Apr 14, 2023

What This Up

You can practically smell the sugar walking into the gallery.

The pink-frosted canvas suggests a Sweet 16 birthday cake, with three figures gathered around a Nike Jordan hightop — a Telfar bag, iced grande drink and cellphone within reach — and actual false eyelashes and jeweled acrylic nails collaged onto the surface.

But upon further inspection, one notices the visitation of an angel, and the references to all-holy consumerism. Yvette Mayorga's "The Reenactment With Nike Air Jordans After the Last Supper" is more than it seems.

"The nontraditional is really what gets me excited about making work," said the emerging multidisciplinary artist, who started her practice referencing confectionary labor by using actual food, until she realized the limited shelf life. She now uses confectionary piping cones with hundreds of different tips to apply textural pink acrylic paint to her canvases, creating contemporary narratives about gender, immigration, consumerism and belonging.

Mayorga, 31, has opened her first solo show, "Yvette Mayorga: What a Time to Be" at Crystal Bridges Museum‘s conceptual offshoot, The Momentary, with 21 new paintings and 16 sculptures on view through May 12. The building is a converted Kraft cheese factory in Walmart country, Bentonville, Arkansas, a place that reminds Mayorga of her working class upbringing in Moline, Illinois, home of John Deere & Co.

She is the daughter of immigrants from Jalisco, Mexico, who first landed in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother, Maria, was a baker at Marshall Field's department store, then gave it up to stay at home with the five kids when the family moved to Moline. Her father, Thomas, was a janitor at night, and worked 23 years by day at Tyson Foods, which is based in Northwest Arkansas, not far from Bentonville.

"The Catholic Church was my first art museum," said Mayorga, who traces her baroque style to the gilded interiors and European-style portraiture.

She never visited an actual museum until age 18. But her first installation, she likes to say, was her teenage bedroom, which she has reproduced for her solo show as the installation piece, "Teenage Bedroom After 15." It features a piped pink painted bed with gilded bedspread, piped pink Hello Kitty wallpaper, nightstand, backpack, even a piped pink working digital alarm clock. "Most of the objects are the same but heightened, and within the wallpaper there are references to European painting and to surveillance," she said.

In college, Mayorga studied painting and anthropology, focusing on border theory, which led to her interest in incorporating her family's history into her work.

"What is painful is what didn't continue after migration, the craft histories that are deeply rooted in my family," she said, explaining how the ixtle plant fiber weaving heritage from her father's side of the family influenced "Palma 1," a googly eyed, sneaker-wearing, fiberglass character sculpture made from casting the stiff plant traditionally used to weave everything from bags to umbrellas.

"Being an artist is such a privilege in itself, that it was something they couldn't even afford to think about," said Mayorga, who holds an MFA in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "It was about coming here and working for our family and really about surviving.…So I’m really interested in bringing this Imagined legacy in my work, to claim our lineage and craft, as being that I come from a line of artists that never call themselves that."

Having pink as her palette is charged. "It's a commentary on how these colors and aesthetics place gender onto young girls," she explained, adding that the Barbie cars, cell phones, sneakers, false eyelashes and acrylic nails in her work represent the American Dream. At the same time, she's using the color to talk about harder subjects.

An ongoing installation project called "Monuments of the Forgotten," incorporating donated shoes decorated with plaster, acrylic paste and frosting, references border crossings. Look closer at some of the acrylic nails in her work and they spell out "F-ICE."

"The fact that the border wall is still being built currently, that there is a hold and grasp on women's bodies and the overturning of Roe v Wade…for me, all of these issues are woven together and really a part of a whole," she said.

Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the DePaul Art Museum, El Museo del Barrio, the John D. and Catherine T. MacCarthur Foundation and the New Mexico University Art Museum. Next up, she's working on a work for Chicago's O’Hare International Airport's Terminal 5 public art project. In 2023, she also has a residency at Ceramica Suro in Guadalajara, Mexico, and another solo show at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut opening in September.

Although she's never done any collaborations, she's open. "It would be super cool to see the shoes become wearable, because I always get a lot of messages from people asking if I would pipe their Jordans," she laughed. "It's just another layer that makes my work accessible."

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