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María Luz Bravo: Glimpse, Gathered

By Mauricio Alejo

Good artists are always foreigners. I don’t mean in regards to the soil they come from; rather in the ways in which they relate to reality. This is especially evident in the case of Mexico-born artist María Luz Bravo, whose debut solo exhibition in Washington, DC, titled Glimpse, Gathered, at Hamiltonian Artists, focuses on the uncanny nature of everyday objects through her alien gaze. Within the familiarity of her neighborhood, Bravo presents the audience with the eerie aura of abandoned objects, elevating their presence and dignifying their inherent humility.

Installation view of María Luz Bravo: Glimpse, Gathered, Hamiltonian Artists, March 25–April 22, 2023. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

Dislodging the wondrous from the trivial is not a minor feat, and she does it effortlessly, so much, she creates the illusion we were given material for pure visual contemplation. You can go about her work that way: Her images easily afford any inattentive glance while still delivering their otherworldly ether. It feels you can gloss over her images, like surfing from one to the other, but three to four images in, you start noticing you were not provided with a polished surface. There’s a friction that slows your pace. Something in each image anchors your attention. There’s a visual force around which every image organizes itself, creating a gravitational pull of its own.

It’s worth mentioning that I was already familiar with Bravo’s previous work.  While still residing in Mexico, Bravo produced a collection of images under the title Collateral Damage (2010–11). This was a series of landscapes documented at the border town of Ciudad Juárez, featuring facilities, private and public, in a state of abandonment. This project bears witness to the violence brought upon the border by drug trafficking, and escalating social disparities. The muted color motif of the images made them harmonious and unsettlingly quiet. Bravo presents us with the ominous aftermath of conflict by diffusing carnage and brutality to invisibility. This palpable sense of alienation permeates Bravo’s captured subject matter.

For Glimpse Gathered, this atmosphere of alienation persists but also, unbeknown to the casual viewer, the subject matter of the border comes along. You might think you’re making your way through a landscape of unproblematic serendipity; but concealed beneath the serenity of the images and videos, there’s tension: It’s the violent relationship well hidden throughout history, in the divide between nature and civilization, private and public, center and the periphery.

If anything, like an impassive onlooker, Bravo’s artistic endeavor, has the ability to offer images as experience, not as judgments.

The exhibition opens with a photograph of a crooked log intersecting a PVC pipe protruding from a brick wall Untitled 1 (2023). Both objects conform to each other’s twists and turns, mimicking each other, forming an improbable sculpture. The pipe and background are white while the log and foreground are brown. In this image, the manmade and the natural are sharply divided both ways: visually and symbolically.

Untitled 1, 2023, archival pigment print on cotton rag, 36 × 27 inches. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

In another image, Untitled 22 (2023), a tree stump pierces a wooden fence. Any fence inherently is a border, and any probing could constitute an invasion. On the exposed surface of the stump’s amputated limb, that oval with concentric circles mesmerizing the viewer is exactly where the evidence of violence inflicted upon nature resides.

Everywhere you look, we see nature’s tumultuous encounter with the artificial. The green fluorescent paper on the sidewalk marks the boundary right between the garden and pavement. The cerulean spray paint effacing the leaves transforms the ground into an ambivalent sky. Airplane trails in the sky become shooting stems from the shrub below. There’s a diptych that proposes the pavement as canvas, equating a torn-apart flower with an accidental drip painting.

Bravo’s images evoke a postapocalyptic world devoid of human presence. Her dreamlike scenes emerge from the ambiguous arrangement of the ordinary, hinting at intangible notions beyond the landscape of everyday encounters. The sole image featuring a person is partial: Untitled 21 (2023) presents a first-person shot of an individual lightly pinching a leaf by its stem. The hand is intentionally out of focus, not quite asserting the subject’s substantiality. In this body of work, there is neither cynicism nor gratuitous hope.

Installation view of María Luz Bravo: Glimpse, Gathered, Hamiltonian Artists, March 25–April 22, 2023. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

Bravo’s contemplation extends to reflect upon the act of capture itself. The video Untitled 31 (2023) portrays two birds perched on a power line. The piece lacks narrative progression, but the scene seems to have been taken through a window on a rainy day, and time serves as a means to contemplate the distortions on the image every time a raindrop drips down the glass. While the warping of the image acknowledges the mediation between reality and its depiction, it also offers a contemplative view of unstable reality. On a much more basic level, this visual artifact, the watery vision, is the emotionally loaded signifier that delivers the image intense pathos.

Installation view of María Luz Bravo: Glimpse, Gathered, Hamiltonian Artists, March 25–April 22, 2023. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

Bravo’s work invites us to experience not only with our eyes but also with our bodies. The unframed photographs directly affixed to the walls and floor, some bent, make us conscious of the tangible nature of the prints. The varying heights at which they hang or lie emphasize the audience’s awareness of their own bodies. Bravo prompts us to consider the materiality of the images and to be mindful of our spatial relationship to them. We must be fully present.

Installation view of María Luz Bravo: Glimpse, Gathered, Hamiltonian Artists, March 25–April 22, 2023. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

The installation of the show encourages viewers to wander and inhabit the artist’s perspective. With an acute awareness of our own bodies, we find ourselves drawn to an unlit room—the final room—where darkness provides us with the comfortable shelter of invisibility. There, we encounter various houses projected in wall-sized videos. Three projections side-by-side slowly fade in and out, revealing different homes. These houses appear distant, mostly depicted during the night or twilight. Lights are on, but the inhabitants are absent. In this screening space, a shift occurs: Bravo imparts a foreign view upon the audience as they intrude, breaching the boundaries of privacy. Without an invitation, we become outsiders, witnessing only the movements on each house’s television screen. As we search for human presence with our gaze, we resemble the stump in Untitled 22: amputated, yet still burdened with the weight of intrusion.

Untitled 37, 2023, multichannel video installation. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

María Luz Bravo captures the ineffable sense of alienation within the material mundane. The distant territory she comfortably inhabits mirrors our own state of distracted minds, where the mundane resides. The violent relationships inherent in the unnatural calm of everyday objects find a connection with the growing cultural concern for the ecosystem and the environment. From her state of alienation, Bravo offers a gift: a glimpse into what it feels like to be a foreigner in one’s own homeland.

Mauricio Alejo is an artist and writer.

Past Exhibition

Glimpse, Gathered

March 25–April 22, 2023

Amid her daily walks through the ubiquitous back alleys and sidewalks of Northwest DC, María Luz Bravo’s wandering gaze locates everyday artifacts that—when captured and…