Josefina Auslender’s Portraits of Argentina’s Dirty War

WOOLWICH, ME — In a statement for her current show at Sarah Bouchard Gallery, Argentine-born, Maine-based artist Josefina Auslender recounts how she came to paint her Los Cuerpos (the bodies) series. She had been working on another series, La Cuidad (the city), riffing on architectural elements of Buenos Aires, when, in her words, “suddenly these figures began to come out.” 

The year was 1979 and Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” was well underway. During the military junta’s rule, between 1976 and 1983, some 10,000 persons were “disappeared.” Opposition figures were abducted and often tortured and killed, their bodies sometime disposed of from planes over the ocean. In response, the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” in Buenos Aires stood in protest, bearing signs with photos and names of their missing children.

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Six larger (around 23 by 17 inches) Los Cuerpos works, in graphite, ink, and colored pencil on paper, show contorted figures seated, sculpture-like, on white pedestals. Dark, rust-red walls glow behind the figures in ambiguous settings that include what appear to be filing cabinets, boxes, and stacks of books nearby. In “Los Cuerpos (01)” the torso of a hooded figure is bound in colored straps — an image of torture. “Los Cuerpos (03)” and “Los Cuerpos (04)” go further in their evocations of physical cruelty — here, the figures are headless. One image is labeled “Self-portrait from the series Los Cuerpos,” lending a personal association and sense of intimacy to these victimized figures. 

Josefina Auslender, “La Cuidad (03)” (1976), graphite, ink, and colored pencil on paper, 25 3/4 x 21 1/2  inches

As Auslender worked nonstop, she writes in her statement, the figures took her “completely over like a storm.” She started with smaller pieces; the exhibition includes 32 of these, all measuring around 11 by 10 inches. They’re hung salon style in three even rows across two walls of the gallery. Paradoxically, considering the subject matter, this assortment of twisted torsos is almost radiant.  

In a short video portrait of the artist made in 2019 by Reginald Groff, Auslender explains that the original title of Los Cuerpos was “Infama” or “The Infamy.” She was obliged to change the name due to the danger of political recrimination. The seed of the Los Cuerpos pieces is evident in the three La Cuidad works in the show. These small graphite and colored pencil drawings from 1976 juxtapose hard-edged geometric shapes near the top with what might be piles of rubble below. An ominous feeling pervades; the structures loom over and even cage in the shrouded piles. 

Auslender was once asked what she was allergic to. As reported by Chris Busby in The Bollard, an alternative newspaper, she looked stunned for a moment, her gray-green eyes darting about as if searching for answers among the old photographs and artwork in her Cape Elizabeth home studio. “Well my worst allergy” she responded, “is … dictators,” and added with a laugh, “Bad presidents, bad politicians.”

Josefina Auslender, “Wind (09)” (2022), ink on paper, 22 x 18 inches

Since moving to the United States in the early 1990s the artist has explored abstraction. These geometric and linear drawings stand in stark contrast to the earlier work she made in Argentina. The 10 pieces from Auslender’s 2022 Wind series continue her abstract studies. She draws variations on lines and circles, often adding delicate net-like shadings to portions of the pieces. At the end of her statement for the show, she makes brief reference to this recent work. Removed in time and space from the trauma of the Dirty War, “My ink drawings are different,” she writes. “I am playing, now.”

Josefina Auslender continues at Sarah Bouchard Gallery (13 Nequasset Pines Road, Woolwich, Maine) through August 7. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.


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