by Laurel Reuter

"Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered."
--T. S. Eliot, "Four Quartets: East Coker" (1940)

Paula Santiago, the artist, melds the worlds of darkness and light, of time unremembered and today, of the ancient art of the pre-Columbian cultures and her own modern Mexico.

She began, however, in an ordinary way. Born in 1969, Santiago grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and enrolled in industrial engineering at the local Universidad Panamericana. She was a good student but engineering didn’t suit her. At age twenty-one she left for Paris. She would become an artist.

She took private lessons in painting and drawing; she studied French language and literature at the Sorbonne; she haunted the museums. She moved to London where she worked in an artist’s studio and, once again, she haunted the museums. She returned to Mexico and enrolled in more studio classes, and she immersed herself in the early art of Mesoamerica: the pre-Columbian art of the Olmec, the early Maya, the Toltec, the Mixteca, and the Aztec cultures. She seemed to be searching for her rightful place.

By the time Paula Santiago was twenty-three, she set aside painting, not wanting to make images on canvas that represent something. She needed to work on her own, to begin to create from her interior self. “I didn’t want to work with concepts; I wanted to work with my life.”

She was only twenty-seven when she won a residency at the ArtPace Foundation for Contemporary Art in San Antonio, Texas. And she was struggling fiercely to find her own voice.

Having given up paint and brushes, Santiago went back to making art with her hands, to embroidery, a means plucked from childhood. For her exhibition at ArtPace, she appropriated family treasures made by her grandfather’s Aunt Lupita who, eighty years before, had passed the time by embroidering an array of lovely, white-on-white handkerchiefs. Santiago made them her canvases, and with tiny stitches layered new meanings onto the old surfaces. Occasionally she added small appliquéd seeds, which gradually stained the surrounding cloth with subtle washes of color. This body of art, with its tangled queries into the passage of time, was enchanting, but it remained the work of a young woman not yet come into her own.

Still driven to find her own voice, Paula Santiago consciously chose to go all the way into her inner being, a sanctuary of deep but dazzling darkness. It was as though T. S. Eliot had become her guide.

"I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. . . . .
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance."
--T. S. Eliot, "Four Quartets: East Coker" (1940)

Paula Santiago’s inward journey began in San Antonio and consumed the next five years of her life. Even her materials became deeply personal. She began to extract her own blood, using it to stain her surfaces. Venous blood, depleted of oxygen on its course through the body, is a reddish color that age renders to earth tones. Setting aside traditional embroidery threads and floss, she took up human hair — her own, her grandmother’s, and that of her friends. Hair became her thread of unity, her means of joining disparate parts. She found it enigmatic, protecting the body while simultaneously growing away from it. Furthermore, because hair carries the memory of the body’s past, it could speak to time’s passing.

Abandoning cloth as the structural base for her art, she turned to wax and rice paper, deceptive materials that appear fragile but are strong and resilient. Because both can be transparent as well as opaque, they imply larger ideas of knowing and not knowing, of seeking the hidden and hiding the seen. In the beginning Santiago worked flat, but, according to the artist, “I needed to add volume. I needed more than one layer.” Just as her materials in themselves were metaphors for time piled on top of time, she needed to build sculptural images, layer upon layer.

By 1999 when Santiago opened her solo show at the Iturralde Gallery in Los Angeles, she had arrived at her full artistic maturity. She had learned to create bodies of work, with each completed piece a fragment of the whole. And to name the whole proved as challenging as naming the individual works. She titled her first exhibition at Iturralde Moan, the Mayan word for the highest flying bird in the world. Because it lives over the clouds, very close to heaven, few people have ever seen it. Those who have said that it looks like a Quetzal, so beautiful that it resembles the face of light. She calls this current exhibition Septum, the Latin word for the impermeable membrane that both separates and touches both chambers of the heart and only develops when, at birth, blood flows through the normal channels of the heart.

Moan was a dark and haunting exhibition, disturbing to many a viewer. The gallery was filled with glass cases, each containing a small garment that might have been worn in a distant dream by an unknown being. Some carried bundles; all were made of hair and blood, and of Japanese rice and netted paper. Absence was palpable. It was as if everyone who ever mattered had gone away a long time ago leaving an emptied earth. Only their spiritual essence remained. The artist says, “I want my work pending. I want the work to move, to suggest the fleetingness of knowledge, of knowing.”

The exhibition traveled to the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, and among the guests were those who stood at the entrance, uneasy, hesitant to enter, alert to the darkness harbored in the room. Just as genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood, the disturbing spiritual presence in Santiago’s art can be recognized long before it can be explained. Like historic Aztec art, one senses a muffled violence that doesn’t attract. To create Moan, Santiago traveled to the edge of a lonely and private abyss. The art bears the markings of that journey. But as the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

Shortly after, Paula Santiago was diagnosed with a melanoma on her sun-baked right arm. Almost miraculously, her path took a new direction: toward the light, toward wellness. T. S. Eliot might once again have been her guide:

"Clean the air! clean the sky! wash the wind! take the stone from the stone, take the skin from the arm, take the muscle from the bone, and wash them. Wash the stone, wash the bone, wash the brain, wash the soul, wash them wash them!"
--T. S. Eliot, "Murder in the Cathedral, Part Two" (1935)

Never again would Santiago extract her own blood. Rather, she took her remaining blood drawings on rice paper and coated them with thin layers of translucent beeswax. These she cut into narrow strips or threads and wove them into delicate membranes. She constructed other wax fragments, shapes that evolved from her private journey of untraceable steps deep into her inner life, empty forms resembling shields, skins, armors, and covers for absent beings. Gradually the parts came together as small wax sculptures, each housed, along with a body of air, in a sparkling glass case. Not only is the glass subtly reflective; it also makes the yellow wax cooler and brings out the red in the blood that is buried in the paler, woven wax.

These floating forms trigger fleeting memories of Inuit bone sculpture, masks from the Bering Sea, a Greek figure, an Egyptian bird, or an Aztec snake. Dwelling in glass, these mysterious objects become the living relatives of the timeless art of earlier cultures. It is as though both the artist and her art have been nurtured by Xipe-Totec, the Mesoamerican God of Spring. Charged with renewal, a powerful healer — especially of the eyes, — he is dressed in another’s skin, gathered from a ritualistic sacrifice.

For, while still vulnerable emotionally and physically fragile, and before the current work came into being, Santiago traveled to India. There she learned that she could “put a light inside,” that she could make an inner home for herself. Then, while visiting Tenochtitlan in the heart of modern Mexico City, she came upon two guardians to the Temple of Mayor. Buried in stone, or emerging from stone, they bore shards of rock upon their chests. These nuggets of ideas evolved into the wax torso series in this exhibition: each pale wax figure molded from the same form, each man-child bearing a golden weight upon his chest, each glowing with an inner light.

And finally, for the first time Santiago allowed herself to work from the literal. While being treated for cancer, she entered the lab and photographed microscopic views of different cuts of the cells of the tumor. These she developed commercially in the three colors that make up all colors in printing: cyan, magenta, and yellow. She followed with a series of drawings wherein she abstracted the cellular images and once again buried them in a thin coat of wax, a material she considers charged with a cosmic power, the vehicle for the sacred presence.

Octavio Paz, one who has thought deeply about what it means to be Mexican, suggests in The Labyrinth of Solitude that Mexico may best be understood not as a future yet to be realized, but as a return to its authentic, primal origins. Furthermore, “every fertile construction must start with the oldest, most stable and most enduring core of our nation: the Indian past.” Just as Paula Santiago was compelled to sink deep into her own essential being in order to locate herself, “almost blindly, Mexico draws the foundation of the new state from the depths of her womb.”

This communication with pre-Columbian art permeates Santiago’s work even while she demands that her art be free of any vestige of imitation. Ancient works of art are the stones of the past made alive in Santiago’s present — and what a joyful present it has become. One stands at the edge of the exhibition only for a moment, and then quickly walks into the light.

Laurel Reuter
Reuter is the Founding Director of the North Dakota Museum of Art

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