A nearly year-long collaboration with my friend Maria Liebana culminated in a conversation earlier this month, when we discussed our favorite birthday cakes, growing older, and her position as a female Latinx artist living and working in Queens. I started working with Maria last year, when she asked for my help applying for a new works grant from the Queens Council on the Arts to put together a solo show at Local Project in Long Island City, a DIY artist and community space. Maria won the grant, and with the funding put on ¿Tres Marias Donde se Fue mi Felizidad?/Three Marias: Where Did My Happiness Go?
The artist talk was framed by the question: What does success look like, and is it attainable for a second-generation Latinx artist working in America’s financial capital? Conventional signifiers of success for a woman and an artist - motherhood, recognition in her career, economic stability - may not figure into Maria’s ultimate feelings of happiness, and if they don’t, where does she look to find them? During our conversation, Maria and I discussed traditional notions of objectivity and the trustworthiness of perception. The life-size sculptures and ceramic self-portraits installed in the gallery represent her identity as a female artist of color, and we talked about how society shapes her awareness of herself and her value in a capitalist patriarchy.
Las Tres Marias - timekeeping stars in Orion’s belt - are represented by three mixed-media paper-mache-and-concrete rainbow sculptures. Maria’s previous projects in the rainbow series consist of mixed-media work on panels, and these new works concluded her investigation of rainbows as a symbol of nostalgia, prosperity, and identity as they relate to the American dream.
Rainbows are visual phenomena that disappear at the slightest disturbance of the light source. Is something lost, then, when they are depicted in concrete? Moreover, are they inherently less valuable when they are obscured by found materials and plaster? Maria and I talked about how, at first glance, these sculptures seem to celebrate a personal milestone or marker. But on closer inspection they undermine these traditional symbols of success with excessive ornamentation in muted tones. And Maria shared that the paper-mache sculptures are filled with crumpled fashion advertising and pages from arts magazines.
Maria also created works in hand-molded ceramic that more fully reveal her dissatisfaction with her current position as a female artist of color working in New York City. She described the references behind three ceramic self-portraits in the style of Rococo and Renaissance reclining nudes, and we discussed how they are undercut by markers of contemporary consumerist society. And Maria also explained how four Twomblyesque cakes in ceramic and onyx glaze are a move in a different, more somber artistic direction for her.
Maria and I ended the conversation with a discussion about Local Project, where she currently works in a rented studio space. Local Project is a female-run nonprofit arts organization committed to artists of diverse backgrounds and education levels as well as a strong record of activism. Something we had talked about when Maria applied for the grant is that LP and the artists it serves are a reflection of the current trends of inequality in Long Island City, a traditionally industrial neighborhood that is now rapidly gentrifying. As a female artist of color who lives and works in Queens, Maria can be seen as disrupting these trends and reclaiming them for historically marginalized voices.
I’ve continued thinking about how to carve out spaces for marginalized voices in Queens, especially now that Amazon is moving its second headquarters to a location that was reserved for low-income housing in Long Island City. It feels even more important than ever that Local Project holds space for artists fighting to be heard in a neighborhood whose public officials may not be listening.