Margarita Paksa

Un mundo revuelto

“I asked myself, if after the events of May '68, if I had had difficulties continuing with my work, and I had to answer that I did. I had an ethical problem: did it make sense to express myself with minimalism in the face of the deep revolts that the world was experiencing and the hunger and misery prevailing in our country?”

With its roots in minimalist sculpture, the work of Margarita Paksa (b. 1933) is space-aware: organized around the experience of a viewer, it investigates not only the relationship between object and perception, but also the processes by which abstract meaning is encoded in concrete form. A career-long preoccupation with language, beginning in 1966, deepened this exploration of how meaning is produced and abstracted through text. Often working in series, Paksa developed methods that were variously pointed, oblique, and densely-layered, though they share a committed critical stance, demonstrating through careful analyses of text and typography that language, as an abstraction, is neither neutral nor transparent.

By 1976, as Paksa’s series Escrituras secretas attests, the encoding of messages had become not merely a semiotic problem, but also a politicized one. Plotted along colorful grids of painted knobs or wheels, her barely-perceptible texts only become legible by distinguishing the solid field of background knobs from the lines formed around (or on top of) them, gesturing to geometric abstraction’s interplay between space and form. The pure spectral colors and industrial materials organize not protest slogans or cries of resistance but a sense of muffled exasperation, of resignation to the quiet denial of a suppressive culture of “no.”[1] Highlighting the distortion of words from their former meanings, Paksa’s texts are secret notes to herself, subjective feelings registered but subtly concealed by the “absolute reality” of the formalist grid.

Ojos ciegos, a series from the following year, again relies on structure – this time the constructivist grid and symbolic alphabet of Joaquín Torres García – to organize a vocabulary of interchangeable elements: angry and distressed faces, clenched fists and extended hands, dislocated breasts, televisions, toothbrushes, traffic lights, phallic warheads. Each functions as a discrete object and, when arranged on the page like words in a sentence, as a part of a fragmentary, collaged enunciation, a vision more terrible than the sum of its everyday parts.

In Dibujos Rorschach (1983), Paksa again layers the disconnected images that commingle behind closed eyes, this time using metaphor to explore the structure of the unconscious. Maps – seemingly inverted, in the spirit of Torres García – attempt to chart this indecipherable space with numbers and arrows. Outlines and notes seem to refer to real geography (the South American continent, the South Pole, and the Islas Malvinas), the inkblots of Rorschach’s test (particularly the second card), and their common interpretations (butterflies, blood stains, bears). War planes and labial forms allude to the test’s diagnosis of how subjects manage physical harm and sexual response. The mixing of morphologies suggests the psychoanalytic concept of condensation, of an image or memory transferring its charge to another idea. If the unconscious is structured like a language, as Lacan contended, Paksa reveals the unstable processes by which that language takes shape. Like words, ambiguous form can distort to embody the fears and anxieties that inhabit the territory of the unconscious.

Paksa’s engagement with typography reflects a primary through-line of her work: a questioning of the currents of power that shape the very materiality of language. Neon sculptures such as El arte ha muerto, viva el arte (1979) appropriate the visual vocabulary of consumerism to highlight advertising’s banal distortion of language, while the text-collages of the series La Guerra de Irak (2006) appropriate the language of reportage – only partially legible in Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew symbols – to probe the many layers of abstraction occurring not only through confrontation and cultural misunderstanding, but also through violence that is committed virtually and at a distance. Her parallel interests in minimalist simplicity of form and invisible processes of encoding come together in Pisa Fibonacci II (2010), another neon work that builds its utopian geometry from the Fibonacci sequence – a language of another kind – common in nature. Returning to the sculptural austerity of her early career, works such as Pisa Fibonacci or Avance urbano (1996) do not slip into pure self-referentiality. They continue to be driven by the unique poetic tension – between ethics and aesthetics, structure and ambiguity, materiality and metaphor – that defines the work of Margarita Paksa.

Julia Detchon

Doctoral candidate in Art History at the Center for Latin American Visual Studies, The University of Texas at Austin.

[1] One says, “it’s late.” Another says, “No.” In an interview with Laura Buccellato, Paksa recalled, “They asked me why and I answered that the Beatles had imposed saying “yes,” and in our society, we had to say “no” to many things. They were political, social, intimate things, too.” See Margarita Paksa (Buenos, Aires: Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, 2012).