Born in New Jersey and raised in Colombia, Lina Puerta has spent 15 years in the East Harlem neighborhood where her survey exhibition is currently on view through March 5, 2022. “Migration, Nature, and the Feminine” showcases mixed-media works from the past 18 years that combine ceramics, textiles, thread, and beads with recycled jewelry, food packaging, artificial plants, and synthetic hair. Puerta uses this unusually broad range of materials to produce sculptures, installations, collages, wall hangings, and low-relief handmade paper drawings that convey a deep understanding of the designs and artworks of Indigenous peoples, while examining the relationship between nature and the manmade. Her works also explore xenophobia, consumerism, food justice, and ancestral knowledge.
Puerta’s marvelously varied and often highly ornamented constructions translate traditional imagery and values into a contemporary language steeped in environmental concerns. In her sculptures, the anatomical is often inseparable from the botanical. Otherworldly landscapes, referencing the interior of the body, are contained in suitcases and bell jars, becoming their own ecosystems. In some works, plant forms merge with openly erotic imagery—for example, Lacelimb (2013), made of polyurethane, polystyrene, and concrete, resembles an erect phallus wrapped in thin, green stems. In Sisterhood (2003), painted clay breast-gourds sprout lengths of synthetic hair that swirls around them like a nest. In Sumergida (Submerged) (2003), a flesh-colored, nude female form lying on a platform of rocks is held in a small clay tripod. Here, Puerta merges desire and eroticized nature with an archaic form to create a mysterious hybrid world. Her evocation of the natural is fused with the sensuous, organic process aligned to touch.
Sometimes nature comes close to overwhelming culture. In Mēãbema IV (2021), from the “Botánico” series, artificial moss and plants intertwine with recycled jewelry and chains, wood, fake fur, and leather scraps to create an evocative hanging garden. It feels both real and artificial, helping to renew the experience of nature. Árbol (Tree) (2007), a stripped tree trunk made of fabric that rises to a height of 10 feet, sets up a similar ambiguity. Its base splits open into a hollowed-out space containing lights, sandbags, and a wooden stool—tree as shelter, protection, and perhaps nurturer of civilization.
Puerta’s political commitment to Latin American peoples comes to the fore in works like Detained Mother and Child (2021); their facial expressions, captured in cotton, linen, and abaca pulp, record their plight. The low-relief Untitled (Green-Yellow) (2018), from the “Latino Farmworkers in the US–Portraits” series, presents a partial view of a man’s face. He is framed by a tree on either side, with green fronds above. His gaze, directed at the viewer, candidly expresses a sober recognition. In this work, as in the others, we can only admire Puerta’s determination and ability to communicate the vulnerabilities of people and nature, besieged by forces beyond their control.