Working at the American Academy in Rome in the years just before her untimely death in 1985, Ana Mendieta began trying to realize her ephemeral, body-centered earthworks as enduring (and collectible) objects. She used earth, gunpowder and a variety of binders laid over wooden frames. Some of the resulting pieces crumbled, but some succeeded, and three of those extraordinary and heartbreaking successes will be lying in the front room of Galerie Lelong for another two weeks. Each piece is about six feet long and maybe an inch high. One (Untitled, 1984) is black, and the other two (Untitled, 1983, and Figure with Nganga, 1984) are shades of adobe. Their wooden substrates aren’t visible, so they seem like nothing but carefully ordered, cracked and dried piles of dirt. They ought to appear fragile, but in fact they radiate solidity. This is due in part to Galerie Lelong’s choice of dramatic spot lighting and in part to the pieces’ texture—their cracks are small and evenly spaced, and they look as dense as chocolate cookies. But mostly it’s due to the primordial, overwhelming force of Ms. Mendieta’s recurring formal motif, the teardrop-diamond-vulva-paddle-leaf shape, here doubled and joined at the points, with a raised straight line running through the point of connection, to make an infinity-shaped fertility figure.
On display in the gallery’s office is a suite of six photos the artist made to document Glass on Body Imprints, a performance in her studio at the University of Iowa. Naked except for a finger ring, the artist presses a pane of Plexiglas against her breasts (from the front and from the side) against her belly, against her behind. Flesh flattens and distorts; in one arresting image, she pushes one breast up with the edge of the glass while the other is pressed down behind its surface. But somehow, like the earthworks, Ms. Mendieta’s body holds its own: the distortion is clearly all in the glass. (Through June 22, 2013)