Art

Doris Salcedo’s Guggenheim Retrospective Is a Poke in the Eye With a Sharp Stick (in a Good Way)

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In the cheery parlance of American self-help, if you suffered and have a pulse, you’re called a survivor. But that jolly cult, meant to encourage folks to get on with it, is feeling strain, pressured on one side by the assaulted, who publicly announce betrayals (think Cosby accusers or Emma Sulkowicz and her mattress), and by grieving parents of gunned-down kids, who refuse to keep quiet. Fact is, these people are all victims, with the triple sting of helplessness, vulnerability, and bad luck that word implies. We’d better get used to the V-word and a constant state of mourning.

The Salcedo show is the antithesis of a blockbuster: Its low, acrid lighting conjures a morgue.

An exhibition of the sculptural works of Colombian-born Doris Salcedo seems especially well-timed. The 56-year-old has dedicated her 30-year career to shaking hands with death — often political or gun-related — and the bereaved. Her first major retrospective, which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and now makes a stop at the Guggenheim, is an important one for American audiences, collecting as it does decades of sculptures that explore dark psychic places. Bravely slotted by the Guggenheim into the humid summer months, the show is the antithesis of a blockbuster: Its low, acrid lighting conjures a morgue. Its sometimes claustrophobic installation — mazelike arrangements of long tables evoking coffins in the elegiac Plegaria Muda, rusted hospital beds swaddled in yellowed gauze in untitled works from the 1980s — insists on a period of sustained grief.

Born and still living in Bogotá, Salcedo observed atrocities perpetrated by the state and by gangs and thugs. Her artwork emerges from attentive witnessing: She accompanied mothers of the disappeared as they identified their children’s bodies, she interviewed families of gang-violence victims and spoke with orphans who watched their parents die, and then she created works from those experiences. Museum wall text spells out the backstory, but it’s better to face the objects on their own terms.

Unland is a trio of tables, each made from two odd-sized halves sewn together with human hair. Yes, human hair. Hair Salcedo has painstakingly threaded through tiny holes in the wood. (The craftsmanship here is subtle but rigorous.) From afar, the pieces resemble odd, surrealist pairs. Up close, fuzzy patches of hair hug the fissures like spiderwebs, or cocoons, or poetic attempts to repair the irreparable.

Salcedo is probably best known for a series of untitled sculptures incorporating bedroom furniture; she added new pieces to the series over several decades and the pieces made their way into many museum collections. In these, she gives common objects — a bed frame, armoire, chairs — something like a Mafia burial. The pieces are cut up and sometimes pierced with steel bars, then filled with concrete. Installed tightly in a single gallery, furnishings that swam with the fishes are at once barbaric and funereal.

Speaking of barbarism: While so much of Salcedo’s work comes in shades of brown or cream or gray, one piece, A Flor de Piel, stands apart. A muddied wine-colored tapestry some 40 feet long and made from hundreds of thousands of red rose petals hand-sewn into a massive cloth, the piece laps the edges of the gallery. It’s so effortless, like a tarp crumpled on the floor, that it’s tempting to walk on by. But the petals have been chemically preserved to maintain their pliability, imparting a skinlike quality that’s almost repellent, like flayed flesh, and the texture will stick in your brain long after you’ve left.

The work’s title is an idiomatic expression often used to mean “to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.” And yes, there’s a backstory.

But sometimes it’s better not to know.

Doris Salcedo

Guggenheim Museum

1071 Fifth Avenue

212-423-3500, guggenheim.org

Through October 12

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