it’s something they can immediately process. By that time, I already have you in my space and then I can speak about the particulars I am working with.
CB Three works of yours that interest me, Barrilito, Centered Cake, and Holy Steps, all have to do with identifying these generic concepts. Some of these concepts have to do with your upbringing in Cuba, I imagine, and the Catholic Church, Is Holy Steps an irreverent reference?
MEG Holy Steps was made for Rome. I don’t use color, but Holy Steps had to be red. It’s a site-specific work. Behind the Sala Uno gallery in Rome are the Holy Steps where Pontius Pilate judged Jesus Christ. Legend has it that Jesus walked these steps to and from his conviction.
CB The Holy Steps are in Rome?
MEG They brought the steps to Rome, from the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. They are in this building, half of which is Sala Uno, a not-for-profit organization. The other half is Scala Santa, a small church, which actually is part of San Giovanni. People make pilgrimages to the Holy Steps and climb them on their knees. There are wonderfully worn spaces just from the friction of skin to marble, skin to marble over many, many, many centuries. So I decided to make Holy Steps out of rubber and red. Red for the color of Rome, red for the color of bloody knees on Holy Steps. It is a bit irreverent, it’s a chuckle at this absurd pilgrimage. Absurd in my view, but of course not absurd to the people who have these beliefs.
CB So it has nothing to do with your Cuban upbringing. Were you brought up as a Catholic?
MEG I was brought up Catholic but I’m not a practitioner. Barrilito is merely a descriptive title, since the shape of the sculpture is reminiscent of a wooden keg. Centered Cake is descriptive both in appearance and in content. It is part of several celebration pieces I made in 2001.
CB Do you feel that you are a Cuban artist living in America or that you are an American artist with Cuban roots? What is your relationship to Cuba and to the art that is being produced there now by artists like Kcho and others?
MEG Their subject matter is much more related to Cuba than mine is. They have a voice that speaks about conditions in Cuba. Kcho’s series of boats is all about leaving the stand. I don’t have that whole entrapment thing. I left as kid. I thought I was going on vacation. So I don’t think of myself as a Cuban artist, and my subject matter is not about Cuba. But I come from Cuba, there are specifics within the work—for instance, Mnemonic Architecture is from a house that I grew up in in Cuba. But it could have been in Timbuktu because the piece is about how memory works, not about the place from which it came.
CB So there is no specific political content in your work?
MEG Sometimes there is, in a very subtle way. In Magic Carpet/Home, the layout of the apartment only has the closets marked, not L.R. for living room or D.R. for dining room, only C for closet. The usage of the letter C in some of my work, directly references “the closet.” The closet represents a hidden socialized space, theoretically. We all know about “being in the closet” and “coming out of the closet.” Then there is the choice of where my public art is situated.
Public art is rarely placed in marginalized neighborhoods. Since I believe in the transformative power of art, I wanted the citizens of Red Hook to benefit from the presence of art. That’s why I chose that neighborhood for my piece. So, content-wise, Magic Carpet/Home talked about a personal aspect of my life, but that is only one part of the piece, and overall, not what the piece is about, and location-wise I address a social disparity. This is as political as I get.
—Carlos Brillembourg, BOMB’s architecture editor, established his own architectural practice in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1980 and in 1984 founded Carlos Brillembourg Architects in New York. His award-winning work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Architectural Record, House and Garden, Harper’s Bazaar, and elsewhere. In the American pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, Brillembourg presented design proposals for the World Trade Center site. He recently organized a symposium at the New School titled “Latin American Arhitecture 1929-1960: Contemporary Reflections.”