Translating the Imaginary: Lucero Isaac
Working within the tradition of Latin American Magic Realism, Lucero Isaac’s enchanting assemblages and collages—found and fabricated objects with powerful associative properties—illuminate the interplay between the worlds of theater, film, art, and literature.
By Whitney Chadwick
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez was working on his novel Love in the Time of Cholera, he consulted Lucero Isaac about the mise en scene of Dr. Urbino’s domestic life. At the time, Marquez and Isaac had been friends for many years; in fact, the first film on which she worked as an art director was made by her former husband (Mexican director Alberto Isaac) from a short story which Marquez had given the couple as a present.1
The writer and artist began to discuss the odd ambience created as the novel’s protagonists sought to reproduce the atmosphere of European nouveau-riche bourgeois life in a tropical environment, and a richly textured picture emerged. Isaac made a blueprint of the house, and “furnished” it down to the last details: a tall piano in the hall, velvet curtains of a particular hue, silk wallpaper printed with peacock feathers, crystal chandeliers, a sofa covered in tassled silk. Together they imagined the elaborate costumes of the period as she, drawing on her cinematic experience, elaborated the fine points of starched crinolines, corsets with whalebone stays, lace handkerchiefs.
The collaboration was an important one for Isaac, and it reveals much about the process through which she translates the images of her imagined world into the concrete forms of her collages and assemblages. It also illuminates the role of nostalgia, dream, and play in her creative process, and the interplay between the worlds of theater, film, art, and literature in her work.
Born in Mexico City, Isaac began her professional life as a dancer. From 1964 to the late 1980s, she worked as an art director and production designer in film. Her responsibilities included everything from sets to costumes and make-up; often she was called upon to produce the texture and feeling of past eras by recreating objects and details specific to a particular time and place. She worked with directors Costa Gavras and Juan Luis Buñuel, among others; designed costumes for actors such as Max von Sydow, Peter O’Toole and Geraldine Chaplin; and won Academy Award nominations for her work. At the end of 1987, disillusioned by poor scripts and dwindling budgets, she left film to devote herself full-time to sculpture; her boxes and assemblages are a natural development from her earlier work as a set designer.
Within a year, Isaac held her first exhibition (at the Galería Honfleur in Mexico City). A series of one-person exhibitions followed in rapid succession: “Letters That Never Arrived and Other Things” (1989), “Night Peoples’ Theater” and Night People’s Theater II” (1991 and 1992), and “Forsaken Dreams” (1994). Her work quickly attracted an international audience and has been included in a number of major exhibitions, among them “Women in Mexico,” organized by the National Academy of Design in New York and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Monterrey, Mexico (1990-91) (which also travelled to the Centro Cultural de Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City), The Biennale of Sydney in Sydney, Australia (1992) , and “Latin America and Surrealism” (1993) at the Museum of Bochum, Germany.
Isaac’s assemblages combine found and fabricated objects in meticulously crafted, often boxed or framed, constructions that recall the poetic mysteries of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the oneiric landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings, the momento mori of Dutch seventeenth-century still-lifes, and the Lilliputian worlds of the set designer’s maquettes. Objects are absorbed into poetic narratives rooted in memory, dream, and longing; humor and tragedy vie for attention in miniature tableaux that often have the feel of an earlier era. Metaphors of dislocation and disjunction sever the viewer’s consciousness from mundane reality, but although the work displays evident connections to Surrealism’s dream-inspired vistas, there is little evidence of that movement’s aggressive oppositional politics. Intimations of doubled meanings and dual realities are often present in Isaac’s work.
Notions of rising and falling, or obscuring and revealing, assume equal importance for her, but so also do the worlds of dream and reality, life and death, past and present. Working very much within the tradition of Latin American magic realism, Isaac makes little or no distinction between the life of the imagination, and that of the everyday world. She shares with writers like Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Mario Vargas Llosa, a belief in enchantment, the kind of enchantment that arises when we contemplate the rich textures of minutely detailed worlds.
At times, Isaac’s constructions seem to point to future explorations; at others, they evoke past worlds, lost loves, painful memories. Objects and images recur –porcelain dolls’ heads, political medals, silver ex-votos, bits of old lace and faded snapshots– often in combination with personal symbols like clocks and staircases. The latter, carefully carved to the artist’s specifications by a woodworker in Cuernavaca, sometimes define interior spaces but end abruptly, impeding access; at other times, they seem to circle endlessly while going nowhere. Their workmanship and fine finishes recall the use of similar images by the American sculptor H.C. Westermann, but they have specific symbolic meanings for Isaac. She identifies them with cultural myths and misapprehensions; we conceive of success as a climb to the top, she notes, when in fact, emergency exits are almost always located downstairs.
Isaac’s images and objects are carefully chosen. Sensitive to the almost magical correspondences that take place between certain objects, she seeks out images with powerful associative properties. In Butcher’s Shop in Rouen, the French tricolor hangs suspended from an ornate wooden staircase mounted against the wall of a shallow proscenium. A sheaf of discarded manuscript pages, and a tiny photograph of Flaubert, recall the writer’s association with the city, just as images of corsets, and a heart pierced with an arrow, conjure up the ghosts of Madame Bovary and Louise Colet.2 Several of the other works included in “Night Peoples’ Theater” also wove fictive narratives , around enigmatic protagonists, often female. In La Niña Isabel, a porcelain doll’s head, encased in a wooden box lined with royal purple silk and surmounted by an image of a sheep, implants Columbus’s fantastic voyage in the queen’s childhood imaginings. Elsewhere, a portrait of Doña Fernanda Andrade –enshrined amidst a collage of fragments in A Pianist (also called Retrato de la Señora Andrade) that include a religious medal, a gold pocketwatch, a bit of lace, and old photographs– evoked a life through its artifacts.
The sources of Isaac’s belief in the power of artifacts and other fragments of reality to conjure up complex worlds of sensation lie in her childhood experiences. Her grandfather was an antiques dealer with an interest in furniture who frequently went on buying trips to Europe. The back part of his large house in Puebla, formerly the stable and carriage entrance, had been turned over to his business. Isaac, who remembers him as a kind of curator of collections, retains strong memories of the museum-like quality of his workshop with its collection of broken furniture, and bits and pieces of antiquities. These memories helped shape her own imaginative life as a child, and they survive in the elaborate environmental texture of her dreams today.
Images that appear in Isaac’s dreams, or in mental obsessions like the image of thousands of pieces of furniture that once haunted her, are captured in drawings and sought out in reality. She plays with materials and objects (often machines), stripping away their traditional meanings and refusing to be bound by conventions, whether “rules of the game” or functional applications. In Manipulation, a game’s checkerboard squares are erased, and the chessmen which share its surface with a jointed mannequin’s hand move arbitrarily. The stringed hand invents its own rules, neither evident nor fair, just as the machine parts in two pieces included in the Sydney Biennale in 1992 have ceased to “work.” In A Desert Sprouts, metallic bits and pieces taken from a 1930s adding machine germinate into an absurd forest of pronged implements that seems to grow out of a rough-hewn log. The piece called Industrial Art uses pieces salvaged from broken machines as the basis for a new “machine,” the uselessness of which is underscored by its having been more or less embalmed in an antique wooden case, like a display in an historical museum, or like the objects contained in Isaac’s grandfather’s workshop.
Isaac remembers her dreams, or at least those dream images which trigger strong feelings, and often goes in search of them. The process of translating from the imagined to the real, of giving substance to the phantasms of night, is also for her a process of transmuting pain and loneliness into art.
Like Mexico, with its rich, hermetic interweaving of indigenous, colonial, and contemporary iconographies, her work draws on multiple cultural traditions. Traces of haute couture and film culture appear in Rather Frivolous, with its celluloid collage of dated publicity photographs of movie stars spilling out of a small sewing machine onto a page of fashion advertising; references to Christian cults of martyrdom and salvation, evoked through the milagro and retablos of Mexican popular culture, are present in works like A Pianist; the artifacts of mysterious journeys, past and present, suffuse No. 8th Vertigo and other works. The sewing machine, like the other machines in Isaac’s work a metaphor for human activities, also appears in I Wish I Could Be a Singer (1989) where, under a portrait of Catherine of Austria, it becomes a witty reference to the automatic and repetitive motions of sewing, singing and, by implication at least, the public duties of royal life.
Isaac often mingles personal mementos –a piece of jewelry, a love letter– with historical artifacts; the result is a frisson of recognition as we confront the: relics of lives unknown, but nevertheless startlingly familiar. The preciosity, even pomposity of objects endowed with public and historical significance becomes an occasion for gentle satire in Pomp and Cire Perdue. Here a melange of political and military “medals” and ribbons fashioned from cigar rings, the tops of enameled tea tins, and the insignia of champagne bottles and corks,creates a witty send-up of those ubiquitous bronze public monuments and memorials created using the so-called “lost wax” technique.
Other images, like the zipper-lipped Madre acusada de ser madre (1994) and the photograph of film star Greta Garbo that appears atop an old fashioned manual typewriter in Dear Miss Garbo, retain associations with the artist’s own life. The “mother” of Isaac’s assemblage is both a self-portrait and an image of every mother who has ever confronted the moment when she recognizes her children as distinct individuals with minds of their own and is forced to keep her own counsel. There is a lament in the hands which reach to embrace the tears falling from a weeping heart.
Garbo on the other hand, that image of elusive femininity and complex emotional journeys, has played a different role in Isaac’s imaginative wanderings. The artist recalls that as a child growing up in Mexico City in the 1940s she was exposed to a rich mix of diplomats, intellectuals, cosmopolitans, artists and writers through her father, an amateur painter and journalist. Among his friends were Miguel Angel Asturias (recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964), whose poetic tribute (“…you will bloom fragile and hard…”) she took as a talisman; and Renato Leduc, a journalist who often discussed his wife, the English painter and writer Leonora Carrington. Determined to create a “passport” to magic lands, and impressed by stories about the daring Englishwoman who had, left her family to live with the Surrealists in France and New York before settling in Mexico in 1944, the young Isaac chose two images for her fictive document which seemed to signify connection to exotic distant worlds: an photograph of Greta Garbo and the name Leonora Carrington.
Years later, she met Carrington at the home of filmaker Luis Buñuel, and through her the eccentric English art collector and Surrealist patron, Edward James. There are signs of all three in her work: the dream-like ambiences of early Buñuel, the visionary narratives and cut-away worlds of Carrington paintings from the 1940s like Chiki Your Country and The House Opposite, the architectural fantasy that James created for himself deep in the Mexican jungle at Zilitla, near Tampico.
The work of both’ Carrington and Isaac also shows a strong imprint from their respective experiences in theater. Carrington’s play Penelope was staged by Alexandro Jodorowsky in 1957; in 1961, she designed costumes and masks for productions of The Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing. These were followed in 1962-63 by her own production of Penelope, and she has produced designs for painted furniture, jointed dolls, and carved masks, many of which reappear in her paintings. Isaac’s work in theater has included designs for Manolo Fabregas’s production of Gigi in Mexico City in 1974 and, somewhat later, Women, written and produced by Luis Buñuel’s son, Rafael, in Los Angeles in 1986. Refusing the hierarchical ordering of materials and media that dominates much art production, both artists have developed a synthetic vision out of a wide-ranging experimentation with materials, and both remain committed to the unconscious as a source of emotionally and psychologically charged images.
Isaac has always been interested in the intuitive sparks that fly between kindred souls. She credits her son Claudio, who has worked as a writer, painter, and film director, with having been her greatest influence. There has existed between them a rich exchange of images and ideas, a mirroring of the creative process, which often extends to his supplying titles for her works. With Claudio, as with Marquez, Carrington, and the other artists, writers, and filmakers with whom she has shared her creative life, Isaac has set about teasing the Marvelous out of everyday reality.
Whitney Chadwick San Francisco, July 1994 1. I would like to express my gratitude to Lucero Isaac for providing information about her work, and to the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe which supplied documentary material and illustrations. 2. Robert Littman, Lucero Isaac: Night People’s Theater, exhibition catalogue (Santa Fe: Gerald Peters Gallery, 1991).