Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The use of memory (Carla Rippey)

The artist and printmaker Carla Rippey is a native of Kansas City who has lived and worked principally in Mexico since the 1970s, long enough that she has probably come to be more generally regarded as a Mexican artist rather than as an American one, though in fact she is both. Unlike many other American expatriate artists, she has put down permanent roots in Mexico and raised two sons there, and the bulk of her exhibitions have been in Mexican galleries and museums. She seems to be less well known in the US; the few monographs and exhibition catalogs devoted to her work — difficult but not impossible to find here — have been issued by Mexican publishers and museums. The one that I've been able to examine to date was published in 1994, and bears the title El uso de la memoria, which also happens to be the title of her comprehensive (and much more up to date) bilingual blog, an excellent starting point for those who might be interested in her work.

Rippey works in a range of media and with a variety of found materials, especially photographs. In some cases she creates drawings or paintings based on individual photos or assemblages of photos she has found at flea markets or in popular periodicals; at other times she subjects the photos themselves, or reproductions of them, to a variety of overlays and modifications, staining them or sewing thread through their surfaces, for instance. There is a political or feminist edge to many of her images, but the overriding theme is how people are remembered or forgotten or altered over the course of time. The sense of impermanence her work produces echoes her own history as a migrant, one who remembers, moreover, that her ancestors too were immigrants from elsewhere, and who knows that possession of place as of life is illusory and fleeting. Her use of photographs serves to underline the ways in which what we see before us, apparently solid, is subject to being transformed into an image, a two-dimensional ghost that has lost its original vital presence but which, as a memory trace, acquires its own afterlife.
Among her recent projects is a treatment of an old black and white photograph of an ornate building, either in ruins or in the process of construction. Rippey has printed the image onto the cover of what appears to be a handmade paper box. When the box is opened it reveals another copy of the image, printed on a much larger sheet of either cloth or paper and folded or bunched up inside the box. The effect is both striking and disconcerting; the building, once so monumental, has become a mere wisp, a thin tissue that could be folded into a pocket or blown away by the wind.

Rippey was a friend of the late Roberto Bolaño, a writer who was himself a multiple migrant, and who reportedly portrayed her in the guise of the minor character of Catalina O'Hara in his novel The Savage Detectives. Both were fascinated by the femicidios of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the string of largely unsolved killings that since 1993 have taken the lives of hundreds of Mexican women in the vicinity of that troubled border city. Marcela Valdes's excellent article in the Nation (December 8, 2008), which not coincidentally is illustrated by Rippey, is an indispensable source regarding both the Juárez killings and Bolaño's posthumously published masterpiece 2666, which is partly based on them. The section of 2666 that recounts the murders — often in harrowing detail — has much the same disconcerting effect as Rippey's art, as Bolaño's fictionalized retelling simultaneously flattens the actual victims into two dimensions and indelibly preserves an unsettling memory of them that would otherwise have been entirely lost.

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