Decolonizing Rococo

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — In art historical accounts, the influence of Rococo is traditionally tracked across European art, especially in France, southern Germany, and Austria. However, as art history often does, the impact of artistic currents like this in colonized areas is erased or downplayed. Yvette Mayorga’s What a Time to be, a solo exhibition at The Momentary, curated by Acting Curator of Visual Arts Kaitlin Maestas and conceived during 2020, takes its name from artist Kerry James Marshall’s painting “Past Times, 1997” (1997) and his subversion of the European cannon. Here, Mayorga demonstrates Rococo’s ideological implications beyond ideas of 18th-century European bourgeois taste. The style thrived within an increasingly ceremonious French court where luxury was a tool for control — a way for the monarchy to impoverish its nobility and keep them distracted by the frenzied consumption of lavish goods. 

For Mayorga, Rococo is not a style that denotes status. Quite the opposite, embedded in the Churrigueresque (a Mexican architectural Baroque style) glittering surfaces of her large paintings, one finds the deceptions of the American Dream and the perils of belonging. However, the excess of the painterly surfaces that reigned over French elite’s visual culture is here substituted with a very personal cake frosting technique; one that recalls, not French indulgence, but the immigrant labor that made her. Luxury and opulence in Mayorga’s dazzling canvases, like in 18th-century France, represents a tool of state control harnessed by the power of capitalist consumption. Her critical approach exposes a reality in which the commercial tendencies of bon goût (French for “good taste”) are intercepted by a sense of un/belonging. 

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Mayorga demonstrates the efficiency of Rococo in articulating class distortions of US Latinx peoples. Her DIY aesthetic encourages spectators to scrutinize their complacency in the myth that is the American Dream. Embedded within much of her work, we see googly eyes — a commentary on the surveillance state and a glaring reminder that for Latinx folks upward class mobility is often attainable only at a detrimental price. 

Yvette Mayorga, “Resting Scrolling, After François Boucher’s ‘Madame de Pompadour,’ 1756” (2022), acrylic nails, Nike shoes, false eyelashes, collage,
plastic ring, plastic gummy bears, cherry nail rhinestones, rhinestones, car wrap vinyl, and acrylic piping on canvas, 64 x 65 x 5 inches

In “Resting Scroll, After Francois Boucher’s ‘Madame de Pompadour,’ 1756” (2022), Mayorga painted her sister doom scrolling in the same pose as Louis XV’s infamous mistress, whose obsessive redecoration of his palaces and overall arts patronage influenced the development of Rococo. Boucher pictured his sitter secure and assertive of her influence; a woman whose social and political importance was gained, not inherited. Mayorga, like in many of the works in the exhibition, exposes the class aspirations that these European gestures represent to much of the Latinx diaspora. Her sister’s stance carries the same confidence as Madame Pompadour, not in the certainty of her wealth, but in the irreverent apathy to the world collapsing outside. 

What a Time to be (and Mayorga’s oeuvre represented in this brilliant early career retrospective of sorts) shows the power of Latinx stories outside the sentimentalized narratives of migration, an approach often present in contemporary Latinx artistic practices. Her critical commentary of the failed American Dream — historically contextualized via French Rococo aesthetics — makes for a body of work that interprets the Latinx experience through a lens as sweet and sinister as her personal painting techniques. 

Yvette Mayorga, “Resting Gurl 1” and “Resting Gurl 2” (2022), from the Series A Vase of the Century, acrylic nails, false eyelashes, plastic nail charms, rhinestones, collage, and acrylic piping on wood panel, 60 inches x 52 inches x 4 inches
Yvette Mayorga, “ROOM ROOM WHOS GOT THE KEYS” (2022), plastic toy car parts, wood, acrylic, radio, and Nike shoes, 48 inches x 24 inches x 36 inches
Installation view of What a Time to be (2023) at The Momentary, Arkansas

What a Time to be continues at The Momentary (507 SE East Street, Bentonville, Arkansas) through May 21. The exhibition was curated by Kaitlin Maestas.


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