Thursday, July 30, 2009

A visit with Becky Guttin

Today I had the chance to meet with Becky Guttin at her studio in San Diego. Having just renovated it, she was in the midst of organizing her space in an industrial park, that, with open doors, is filled with natural light and an array of materials, sculptures, photographs, pieces at various stages of progress and a sitting area.

The warm and energetic artist is originally from DF, Mexico, and left with her family after a series of break ins and threatening incidents convinced her that it was time to join her parents in San Diego. She has participated in several international biennials, has her work included in several museum's permanent collections, and exhibited her art around the world.

I asked her about her art and how moving to the U.S. had affected it. I was interested in knowing whether she was always conscious of the nearby border.

In response, she pointed to a small sculpture, a series of metates on a piece of varnished wood, one filled with bits of red tortilla, another with green tortilla and the last one with little metal scraps.

"My pieces are all autobiographical, they are what I experience, what I know, what I feel. When I was living in Mexico, we always have tortillas and I never saw a tortilla in another color than a natural color. Then I was in the U.S. and I saw green tortillas near Saint Patrick's day and red on Valentine's Day, and I kept seeing colored tortillas; I even saw purple at one time.

"Before I start to work, I need to smell and touch and feel this place that I live in and I was looking at all these elements and I decided to make this piece with original metates but with green and red tortillas. I wanted to keep the original elements but with something never in all my life do I see in Mexico.

"In Mexico, a woman makes mesa by hand, but here, it is industrial, so I put in the metal to show the different process. So you see, this piece, it is about migration, about how here in the U.S. you take things and change them, make them something else. I included another element," and she pointed to several bronzed twigs and seed pods that lay on the tablets between the metates, "I wanted to take something natural and make it cold and unnatural."

For Guttin, the border is a nearby contrast of cultures, and with her immigration experience she often sees things that she knew of in Mexico, and then finds them in San Diego with the same fundamental function, but the material changed. She plays with the natural and industrial contrast often in her work, and as she shows me around her studio, her understanding of the two neighboring countries becomes clear. The interesting thing is that her interpretation lacks judgement, that as she weaves together metal and fiber, the natural and industrial elements, she seems to offer a both a clear insight into the character of both countries while allowing for the two to intermingle but never declares that one way is right and the other wrong.

She showed me her "Encyclopedias" next, a series of book shapes made out of crushed metal pipes that are mounted on the wall, orientated as they would be if they were books on a shelf. In the center of each "book," is a space filled by one, two or three sacates, a small bundle of roots folded in half and held around the center with a tie that are used to scrub dishes.

"I rescued from my culture the elements that I remember, but that don't exist here, because everything has become the same. What we use here to scrub with are metal bundles and I didn't want to forget the sacates, that have the same use, but are natural so I use the contrast of the natural with industrial.

"And these, here, I take cocotes, natural plant and then I fuse the inside of it with telephone cable so that again, there is the closeness and contrast of the natural with the industrial."

These gourds are among my favorite pieces of her that I've seen. She takes the dried gourds and slices them so that pieces peel away, almost as if they are flowering, and then fuses metal to the inside, with what looks like a thick layer of beading. Some she mounts on stands, others are large sculptures, taller than she. With the fusion of natural and unnatural, the gourds and metal become something quite different than they were before, even though they retain all their original qualities, much in the way that the contrast and contact of two cultures at the border create something else entirely.

As she talks about the contrast at the border, the theme of home/house or hogar/casa rises, as is natural for any immigrant. "I think about where is my house, what is my home? Is it where I was born, where I plant a tree, where I was educated or raised? Is it where I live today, where my children were born?

"Like me, I am in American today, and there is the same sky above, and you take where you are with you: you are what you are. You carry your culture with you, but what do you carry with you when you leave? you have a suitcase, but what do you take with you?"

She takes me upstairs, to pull a heavy metal box off of a shelf, which originally held her father's paints. "What do you take when you leave? Its horrible, heavy, but I thought, I'm taking this with me. I wouldn't leave this behind." She blows the dust off and then opens it up. Inside she has placed letters and photos; a blouse; telegrams; her Grandmother's address book; her mother's baby booties and any other sentimental object of her family that she wouldn't give up, that she packed and took with her to the U.S.

She pulls another box off of a shelf, this time a beautifully crafted wood box, stained a deep brown. Inside it contains a woven husk mat, punctured with pins that poke straight up. "It is Always Painful," (pictured above) is Guttin's meditation on the difficulties and pain of being a migrant. "Inside, this is a metate, it covers floors in poor areas in Mexico. People do everything they do on them. People sleep, eat on them, children make their homework on them; this is where they make love. But this piece, it is all pins and everything you do there, is painful. It is because it is not easy to move, it is always painful."

In this carefully wrought piece, the simplicity of it reveals the hardship of leaving behind everything you know to go towards an ever unceratain and unstable future. For me, I saw depth of what people risk when they leave their home to try their luck elsewhere.

I mention this, and Guttin replies, "I don't want to send a message--not consciously, I do what I feel, I make what I need to, and whatever people see in them, they do." Near us, in the upstairs loft where Guttin stores many of her older pieces hang several woven sacks, the ones used to package rice. These, though, havel shiny metal strips woven into them. Again, they are the juxtaposition of plant fibers and industrially wrought metal. Guttin leads me back downstairs, to where a photograph hangs on the wall. It is a picture of these same sacks, but on one side, a sack without any metal woven through, the folds of the casually drapped sack resembling hilly terrain. The folds transition across the photograph into sack heavily woven with metal, with terrain in the middle that has some metal woven through. On the photograph, Guttin had mounted small houses that she had made out of metal. On the side with no metal, they have corroded, and are haphazardly placed, while across the way, the houses are shiny and neatly lined up in rows. It is here depiction of the border, but "I am not saying what is nice or not, it is a free lecture [to be interpreted however one wants]. I just do what I need to express, and whatever people can read into it, they can."


becky guttin's website:

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