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Voyages through absence and presence.

"What remains compelling in Liliana Porter's work is the sense of frailty, of ephemerality and transience in the constitution of her images and subjects. Spare surfaces across which fragments, incidental objects, a thin thread, an open book, a broken vessel, miniature figures or images torn from the pages of Western art are strewn as if debris, ruins or found objects. These images might be called survivors, yet by virtue of their association with other objects and images, or through a placement within spaces, surfaces and textures, they gain a resonance, reflecting back in the light of others as fields of intensities in the face of loss."

It is that constant tension between reality and image that holds the key to the works of Argentine painter and printmaker, Liliana Porter. Born in Buenos Aires in 1941, Porter has lived in New York since 1964. "What I question in all my work is whether what we call real is more real than its image or its idea," says Porter. She believes that looking at her work is "like seeing a movie with the lights on ... the viewer is unable to surrender himself completely to the illusionary space because he is aware of that other side of reality."

This apparently simple concept conceals a complex reinterpretation of our surroundings, which is particularly evident in the artist's latest works. In these, Porter uses collage, photography and assemblages of elements together with more traditional techniques, "piling layers of reality one on top of another." Indeed, her approach to her craft resembles that of the renowned writer, Jorge Luis Borges. Just as Borges illuminates the art of non-writing (as when the storyteller creates through omission), Porter creates presence in negative space. She even shares Borges' artistic sense of irony, admitting that his device of interrupting the narrative to comment on the fact that he is writing can be compared to her frequent references to the tools of the painter. Sometimes these tools even appear physically on the surface of her work.

Critics have pointed out that Porter's work is both disturbing and perverse in the way it reveals to the viewers the illusion or trap they have fallen into. That game, which tautens the powers of perception, is not just typical of Borges, but of the Argentine nature in general. "In this sense," says Porter, "I think my painting is very Argentine."

Displaying regional as well as universal influences, Porter's art mirrors the cultural duality of her life: her training in Latin America and her experience in the United States. At the age of 12 she enrolled in the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires, and a few years later travelled to Mexico to study at the Universidad Iberoamericano. When she was only 17, she had her first one-woman show in Mexico City's Proteo Gallery. Porter remembers that at that time her palette was influenced by the painters she most admired, such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. Although the objects she painted were recognizably Mexican, the themes of this period reflect a nostalgia for her native Buenos Aires.

In 1964 Porter came to New York for a visit and decided to stay. The revolutionary New York School of pop and minimalist artists was then in full bloom. Porter thrived in this dynamic atmosphere. Her first prints, exhibited in the van Bovenkamp Gallery, were based on a Goya subject, the Duchess of Alba, but transferred to a New York context: "The Duchess of Alba in McDougal Street," "The Duchess in the D Train," "The Pop Duchess of Alba," and others. During this period she produced her well-known work, "Fragment of a Multitude," a series inspired by the impact of the city.

With two other Latin American artists, Porter founded the New York Graphic Workshop, an experimental collective which promoted the concept of FANDSO - Free, Assemblable, Non-Functional, Disposable, Serial Object - and the de-sacralizing of art as museum objects. While in the Workshop, Porter created environmental works with non-traditional media. The ephemeral "postal exhibitions" were produced on offset with the idea that they would have the same brief life-span as a letter. "The ideological exchanges in the group and the experience of teaching on non-traditional bases changed not only my vision of printmaking, but my outlook vis-a-vis the problem of creation in general," says Porter. The famous 1970 Information Show of New York's Museum of Modern Art included works produced by the Graphic Workshop.

After this process of experimentation with new materials and methods, i.e., three-dimensional works printed on plastic, Porter simplified her images, adopting the concept that objective reality does not exist. "There is only our relationship to things," she remarks. With images that extend beyond the boundaries of the frame, Porter establishes a world in which "the viewer can share these symbols and add a personal interpretation." Since all her work underscores the ambiguous, an image may pass from banality to profundity, from the objective to the poetic.

In 1968, at the University of Pennsylvania, Porter began working in photo-etching. She published a book entitled Wrinkle, which consisted of 10 black and white photo-etchings showing a piece of paper as it gradually wrinkles. The following year she began to work with shadows, a recurring theme in her work. "The idea was something like creating absences, that is, as if defining reality by what it is not," Porter says now. While at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in 1969, she painted strikingly realistic shadows of people on the walls. "When the exhibition opened, these shadows blended with those of the many spectators, and the wall was read as blank. When there were few people it was strange, because the shadows created presences that were actually absences," recalls the artist.

In 1972 Porter transferred her experience of the Workshop to Lucca, Italy, where she founded a summer printmaking school and exhibited at the Diagramma Gallery in Milan. In this European phase (interrupted with trips to New York), the fine line between illusion and reality that permeates her work became even more apparent. When the Museum of Modern Art of New York invited her to show in 1973, Porter presented a work made by a method never used before by any contemporary printmaker: serigraph printed directly on the wall and combined with real objects. A nail in the wall seemed real, for example, but was only an image joined by a real thread to a nail hammered into the floor. This unusual technique exhibits the unmistakable use of applied semiotics: for the shadow of a nail to seem real it is enough to place it next to a real nail.

In her prints exhibited in Basel in 1974 (and the following year in Paris), Porter used her own hand as a point of departure: a line drawn on its skin was extended to a piece of paper and then continued in another medium, thus emphasizing the ever-changing dimensions of reality and perception. During this stage, Porter integrated elements of the works of painters such as Morandi, Liechtenstein, Hockney and Magritte, with classic still-life objects such as a pitcher, a lemon, an apple or a book. But in her compositions, the reality of these everyday objects is provisional.

In this creative mix, fantasies and childhood events play an important role: boats, wooden horses, dolls, pyramids, slips of paper, are painted or printed in serigraphy or pasted directly onto a clean surface. Porter has also used Lewis Carroll's book Alice in Wonderland, since the themes parallel her own vision; mirrors, icons and fragmented images are all part of her repertoire.

By the time she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1980, Porter was exhibiting from Canada to Argentina. Her constant exploration of new idioms has led her to a technical mastery that few artist of her generation can equal. However, Porter asserts that technique is only "a vehicle that allows the idea to be communicated, never an end in itself," adding that "technique without good ideas is not worth anything."

Referring to her Latin American heritage, Porter explains that "people don't seem to be able to see a Latin American artist as such without the label." She feels strongly that "labels are used only for minorities." Nevertheless, she agrees that her works do reflect a Latin American sensibility, but of the Southern Cone, where European immigration was a major force.

In 1991 Porter mounted an important retrospective in Buenos Aires, sponsored by the San Telmo Foundation, which travelled to El Museo de Artes Visuales in Montevideo, Uruguay. And in early 1992 the Bronx Museum of Art gave her another extensive retrospective which included one hundred works spanning from 1968 to 1991. This show will be presented in the Archer Huntington Gallery in Austin, Texas, in January, 1993. Porter will also exhibit next year at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in New York's SoHo.

The recent acquisition of one of her works by the Metropolitan Museum of Art capped a career distinguished by numerous international awards. Porter's works are now on display in museums throughout Latin America, Europe and the United States. But international fame has not distorted what she regards as the American roots of her aesthetic concern, nor has it affected the simplicity and grace with which she speaks about her art. For Porter, the fabric or paper upon which she paints or prints is "a territory where the things of the memory are." As in Alice in Wonderland, "things are neither entirely real nor illusory."

When asked about this blurred borderline between fact and fiction, Porter replies with the same whimsical quality that characterizes her art. "When you look at my work I hope that you experience the sensation Borges described as the threshold of a revelation'."

Rodolfo Windhausen is an Argentine journalist living in New York, who writes about art for publications in the United States and Latin America.
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Author:Windhausen, Rodolfo
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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