Marta Pérez García, installation view of Restos-Traces, 2022. Photo: AK Blythe

Marta Pérez García 

Washington, DC

The Phillips Collection

INVISIBLE, SILENCIO, NO—these are the only words in Marta Pérez García’s poetic installation Restos-Traces. The ghostly assembly of 19 female torsos (on view through August 28, 2022) immediately strikes a nerve. Two are freestanding, while the rest hover at eye level and waft gently in the air. Made of hand-sculpted paper, they telegraph a sensual fragility at first, but soon fantastical appendages, projecting from their layered surfaces, add toughness and individual character. Their external sex organs are accentuated, as are their spines, which seem to arc in defiance. The palette of creams and occasional soft rose, gray, and charcoal is muted, even somber.

Moving carefully through the installation, the tension is palpable as details and nuances come into focus and more connections emerge. Two of the torsos are pregnant. Some have tufts of hair and sutures, possible allusions to torture and healing. Two more display the word “NO” across buttocks and chest. Halfway through the gallery, a torso with male and female genitalia bears the word “INVISIBLE.” Bared teeth stick out from two vaginas, a reference to defense as well as to the Freudian motif of the vagina dentata made so much of by the Surrealists. Patches of nails and spikes weaponize some exteriors like coats of armor, while bits of newsprint and film negatives on the insides of others hint at private tales. Off in a corner, a lone hanging torso has morphed into a standing figure with breasts and a penis. A parted garment reveals the word “SILENCIO” embossed down its chest.

In time, the psychic presence of these works induces a kind of reverie. The exhibition text explains that they stand in solidarity to confront gender-based murder, a persistently taboo subject in societies around the globe. One torso broaches another taboo topic—intimate partner violence—with a paper-cast gun at its bulging crotch. In Pérez García’s native Puerto Rico alone, at least 60 femicides occurred in 2020. While many people retreated to the safety of their homes during the early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, others, mostly women and children, were trapped inside. For them, home provided no refuge. Pérez García succeeds in imparting a sense of this reality with great sensitivity. By giving her subjects the strength to confront harrowing abuse and shame, she asks, “What is our position on the issue?”

The female body, which has long been contested terrain, forms the foundation of Pérez García’s practice. Here, she takes the additional step of including the LGBTQ+ community. The artist is from Arecibo, a village along Puerto Rico’s northern coast, where machismo still holds sway. After she moved to the United States, she earned a degree in printmaking and developed a love of paper. Her early woodcuts and mixed-media works portray women intertwined with images of natural wonder and folklore. More recently, the reductive process of woodcutting grew sculptural with the introduction of collage and other media, as in I’m Gonna Get You…Body, Woman, Rupture (2018), which showcases dolls made from variously colored hosiery that Pérez García, along with Puerto Rican and DC women, created as stand-ins for their experience of domestic abuse. Suspended inside a steel armature, they tower above a geometric floor design accented with crime-scene silhouettes, spent bullets, glass eyeballs, and plastic teeth.

Restos-Traces is part of Intersections, a program that invites contemporary artists to respond to the Phillips’ spaces and holdings, and the third bilingual project. Starting with the title, the installation builds a potent monument for the deceased by exploiting linguistic differences. Restos means “remains” or “ruins” in Spanish, highlighting the importance of memory, while “traces” indicates marks, imprints, or a search for a missing person. Vesela Sretenović, Director for Contemporary Art Initiatives chose the companion works for Pérez García’s installation—Francis Bacon’s Study of a Figure in a Landscape (1952), and Annette Messager’s wall installation My Little Effigies (1989–90). Both are emotionally charged works like Restos-Traces, addressing kindred issues. The entire scene in Bacon’s painting is effaced, with a shadowy, naked man crouching in a windswept field; in Messager’s work, 13 tableaux each feature a plush animal holding a photograph of a body part and a framed letter inscribed with words such as “fear,” “betrayal,” and “cruelty.”

In a niche next to Messager’s ensemble, the other freestanding torso appears clad in a hoop skirt, its spine rising from a pile of newspapers and paper-cast guns and heads. The heads, resting on their sides, seem strangely at peace. Here and elsewhere in this haunting installation, Pérez García unflinchingly exposes the traumatic underbelly of domestic abuse, deftly turning silence into presence as she transforms individual stories into collective resistance and rage. Dedicated to those who survive in the flesh and those who live beyond the grave, this remarkable project opens up an intimate forum and gives viewers an opportunity to reflect and act. As Pérez García explained at her artist’s talk, the torsos, at their core, express “the need to take care of each other.”