Martine Gutierrez, Indigenous Woman @Ryan Lee

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 color and black and white photographs, variously framed/unframed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller back gallery. All of the works are c-prints (some mounted on Sintra), made in 2018. Physical sizes range from roughly 17×11 to 90×60 inches, and all of the prints are available in editions of 8. The show also includes a video display containing footage of daytime markets in Guatemala. (Installation shots below.)

An artist’s book/magazine entitled Indigenous Woman has been published by the artist/gallery to accompany the exhibit. Softcover, 124 pages, sized roughly 17×11 inches. Unsigned/unnumbered versions are available, as is a special edition which includes a digital c-print of the cover (in an edition of 50). A billboard by the artist has also been installed in the gallery’s street facing windows.

Comments/Context: There is something quietly thrilling about watching a young artist take chances. Instead of walking on the safer straightforward path, making work that looks like the other stuff that follows the right trends or sells well, he or she steps out on the dangerous highwire, ambitiously trying something new, knowing full well that the whole thing could (and might) come crashing down in an instant.

Martine Gutierrez’ project Indigenous Woman is just this kind of bold artistic risk. At its core, it is centered on the photographer’s effort to be seen – as a transwoman, as a woman of Mayan Indian heritage, and more broadly, as a Latinx artist. Her approach takes the framework and aesthetic motifs of a fashion magazine as a template, and then systematically redefines and upends those structures, placing herself (as an outsider) inside those familiar tropes. This gallery show offers samples from no less than five bodies of work made in the last year, and then collects these separate projects into a larger artist’s book that mimics the look and feel of many well known magazines, with a stylized cover reminiscent of Interview. Like any fashion rag, it has various features and stories on big pages, and is interspersed with lots of eye catching ads. What’s different here is that every single stylized look and design element in the publication has been meticulously controlled by Gutierrez, using herself as the featured model. When you step back to consider the scale and scope of the artistic effort that was required to put together Indigenous Woman, it’s hard not to be mightily impressed.

The “Neo-Indeo” feature uses white Avedon-style backdrops to isolate full length models (all Gutierrez) in complicated looks. In contrast to the spreads we are used to seeing, all of these brash clothing combinations have been constructed from traditional Mayan textiles and garments from Guatemala. Gutierrez has a flair for making embroidered skirts, woven belts, shawls, shoulder bags, and market sandals look effortlessly cool, mixing colors and patterns with abandon. And while some Versace stilettos and vintage disco shoes help out a bit, Gutierrez makes holding a box of bananas, wielding a machete, or posing with ears of corn or coconuts in her mom’s handmade macrame dress look surprisingly fabulous. By embracing the physical trappings and symbols of her heritage, she has invented a style that celebrates her past while still feeling fresh and modern, without falling into the traps of kitsch or ethnic mockery.

The “Body En Thrall” series channels the sultry glamour of 1980s Calvin Klein ads, with sculpted bodies lounging by swimming pools or twisted into burnished skin embraces. Gutierrez actively plays with her own male/female duality in many of the images, following different modes of attraction and seduction. The twist is that she is the only live human in the shoot – all the rest of the players are mannequins, so the passion between bodies is eerily manufactured. Once again the styling and image composition is spot on, from the monochrome palette of bright whites and shiny blacks to the perfection of the sleek bodies posed in dreamy partially-clothed languor. By inserting herself as a transwoman into this hyper-sexualized setup, she broadens the range of desires depicted, including layered pairings and combinations that challenge the dominance of the straight attraction found in the pages of typical fashion magazines.

Two other features move in closer, using seated head shots as the foundation for smart improvisation. In “Demons”, Gutierrez styles herself as various Aztec, Mayan, and Yoruba deities, choosing gods and goddesses who variously represent beauty, multiple genders, homoeroticism, transvestism, sexual vices, the underworld, fertility, and the protection of women. Her creations are wildly expressive and elaborate, using hair, makeup, jewelry, and other accessories to build up larger-than-life non-binary personas with twisting piles of braided hair and penetrating stares. And in “Masking”, Gutierrez recalls Irving Penn’s makeup still lifes, where faces are covered with unexpectedly bold combinations of natural fruits and vegetables. In these over-the-top constructions, individuality and national heritage come through in face mask treatments made from Vietnamese dragon fruit, Sri Lankan cinnamon, Mayan clay, Guatemalan plantain, Nigerian snake plant, Peruvian serrano chili pepper, Colombian hydrangea, and Ghanian cayenne powder, among many other unlikely ingredients. In setups that verge on the slyly comic, beauty is drawn from returning to the natural foods of our homelands, celebrating exuberant individuality rather than one-size-fits-all conformity.

Likely the most amplified works in the show/magazine are part of the “Queer Rage” series. As a young person, Gutierrez used fashion as a way to formulate her identity, saying that “out there in the real world dressing loud was as much my weapon as it was my protection.” The images in this feature push fashion mashup to the extreme, mixing couture items with flea market finds, cheap fast fashion pieces with vintage treasures, and traditional Guatemalan fabrics with designer accessories; the densely packed looks even take advantage of the opportunity to add Photoshopped elements into the styling and surrounding decor, further extending the scenarios into the realm of extravagance. Her head-to-toe wildness is full of inspired mixing and matching, drawing elements from all over into an eclectic but somehow personal statement. Once again, these images are staged like any number of edgy fashion shoots, with Gutierrez posing in a tire repair shop, among cacti, in botanical gardens, and in a dry swimming pool, the photographs ultimately placing her own eccentric personas within a Vogue-style context.

In between the features, Gutierrez has inserted a number of one-off fake ads, carefully mimicking the look of spreads featuring perfume, jewelry, sunglasses, jeans, lipsticks, and various beauty products. Each one has an incisive edge of parody or caricature, from the Caliente shoes placed in a microwave and the Del’ Estrogen No. 6 perfume, to the Cover Girl ad in multiple languages with the tagline “Maybe She’s Born With It. Maybe It’s White Privilege.” Most are convincing enough to be momentarily confusing, that is until we recognize Gutierrez as the principal.

Seen together as one coherent gallery show, or better yet in the physical form of the magazine (which more clearly makes the echoes and connections to existing fashion publications), Indigenous Woman has the feeling of a sophisticated and carefully thought through artistic statement. This project could easily has come off as campy or silly or even ridiculous, but beneath all the fabulous styling (and there is plenty), Gutierrez is delivering an emphatic message about the broadening definitions of individuality. She’s educating us about some of the pieces that come together to help define her, and doing so in a way that leaves us wanting to support her in her journey. As a photobook, Indigenous Woman belongs on some short lists of the top photobooks of 2018; as a gallery show, it offers a taste of Gutierrez’ ambitious risk taking, and of the constant multi-valent negotiation that takes place in attempting to define a single person.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $2200 to $15000 based on size. The special edition magazine (with print) is $1500, while an unsigned version is $85. Gutierrez’ work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Martine Gutierrez, Ryan Lee Gallery

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