In 1994, Mexican archaeologist Fanny López Jiménez discovered the Tomb of the Red Queen inside Temple XIII, a ruin in the ancient Mayan city of Palenque. The temple is close to the well-known Pyramid of the Inscriptions, the location of the tomb of King Pakal, whose long reign began in 615 and lasted until his death. The Pyramid of the Inscriptions was discovered in the late 1940s, but Temple XIII had not been explored for decades. Several years after the discovery of the Red Queen, a friend of multimedia artist Ricardo Mazal, who was living in New York at the time, showed him one of the early photographs of the queen in her resting place. Mazal, whose large-scale paintings often involve broad swaths of vibrant color and contrasting thick and thin applications of paint, was taken by the image: the skeletal remains covered in a powder made of the rich red cinnabar used as a preservative in ancient burials. It was the start of a new project for Mazal that would culminate in an installation titled La Tumba de la Reina Roja (The Tomb of the Red Queen), the first in a trilogy. Selections from the work are on view at the Center for Contemporary Arts in the exhibition Ricardo Mazal: A 15-Year Survey.
“I had never worked on a project like this,” said Mazal, who now lives in Santa Fe. “I thought I shouldn’t begin the project in my studio in New York with just an inspirational image but I should go to Palenque and immerse myself there before I do any sort of work related to this.” In Palenque, he met with the a member of the archaeological team and learned the whole story of how the queen was discovered. “Then I went to visit the tomb of the queen. He invited me to come to the ruins at night because he said it’s an experience of a lifetime. ‘You’ll see the ruins by the light of the stars.’ ” The stairs that lead to the top of the Pyramid of the Inscriptions are steep and dangerous in the dark, but López Jiménez wanted Mazal to see the tomb of Pakal. After opting to follow a guide along a trail instead of trying the stairs, he went down into the tomb. “The guide had a lantern,” he said. “I had a small camera, and I was shooting with my flash because it was pitch dark. I noticed that the photographs looked like charcoal drawings I had been making.”
Mazal, whose work was featured in the 2015 Venice Biennale exhibition Frontiers Reimagined: Art That Connects Us at the Museo di Palazzo Grimani, often sees an affinity between forms in his artistic output and those in the world around him. It’s a defining characteristic of his trilogy, which includes projects inspired by a visit to Germany’s Odenwald mountain range and travels with his wife, Fabiola, in Tibet. La Tumba de la Reina Roja was shown at the Center for Contemporary Arts in 2004 with the subtitle From Reality to Abstraction. “Reality and abstraction — there is no clear difference,” he said. Some of his abstractions were modeled on photographs of temple stones in Palenque that he manipulated digitally. The installation was also shown that same year at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, where Mazal is from. One composition was laid out on the floor, representing the Red Queen’s tomb and matching its dimensions. A vibrant red rectangle in the center of the composition matched the dimensions of her sarcophagus. “It’s an example of my work becoming an installation rather than a painting exhibition,” he said. “The whole is more important than the parts. I’m not an artist that would come into the studio with nothing in my head and a blank canvas and then come up with a beautiful painting. There has to be a reason, a meaning, and content for me to work on a series of paintings or photographs that connects them to something larger.”
The Red Queen installation was a breakthrough for Mazal, providing a means of presenting work in a more dynamic visual and conceptual format. Later exhibitions have included similar presentations as well as photographs that show how his abstractions have a representational basis. The abstractions he worked with as a painter preexisted, in a sense, in the world around him. One can compare his photos of the light filtering through the trees in the Odenwald, for instance, to vertical paintings based on them and see a clear relationship. But after La Tumba de la Reina Roja, he was unsure of what to do next. Then, traveling in Europe in 2007, he visited a friend in Michelstatdt, Germany, who introduced him to a special cemetery in the Black Forest where, instead of headstones, small plaques with numbers are affixed to the trees, and the deceased’s ashes and those of their family can be buried at the base of the trees — becoming, in essence, part of the living forest. “That intuitively hit me to the point where I thought, I think I’ve found the second project,” he said. “It ties to the previous work in terms of being a burial site where it’s not really about the burial itself but about the site and the culture and the idea. To me, the forest is about the living. The children and the elderly were using this forest as a place to be, to walk, to visit.”
On a return trip he met the mayor of the town who was intrigued by the idea of an art project inspired by the cemetery and wanted to participate. “He said, ‘I would love to give you a tree. Let’s go and choose it.’” Mazal titled the project Odenwald 1152, and the number refers to his own tree, where he has a spot reserved for him. He chose the tree because of three large branches extending from the trunk, reminding him of his wife and two daughters. “It started becoming very personal, very intimate, my experience with this forest, and I spent the next few days photographing it. Photographing the trees themselves didn’t work because they were very realistic, almost like National Geographic representations of a forest. By the third day, I realized it was really about the light and not the trees.” Mazal had zeroed in on the inherent abstraction, shooting the light instead of the trees. Back in his studio, he began to envision the photographs as paintings.
In addition to works from these projects, Mazal shows work from other series, including Kailash, based on his experiences in Tibet. Kailash is the name of a sacred mountain, and the striated lines of its façade, captured in a large photograph on exhibit at CCA, bear a resemblance to the horizontal striations that dominate several of his paintings. The devout make a pilgrimage to the mountain, circumambulating and doing prostrations on a 54-kilometer journey that can take months to complete. A video of the pilgrims making their prostrations accompanies the paintings from the series and is projected onto the floor. It isn’t the only video presentation in the show. On no less than five screens is an interactive project, Bután Abstracto, inspired by the movement of Tibetan prayer flags. “It was kind of an accidental discovery when I was traveling in Bhutan,” Mazal said. “I was videotaping the prayer flags as they moved with the wind. There were these enormous flags on top of a hill where there was a women’s monastery. The flags were beautiful. They were in the primary colors and in green and white. They were on these very high poles. This is a region of the world where there’s a lot of wind, and they were moving so fast. I was recording it, and I would stop the video, and I’d see these images that were just beautiful.”
Mazal printed still images of the flags from his video and produced large canvases based on them: bands of color twist and furl like colored scarves, stark against the white background. The imagery appears like a faithful reproduction of what the visitor can see in the stills but is also painterly, rendered in deep blues and smoky oranges and browns and seemingly made, like some forms of calligraphy, with a single brushstroke. This is an illusion, however. The paintings take more time to complete, and instead of a brush, Mazal uses handmade squeegees cut into different sizes and notched to create textures.
As part of Bután Abstracto, visitors can type in their own prayers using an iPad, and the prayers become part of the video, dancing around in the fluttering imagery for a spell before vanishing. Tibetan prayer flags are printed with mantras with the idea being that, as they blow about, the prayers are sent around the world, carried by the winds. “That very simple concept — and I experienced it while I was there, watching the wind take the prayers, metaphorically — fascinated me, and I thought it was so poetic,” Mazal said. “Putting two and two together, those still images from the video and their concept, gave me the idea of creating an installation where you can actually feel that and take part in that. Without having the wind we would use the means of communication of today and send the messages through the internet and reach any corner of the world.” He has shown the project at exhibitions in Mexico City, Toronto, and Singapore, and each prayer or comment added to the project is collected in a database. “I probably have around 1,400 messages stored: prayers, commentaries, jokes, anything that people think of. There’s a lot of editing to do, but sometime, maybe, I’ll have the opportunity to publish what people have written in this experiment.”
In keeping with Mazal’s interest in installation projects, the CCA exhibit was developed with the idea of showing the interrelationships between the individual series. Violet, for example, represented in the show by large paintings that face one another on opposing walls, is an exploration of color and tone with varying shades of violet dominating. Striations in the compositions that run generally in a horizontal direction recall previous bodies of work. But Mazal’s compositions are more complex than merely exhibiting horizontal or diagonal lines. In Violet, while there is an overall sense of movement from one edge of the composition to the other, there are intersecting patterns, a vibrational quality, and no solid bands or stripes. Two new paintings made for the exhibition and shown with the Violet series are dominated by blue, white, and shades of gray, with faint touches of violet here and there. He sees them as a bridge between Violet, made in 2016, and what he hopes will become his next large-scale project after a forthcoming trip to Antarctica.
The Violet series, too, has a real-world corollary, although the imagery is purely abstract. While engaged in the work, he was inspired by composer Arvo Pärt. “My assistant was listening to music on YouTube, and the Symphony No. 4 was playing. I stopped painting and listened to it for 40 minutes and said to myself, This music is violet. I went to the computer and looked at the cover of the CD, and it was violet. This is the kind of thing that often happens to me, when I see my work reflected in an image — whether it’s branches that remind me of my drawings, the mountain of Kailash, or the Bhutan prayer flags.” ◀