Selva Aparicio’s Memorials to Loss and Renewal

CHICAGO — A boy who goes to school with my children was killed two weeks ago. He was 11 years old, the star of the upcoming school musical, extremely kind and cheering to all, and he died trying to protect his mother from an attacker who had entered their home planning to harm her. The situation was neither random nor unexpected. The mother had repeatedly been threatened by the man, who had spent years in prison on domestic battery and other charges, and she had an active order of protection in place against him. 

So it is with a very heavy heart that I viewed Selva Aparicio’s solo exhibition, In Memory Of, which opened at the DePaul Art Museum the day after this tragedy occurred in my community. The choice of show to see was intentional. Aparicio is an emerging master of the memorial, a genre that includes, yes, all those White men on horses, but also the substantial heft and majestic elegance of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial and the gutting installations fabricated by Doris Salcedo from chairs, concrete, shoes, hair, and grass. At her best — which she most definitively is here — Aparicio’s artworks are of this caliber, offering a merciful focal point for grief.

In Memory Of is the first solo museum show for the artist, who was born in Barcelona in 1987 and raised in a forested home on its outskirts. In interviews, she describes her childhood as chaotic and free-roaming. She was witness to episodes of domestic violence and questionable child-adult relations, the drowning of a best friend, impactful artistic mentorships, and deep immersion in the natural world of plants and animals. Her parents were proto-hippies and her grandfather, in whose hospital-home she lived for a year, was the only obstetrician-gynecologist in his area at a time of increased death from childbirth. Aparicio moved to Vancouver in 2011, where she learned English and worked as a stone carver before finding her way to Chicago to attend art school on scholarship. Just before completing her degree, she was hit by a truck; post-recovery she matriculated at Yale, where she spent much of her MFA working with cadavers in the medical school’s anatomy lab. She currently lives in Chicago with her partner and their five-year-old son, who is healthy now — though both mother and child nearly died from complications during his birth. Aparicio comes by her commitment to death and trauma honestly.

What that devotion looks like can be breathtakingly beautiful. And deceptively traditional — the first work viewers encounter at museum is an enormous rose window suspended in the lobby, aglow with natural light and visible through the museum facade. “Remains” faithfully reproduces the Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi’s central stained-glass aperture — the largest in Catalonia and at least twice destroyed — but it does so with old lettuce leaves, sandwiching them between sheets of plexiglass and tracery cut from oil board. The lettuce was thrown out by Aparicio’s neighborhood produce market in 2013; she collected, dried, and kept it, employing the delicate veins, translucence, and faded greens and browns to piece together a convincing imitation of colored glass. The effect is as transcendent as any I have experienced, sitting in a synagogue or touring a church, all the more so for being constituted out of humble and decayed materials. Elevated, they say a graceful prayer for the discarded.

Aparicio treats unwanted things with extreme sensitivity, personally gathering and storing them over many years, eventually renewing them with remarkable vision. This practice at times produces alarming results: dozens of wasp nests fill the interior of an upright piano in “Time’s Refrain,” replacing musical potential with hard-to-eradicate threat. Hundreds of honey locust thorns poke menacingly through the weave of a white crochet blanket, protecting anyone cuddled up under it, but at a cost. One false move pricks the wearer, too.   

“Echoes of Resilience” displays 41 examples of this repurposing practice in a tidy grid of organic clumps mounted on the wall. The bits of moss, dried seed pods, animal fur, barnacle clusters, and wormy wood are all paired and vaguely triangular, as they must be to suit their new purpose: fanciful prosthetics for Momo, the artist’s beloved cat, whose ears were removed due to illness. Momo died in 2018 and was taxidermied; he perches nearby, glass eyes overlooking his aural adornments. Morbid? Yes, I suppose so. But also remarkably tender-hearted, insisting on remembering the dead and beloved.

Aparicio sometimes crafts artworks of awesome laboriousness. In Memory Of includes a mourning veil, the kind traditionally worn by widows, formed from 1,365 individual 17-year cicada wings sewn together with strands of hair from the artist, her mother, and her niece. The long hairs dangle, as if caught somewhere between the obligations and realities of loss. “Ode to the Unclaimed Dead,” an artwork not in the exhibition, is a plywood casket, mounted in a recessed niche evocative of Spanish burial rites, covered in hundreds of thousands of individually affixed dandelion seeds whose fuzz generates an aura of sanctity. For “Childhood Memories,” Aparicio chiseled the area rug from her mother’s home directly into the gallery floorboards, a process she continues throughout the duration of the show, her recollections of that object — and, presumably, actions that occurred around it — deepening and transforming, as memories do with every recall. The sublime results of all this toil argue for its therapeutic effectiveness, while sharing some benefits of that ongoing work with the viewer.

The exhibition, curated by Ionit Behar, is loosely arranged as a domestic suite. A front room contains a wooden rocker draped with the spiked blanket, the cicada veil framed on the wall. The middle gallery has the rug and piano, cat perched atop, ears nearby. At rear is a dim chamber outfitted with a bed sculpture. Outside of these areas are two communal spaces, one with the rose window, the other with a weather-beaten park bench. A small bronze plaque nailed into the bench eschews the specific dedications usually imprinted on such things, reading simply: “IN MEMORY OF.” I sat on it for a long time.

Selva Aparicio: In Memory Of continues at the DePaul Art Museum (935 West Fullerton Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through August 4. The exhibition was curated by Ionit Behar.

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