Dr. Elaine A. King,
Professor, History of Art/Theory
Carnegie Mellon University
Guest Curator, «Artist Interrupted: Selected Works by María de Mater O'Neill From Post to After, 1983-2006»
Catalogue essay, Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, February 2 - April 22, 2007
© July 2006
Assembling a mid-career exhibition of María de Mater O'Neill's art requires a curator to welcome surprise, respect obsession, relish unpredictable creative energy, and be open to continuous experimentation. Moreover, it necessitated my traveling to San Juan many times over a two-year span in order to visit numerous private collections where Mater's art is situated, speak with an assortment of people, visit museums and galleries, and engage in long conversations with Mari Mater about her ideas and art. Especially relevant were our discussions about her radical change when she took a leave of absence from art making in 1996. Although intellectually this shift is logical as discussed in this essay, nevertheless it took courage on her part to relinquish an established signature style and begin working in a new direction. As a curator I applaud any artist who recognizes the need for change and their commitment to explore a new creative territory.
Even though Mater all through her career has been linked to the global discourse of twentieth century art, nevertheless her brand of work is distinct and requires a curator to delve deeply into the contextual background that has shaped her art making practice. Being an outsider to the Caribbean I could not take anything for granted or project art world recipes on her art- it was imperative that I become steeped in the history of Puerto Rico's culture and its complex political evolution in order to gain insights into this fertile culture that has been undergoing significant transformation. Taí Fernández, my curatorial assistant, patiently drove me to see a vast assortment of Mater's work -I gained much from the conversations we had during our long days of traveling to collector's homes-these informal exchanges provided me with essential insights into the evolution of art and culture in San Juan, as well as into the symbolism and iconography informing Mater's work.
Steeped in the spirit of experimentation, the oeuvre of María de Mater O'Neill's is an iconoclastic tour de force that has quietly inspired many artists in Puerto Rico. The creative stones strewn along Mater O'Neill's artistic path over more than twenty years are notable. In spite of this, when viewing or discussing her art one cannot expect to follow a chronological line of progression. Known to many throughout the Caribbean as Mari Mater, she has continually sabotaged the clear-cut distinctions of drawing, painting, printmaking, and design and smoothly produces work in diverse media. Consequently it is impossible to slot her art into a single creative category. Besides being an artist she effortlessly wears the hats of administrator, activist, art director, mentor, designer, and writer. Even though Mater prefers painting as her primary medium she is adept with electronic technology. In 1991 she was awarded an Honorable Mention at the Cine-Festival of San Antonio, Texas, for her experimental video «Flamenco», Avant-Garde Diploma, UNICA, Sweden, and First Prize, Ateneo Puertorriqueño, San Juan. Furthermore, she works with computer graphics, and launched one of the first cultural Spanish e-zines -a cyber arts journal titled «El cuarto del Quenepón» (cuarto.quenepon.org)-April 15, 1995, that remained active until 2005. In 2001, Dr. Carmen Ruiz Fischler, former director of Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, said "Mari Mater is not only a tremendous artist but she is helping others through Quenepón -she's perhaps the one who has most helped young artists think globally in San Juan." It was through this journal in 2000 that I became acquainted with Mari Mater when she invited me to engage in an online debate on trans-cultural aesthetics (see Mari Mater's timeline). Our virtual conversation lasted approximately three months and proved to be an insightful experience.
By focusing in depth on Mari Mater's art production of the past decade, I hope to establish a context for her investigations of trans-cultural dislocation, her debunking of clichés about Latin American culture, and her philosophical perspectives on painting itself. It is imperative to note that painting as an art form has undergone major changes during the past two decades-today it occupies a backseat position to installation and polemical conceptual work, while when Mater studied in New York in the eighties, it had returned with a vengeance as the primary art medium. Today-as in the 1970s-we live in an age of 'anti-object-hood' and artists such as Mater who elects to make paintings might be seen as engaging in a courageous, twenty-first century, creative act.
Mater O'Neill is an adroit human being who continually questions academic and art world norms and is fearless in shifting her focus in style and content as she gains new knowledge and responds to life unfolding around her. Through her work, she invites us to be collaborators - as Nietzsche has inferred -this is part of the experience of life's journey that we are part. O'Neill's art has always been vigorous and continually demanding that viewers see things in a different way. The threads that run through her tableaux are transformation, transfiguration, and transmutation, therefore, change, regardless of its often felt uneasiness, remains a faithful companion to this artist who has experimented with paint's plasticity and physical properties, and examined indefinite subjects, themes, and theories. Despite the extreme alterations in her recent productions, both in style and content, her spectacular use of color and deliberateness of mark making link the current work to certain pieces from earlier periods.
Prior to analyzing specific works and thematic categories, it is essential that I address the title of this exhibition, «Artist Interrupted: Selected Works by María de Mater O'Neill From Post to After, 1983-2006», as it targets a momentous shift in her inventive development and accounts for the contradictory art included in this display. Moreover, it must be mentioned that even as she ceased making art altogether between mid-1996, until 1998, these years represent a crucial period of serious examination, reflection, and intellectual reorganization.
An understanding of this drastic interval helps one comprehend the resourceful expansion of her art over the past eight years. When asked about this period, Mater said fervidly, "This time was like a death. My generation is heir to a special brand of thinking from the 1950s…we were born into an urban environment…as a generation we were influenced by the hope/progress of Modernity. Luis Muñoz Marín  was the first governor of Puerto Rico, elected by Puerto Ricans in 1948 -he promoted cultural enterprise, industrialization to urbanization, and the creation of this Commonwealth. I grew up hearing such optimistic stories. However, after gaining acute knowledge about the multifaceted history of this place, it was obvious to me that all of the attitude/dogma of Modernist thinking in Puerto Rico was a lie. The only way to be free of this fictional history and its myths is to have no representation. Therefore, I ceased to make work-I wanted no more stories!" 
After this self-inflicted suspension, Mater O'Neill became adamant about refusing to be classified as a woman or a Puerto Rican but strictly as an artist. An increased consciousness about international diversity ensued, and, therefore when she did return to making work again in 1998, O'Neill considered identity and multiculturalism essentialist and felt that a focus on such restricted themes was outdated at the dawn of the 21st century. She considered it crucial that there be a resolute rejection of all identity theory that previously informed her art. Although she recognized the necessity and purpose of her previous subject explorations as a member of an embattled group, by 1996 she had become conscious that she had exhausted that path of inquiry, and that the time was at hand to move on to other areas of investigation. Like many international artists from the 1980s and1990s, who also explored the subjects of identity, feminism, and post-colonialism, she found such themes irrelevant. At this moment, Mater is aware that the theories, terms, ideas, and definitions that surround the vast arena of identity had been morphing -the subject of identity was becoming a global synthesis of different cultures and modes of practices, and she no longer desired to pursue this narrow, highly theorized, often politically charged subject. The writings of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault provided a key intellectual scaffolding for many artists, demonstrating that identity is constructed: the result of a larger social inter-dependence-truly influenced by a larger human culture, and not only by gender, race, and nationality. A new phase of creative production began in 1998 after Mater O'Neill acutely reconsidered her endeavors and charted a new direction, working along a path of freshly acquired confidence. She began to investigate a wider scope of ideas, including asking such simple questions as, "What is a painting?" - a query that persists today!
A transition away from issues of identity commences with her comic-style work. This body of work manifests a sharp critique of Latin traditions and represents a means of separating herself from cultural clichés so to assert herself as an independent global artist. All through this irreverent series Mater titled- «End Game», («Fin de juego»), a gradual yet steadfast changeover from her past is in evidence. The work is composed of sets of lithographs and oils in comic book style that depict San Juan as a metropolis in chaos, futuristic, and sterile. This title suggests that artists are at the beginning of a new game. Through the imagery she takes the viewer on a strangely provocative journey that depicts a fusion of reality and fiction. All through the comic compositions, Post-modern critical theory plays an influential role in shaping this work of art that blatantly rejects both established nationalism and the stalwart authority of revered old master Latin American artists over contemporary artists living in the Caribbean. In this work, Mater O'Neill appropriates images from comic books, mythology, pop art, science fiction, and video games to frame a fantasy lesbian Super-hero. This empowered character attacks and dismantles time-honored structures such as the military fort of El Morro, and comments on several Puerto Rican male masters including José Campeche, Francisco Oller, Ramón Frade, and Rafael Tufíño. Collectively the art from this time illustrates a break from her previous multi-layered self-conscious figural expression. Specific pieces from this period are discussed later in this text, including «Ella, la más artista de todos», a magnum opus composition in which the imaginative protagonist kills a character from Frade's work, «El pan nuestro» («Our Bread», 1905).
Her radical evolution from a reputable signature style culminates in early 2002 when Mater O'Neill progressively detaches herself from theatrical figuration despite the uneasiness felt by loyal cohorts who respected the previous allegorical narratives. The newest work echoes a confidence that is the outcome from multiple debates and explorations of identity politics. Currently, she simply employs the language of non-objective abstraction. The newest work is intriguingly akin to Modernist 1960s West Coast precedents - not the Finish-Fetish artists but rather such purists as Robert Irwin, and James Turrell (to the L.A. Light and Space Movement of the late 1960s) who were concerned with perceptual issues and dedicated to sensitizing spectators to the mysteries of natural light and the ways in which art can help viewers become more conscious of their own physicality. Despite this severe change, Mater is not apprehensive about constructing non-objective work that appears to be devoid of politics. The recent pieces exemplify a dramatic contemporary boldness that evokes the minimalist output of such late modernists as Donald Judd , Carl Andre, and Bridget Riley, as well as the conceptual constructions of Sol Le Witt. In an essay from 2003 titled «La artista Technicolor», she wrote, "Underlying Judd's shift of painterly focus, we find an anti-capitalist ideology- in his search for pure color he found the metallic paint used by Harley-Davidson. For Judd, material and color should form one entity in order to avoid engaging in the illusionist act achieved by painterly tradition. Plexiglas conceded this to Judd, since the color (it can be opaque, transparent, intense, dull or even phosphorescent) is inserted into the material. Ironically, in his last works industrial material brought forth the act of optical illusion he had avoided for so long. Because even though he stopped painting, Judd never ceased to think as a painter." 
The writings of Gilles Deleuze, especially his analysis of Francis Bacon's work in the book «Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation», are consequential to her recent output.  "I have often tried to talk about painting," Deleuze cautioned, "but writing or talking about it is only an approximation, as painting is its own language and is not translatable into words." In addition, she is in total agreement with Marcel Duchamp, who expressed that a work of art is not completed until the spectator receives it and then it is the viewer who completes the work with his or her own reading. She admires the ideas of Roland Bathes expressed in his renowned essay «The Death of the Author», first published in Aspen Magazine in the USA in 1967, "…. it is not the text, it is the reader..." Mater too believes that the 'reader' or viewer must be empowered - that it is the reader, at the expense of the author, who is important.
Despite the physical transformation of this art, many elements of formal organization carry over from earlier periods into Mater's latest production. «El balcón de Maricao», 1990 was constructed as sectional fragments that are placed together to form an elongated whole. A minimalist matrix is as well evident in «Paisaje», 1991-four separate scenes exist along a skewed grid. In addition, Mari Mater's penchant for working with multiple panels that interact with a wall is observed in the piece «160», 1991. The artist asserts that she works in modules because of her dyslexia-she feels that this condition contributes to her view of things in a mosaic mode and not in a literal, linear manner. Mater O'Neill claims that she tends to make things in parts and segments, and thinks that perhaps her biological orientation leads to a natural process of segmentation in her paintings. As an artist, she is not alone in having dyslexia or working in a peculiar manner of organization-many exceptional artists share this visual orientation to the world.
In her recent super-sized painterly constructions, a melding of patterns, layers, textures, mixed and unexpected materials, meet impeccable technique. Aesthetic appreciation of the object and its sensational physicality liberates this work from needing elaborate labels, wall texts, and the lure of psychological theatricality. This work unmistakably exemplifies Mater O'Neill's switch from narrative depiction to pure conceptual investigation. Instead of producing a painterly abstraction that would tie her new works to her earlier expressionist imagery or depict a kind of conceptual representation evoking a social/political critique, she chooses to construct artwork in industrial materials with a high finish, and uses a fabricator to materialize her ideas. A relationship can be drawn between her latest formal works and those of Judd's pristine objects fabricated by workmen in factories, according to his specifications-both are intended to be structurally self-evident.
Her bias towards visual based phenomena extends to a materialist conception of the art form, encouraging the viewer to have an individual encounter with the work of art. It allows viewers to question their seeing and experiencing-Do I know what I am looking at? What might the artist be trying to do? -There are no definite answers or meanings. As Mari Mater often states-"A painting just is!" And when asked what she means by this, she replies- "That's it! - End of the argument!"
Numerous significant masters have shared Mater's views about painting and art. Over a century ago, James McNeill Whistler placed greater emphasis on aesthetic design than on depiction of content in his art. Whistler was aligned with the Aesthetic Movement and early on argued that art should concern itself with the arrangement of line, shape, and color, just as music deals with the harmonious arrangement of sounds. The controversial painting «Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket», 1875,  is often seen as a major move towards abstraction and a break from rigid academic rules and formulas. In an earlier work, «An Arrangement in Black and White: A Portrait of Mother», 1871, it is the tonal arrangement on which the focus rests, and not on the sitter's identity or domestic sappiness-his mother's role was basically to be a form within an organized plane of other shapes and tones. The monochromatic character of the portrait lucidly delineates what Whistler called his "tonal envelope," despite the fact that today this portrayal has become an American icon known as «Whistler's Mother», evoking cliché familial sentimentality.
In the face of the incongruent character of the selections included in this exhibition, there perhaps exists a weird and wonderful logic to the development of this versatile artist possessed of a restless mind and always in search of new limits. María de Mater O'Neill came of age as an artist in the 1980s, when the art world experienced a serious theoretical earthquake and all facets of the arts came under scrutiny. Although Mater has chosen to make San Juan her primary residence, she has traveled widely living in such places as New York, and Italy, as well as visiting England and parts of the Southwest in the USA. She along with fellow artists who emerged in the 1980s demonstrated early in their careers an awareness of and engagement with global cultural trends and a need for creative experimentation.
Mater was a student at Cooper Union School of Art and Science at the onset of a Post-Modern cultural revolution, and the New York City art scene exploded with a vengeance with the return of painting, after its critical disfavor in the 1970s due to the advent of conceptualism and mechanically reproduced work. National styles linked to painterly styles were eminent and sought-after, and cultural identity became an urgent pursuit for large numbers of artists who had suffered under colonial rule, gender, or race. This era was marked by an increase in international artists, dealers, collectors, publications and exhibitions, as well as by the rise of Post-Modern critical theories and revisionist history that shattered the traditional art historical canon. This environment gave rise to heated aesthetic debates and grave questioning of the nature of the art object. As a young artist, Mari Mater O'Neill was fortunate to be in New York City during such a time of intellectual transition. This international exposure, as well as her love of critical debate is evident throughout her ever-changing body of work, as is a pervading talent for color contradiction, and an unequivocal desire for new challenges.
Over the past 23 years, the arts have twice turned upside-down and the contemporary art cultural climate has undergone a momentous metamorphosis. Today a vast arena of styles, techniques, materials, subjects, forms, purposes, philosophies, strategies, and technology abound. No dominant style thrives: a global interplay of approaches and ideas flourish. So why shouldn't an artist, after developing a mature body of work, be allowed to change directions, denounce a previous ideology or style of work, and open up a new door? Originally linked to Abstract Expressionism, Philip Guston shifted dramatically to figuration in the mid-1960s and went on to influence a new generation of artists in the eighties.
In the 1980s, New Figuration Painting was at its height and its influence is evident in the art of Mater O'Neill while she lived in New York City. In New York, she worked for a design studio, making 110 clowns hat and noses for Ringling Brothers Circus. Her interest in theatre design and costumes emerges in the 80's, leading not only to the actualization of imaginative stage sets and sets of theatrical clothing for «Fantasia Zoological», 1986 (Stage and custom design for Modern dance work of same title Ballet Calichi Co.) but also to the production of works such as «El Coliseo»,1983, «Segundo acto en casa», 1983, «Drama en tres actos», 1983, and «La Diva», 1985.
In her book «Mixed Blessings», Lucy Lippard wrote "The most exciting work in Puerto Rico itself tends to be done by artists who have either remained deeply immersed in local culture or those who have studied on the mainland and returned like María de Mater O' Neill whose figures crackle with a curious punk Picasso/Garcia Marquez energy." To fully grasp the meaning of this statement, one needs to be familiar with the history of Puerto Rican art produced over the past hundred years, and how that past has shaped and influenced Mater O'Neill's art. The collection of essays appearing in the book Puerto Rico Arte e Identidad provide substantial insights into that rich history. Dwight García writes, "Every great work created among us has to do with our identity insofar as it takes root in to our culture and ends up becoming an essential element in its evolution." He continues: "Insofar as the inquiry into what is national does not constitute a merely ontological strategy, but a political one-because the issue here is 'not asking, but answering who we are in order to state where we are going and affirming the commitment of our work, designing a program for militancy." García points out "that most young artists born during the Fifties-who began to systematically show their work during the Eighties -have opted for painting, with a few notable exceptions." Included in this emerging new generation of prominent Puerto Rican artists were Arnaldo Roche, Nick Quijano, Carlos Collazo and María de Mater O'Neill.
Art historian Haydeé Venegas wrote: "The main subject of the eighties was the revision of this long search of the identity in all its meanings, mainly the partner-political. For many years the Puerto Rican has asked itself who he is. For many years he has wanted to be the other: To be or not to be Puerto Rican? To be or not to be Spanish? To be or not to be African? To be or not to be North American? These vital questions have not been answered…. In a New York Times article on Puerto Rican artists, Luisita López Torregrosa wrote that "No one calls it a revolution, but in the last decade, especially in the last few years, young Puerto Rican artists - men and women in their 40's, 30's and younger - have been pulling away from the island's insularity and traditional art forms and reaching out. They've mounted experimental installations and other provocative works in galleries and alternative spaces in parks and streets. The boundaries, they say, are being torn down." Many artists who emerged in the Eighties and Nineties were exposed to psychic shifts throughout the Puerto Rican society, partially due to economic prosperity and substantial changes in communication and media. At this time, economic advantage afforded many artists the luxury to travel and connect to a global discourse. Adding to this mix of transformation was the traumatic affects of the AIDS pandemic that affected the lives of people across class, gender and profession-it would gravely touch the life and development of Mari Mater. I will expand on this shortly.
O'Neill's «Autorretrato», («Self-Portraits») from 1986-1989 illustrate a secret identity quest filled with vivid color, mysterious symbolism, erratic movement, swirling patterns, and puzzling environments framed by diverse performances and social contexts. A plethora of sub-themes and texts are inferred throughout the autobiographical imagery, however, since an objective reality is never made visible the self-portraits remain clandestinely subjective.
The idea of hybrid identity filters through this work in which cultures transform and, merge-Mater had lived in New York City for nearly a decade and visited other countries, and this informed her insight about issues of translocation. The expression of the artist's life story is connected to exploration and construction of her own persona and self-definition. Throughout the Autorretrato series, Mater O'Neill focuses on the exposition of vulnerable points where an inner vision of self collides with stereotypes and other socially constructed representations.
In this series she even portrays herself as a cat, - as seen in «Autorretrato # 2», 1986 and «#11», 1989. The Autorretrato imagery centers on a special brand of intricate self-portraiture built up through a forceful exposé that illustrate the artist's focus on feminism and Latin culture. All through the self-portrait progression, she examines her inner self within the context of her Caribbean social background. Each portrait is a curious mix of narrative and symbolism within a frame of frenzied expressionist lines and color. Although the weight of a portrait generally lies in the power of its identifiability-this is not the case with the «Autorretrato» sequence-the artist is not concerned with representational likeness but instead focuses on a unusual articulation of identity that touches on such general themes of gender, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality, as well as on personal aspects of her life that overlap with her philosophical and psychological concerns.
As a society, we have come to acknowledge that the "self," is not a single construction but one that is in a constant process of becoming. By the 1970s, John Berger had articulated this in his essay «The Changing View of Man in the Portrait», - "It seems that the demands of a modern vision are incompatible with the singularity of viewpoint that is the prerequisite for a static painted 'likeness.' The incompatibility is connected with a more general crisis concerning the meaning of individualism that can no longer be contained within the terms of manifest personality traits…in a world of transition and revolution individuality has become a problem of historical and social relations…" The Post-Modern depiction of self evinces both definite social paradigm shifts in the latter years of the twentieth century and the ever fluctuating interpretations of self and its multifaceted identities. Richard Brilliant concisely summarizes this view: "In the twentieth century the traditional view of the fully integrated, unique and distinctive person has been severely compromised by a variety of factors, commonly accepted as causing the fragmentation of self and the perceived decline in the belief that the 'individual' is a legitimate social reality."
The friendship between Carlos Collazo and Mater O'Neill was one of intimate creative intensity and total trust. When I visited the home of Maud Duquella, to look at «Autorretrato #10», a former director of Botello Gallery as well as Mater's mentor, Duquella stated that she saw those two artists as soul mates-a very special bond existed between them. Evidence of the closeness between Collazo and Mater O'Neill is unmistakable in the noteworthy opus «Autorretrato #10 (It's to Me)», 1989, among the 13 self-portraits from the dynamic Autorretrato [Self-Portrait] series produced from 1986-1989. As a group, these idiosyncratic self-portraits balance Mater O'Neill's artistic identity quest with a startling ability to depict an essence of likeness while forcing the representation through expressive contortions.
In portrait «#10», a very large and colorful vibrant image, both Collazo and Mater O'Neill are portrayed in the upper portion of the canvas, each in an eccentric manner. It is consequential to note that this is a double portrait: Carlos painted the photo- realist image of Mari Mater that floats within a frame situated between the two-seated artists. In this conscientious portrait, it seems that one might be witness to a private language of symbols that only the two artists can understand. The piece reads as a visual history and an investigation into the artists who wrestle to integrate themselves into a society that holds fast to tradition and prescribed values. An undisclosed physiological and psychological energy abounds in this arrangement that not only depicts the metaphoric portraits of the two-seated artists who appear as a type of king and queen against a crimson background, but also illustrates a range of toys, child-like drawings, film strips, patterns, swirling colors, and totemic shapes. Each likeness is framed by a similar organic blue aura, and despite the fact that each sitter is clothed, a semblance of each artist's heart is visible- this enigmatic dual portrait appears to address the consolation of companionship and shared experience.
Another potent work from this grouping is «Autorretrato #8», 1988. Though this piece reads as a playful iconoclastic interpretation of Myrna Baez's piece «Mujer desnuda frente al espejo» [«Nude in Front of the Mirror», 1980], it does not convey an image depicting quiet self- reflection, nor is it painted in a muted palette. O'Neill's is a frenzied portrait-a complex arrangement of unleashed nervous energy rendered in bright, exuberant tones. Erotically she sits naked on a stool with her back to the viewer, gesturing as if Mater were surreptitiously painting a work of art. As Gustave Courbet embellished his self-portraits with fantasy and became a forerunner in creating a new genre of portraiture, Mater O'Neill, - arranged her own stage -she is the central shape that exists within a field of erotically electrifying icons and inscrutable signs. A nymph-like figure floats on an angle to the left of her shoulder in a blue sea space in the upper portion of the large multihued sectional canvas filled with mysterious cryptograms.
In the 1990s, a dramatic period of experimentation begins. It is perhaps worth mentioning that in 1990 her devoted friend Carlos Collazo, (a painter, ceramist, and graphic designer) died of AIDS at the age of 34. This trauma left a void in Mari Mater's life both emotionally and intellectually. It is therefore not surprising that she would begin to question the very core of her own creative existence. In spite of Mater's intense questioning of painting and her growing reluctance about making art, this period witnesses the materialization of several of her momentous works of art.
«El Balcón de Maricao», 1990, is an extensive spatial composition composed of eight stretchers spanning a horizontal length of twenty-eight feet. In this image, based on a real house in Maricao, Puerto Rico, the artist yields magnificent alterations of pictorial space while focusing on the subject of land and architecture. Perceptually, this painting moves the viewer backward and sideways and renders a scene as the human eye might, rather than forcing the restricted viewpoint of a camera in a photograph. The painting's pictographic coherence is reinforced by the enclosure of the brilliant blue sky and enigmatic landscape against the outline of the dark forms of the balcony's post and lintel supports. An emphasis on spatial freedom provides a challenging, expandable sense of pictorial space-space that belongs to painting.
A pictorial sensibility, analogous to Kandinsky's work, prevails in the puzzling painting «Cementerio pequeño de Culebra», 1990 because of Mater's accommodation of abstraction and realism, her use of vibrant color and black contours, and the density of various forms within the painting's frame. A small section containing micro black crosses contains the cemetery -the burial ground occupies a diminutive part of a larger amalgamated landscape. In what seems to be an imaginary scene, it appears as if Mater conceives the thematic pictorial component as a slice of a larger spatial whole. In this picture she appears to be dissolving the ground plane of the past into a surface of contiguous weightless relationships and compressed planes. Despite Mater's being special fondness of this composition that she feels formally asserts itself, - the history of Culebra as a place in relationship to Puerto Rican history is in fact racked with pain-Culebra is the sister island to Vieques and it too was used as a USA bombing range for many years. Protests of the Navy's involvement in Culebra sent many people to jail. Haydeé Venegas believes that that this image is perhaps a metaphor for the burial of Puerto Rican culture. In spite of such a theory, one cannot confirm the core meaning of this image since at this point of her development Mari Mater is uninterested in the representation of historical narrative. In keeping with her focus on the elements of painting, her incitement to visual engagement is triumphant in this image. The directed visual effort in the picture's vivid palette and resonant compositional arrangement invites a spectator's inspection and reflection of this painting.
For the painting «Donde moran los terribles», 1991 («Where the un-name ones lie»), Mari Mater was awarded the Grand Prize, at the III Bienal Internacional de Pintura, Cuenca, Ecuador. The symbolic poetry informing this work is obscured within the fragmented planes and paint surfaces of the seemingly flat and ambiguous landscape. An intricate mixture of symbolism, narrative, and formal abstraction accentuated by two Newman-like zips and a floating organic red line that dissects the entire composition into parts are materialized in this composition. According to Mari Mater, this painting is her retort to society's treatment of AIDS patients, especially Carlos Collazo. Nevertheless, this thorny but wonderous work reveals convincing formal organization, energetic color, and prevailing mystery.
As seen in the series «Paisaje en fuego», [«Landscapes on fire»] «Mapa», and «Caribe», landscapes, maps, and water are the subjects of her work from 1990 - 1995. The pieces in this grouping function as similes for the self within a particular setting, and address characteristics of Puerto Rico's unique geographical setting. In this beautiful assemblage of paintings, the compositions clearly render the artist's personal investigation of the themes identity and nationalism, as well as place, location, and country. According to Mari Mater the «Mapa» imagery signifies an examination of the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico's political situation. The map of the island is rendered as an irregular small rectangle placed between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. An aerial perspective of place is sensed, and the island of Puerto Rico undergoes a metamorphosis in shape and color in each composition. Although the «Suite del Caribe» paintings appear as attractive micro views of the lovely, blue Caribbean Sea, they represent a dark side-Mari Mater has said these are veiled metaphors, a type of poetic twist that signifies "the beauty of drowning" - referring to her increasing disenchantment with realm of painting. The majority of this work is comparable in size and was painted within a short interval. Although symbols can be observed throughout each picture, the forms are indecipherable, as they are 'drowned' in an abstracted fragmented surface.
By 1996, Mari Mater seriously questioned painting, and more importantly, the making of art altogether. This year marks a low period of production - the very few pieces that were made were both small and lackadaisical in contrast to her trademark large-scale canvasses characterized by bold colors, erratic actions and anxious energy. A deconstruction of painterly gesture and organization is evident in the experimental exercises of such pieces as «M396», «M496», and «M596» (all made in 1996). They can perhaps be perceived as an attack on the object, the painter as painter, and the entire concept of painting. When discussing this period, Mater implies this. For her, painting as an art form wasn't the problem - "it was the way painting is perceived, viewed and defined by historians, critics, artists, and viewer."  Shortly after the completion of these works, O'Neill abandons making art for two years. She explains, " I dropped out just when my career was picking up in the continental USA. I resented the restricted space of that others expected what my work should be. I enthusiastically damaged my career in order to protect my work. It is a funny thing, still, now they say to me that I don't paint anymore, with recent works been exhibited behind them-because I do not do 'Mari Mater's' anymore." I am glad, that I am not in my paintings, that what started as an honest signature became dangerously close to a commercial trademark. A label is death, because it takes away the liberty to fail."
When she resumes painting in 1998, Mari Mater embarks upon a new direction. The «End Game» comic series represents a type of essay in semiotics-not one attempting to posit truths through exacting signifiers but instead portraying disguised ironical critical signs that target pervading false notions of Puerto Rico. The images can be seen to function in the manner of a nineteenth century cartoon, akin to Goya and Daumier's caricatures that repudiated cultural power and its pervading hypocrisy. Within the frame of each of these multi-faceted, colourful compositions exist layers of symbols and information-the juxtaposition of historical reference and personal statement abounds. She shrewdly deconstructs the Puerto Rican nationalism and its master artists. Through carefully selected scenarios and icons, she veils a serious criticism of her historical heritage. According to Mari Mater O'Neill, "It seems to me, that painters in Puerto Rico were still working with an old social vision of an agrarian Puerto Rico, a vision that was no longer pertinent in our times-something other was needed so I created protagonist a woman - not any woman, but a commanding, detached lesbian."
Key pieces from this period include «Andrómeda Revisitada», 1998, a bridge to the masterful piece «Ella, la más artista de todos», («She, the Most Artist of Them All») 1999, «Simulacro», 1999, and «Clasifícame ésta», 1999. Although small in size, «Andromeda Revisitada» is powerful in content (based on Francisco Rodón's «Andrómeda», 1974, a portrait of writer Rosario Ferré wrapped with her family's own newspaper). A muscular superwoman, clad in sexy attire flies through the air cutting across three panels of a triptych format with the emblematic Museo de Arte de Ponce's staircase as backdrop (also own by the Ferré family). Her highly charged actions suggest she is engaged in the destruction of emblems of Puerto Rico and its world of warmed-over colonial traditions. This electrifying work joins others in functioning as visual metaphors, demonstrating an indomitable character that possesses profound energy and operates as a tangent to patriarchal structures and tradition. «Clasifícame ésta» (a lithograph -an edition of 20) is based on Juan Sánchez print «La mujer eterna». It was produced while she was artist-in-residence at the Center for Innovative Printmaking and Papermaking at Rutgers University, New Jersey and it was awarded an acquisition prize by the XIII Bienal de San Juan del Grabado Latin America. In a cinematic segmented frame format, two comic book Wonder-women perform a private battle with an unknown force-they appear to be keeping evil at bay with their shovels and hoes. However, in the lower horizontal plane two women embraced in a blissful kiss enact a peaceful resolve to the day.
In the compelling painting «Ella, la más artista de todos», the subject is an ominous, lesbian superhero that kills off Ramón' Frade's 'jíbaro' -a character who in art and literature had become a nostalgic national symbol of Puerto Ricanness (in the background one sees on the left the Museo de Arte de Ponce, and to the right, the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico). Here Mari Mater defies male dominance as well as cultural tradition in an image in which the heavens explode in electrifying bolts, and a looming female crushes all that stands in her way. Why such an image? The artist comments, "It became clear to me that the country's construction was made, not exclusive by, but definitely helped by male painters, and that the country became a woman...a poor woman but nevertheless somehow proud of her condition from the city ghetto or rural area, and that the city was always the place of evilness and the rural, heavenly, the truly Puerto Rican space. It was hard for me to identify with that, being city-born, independent and living in a house built in 1920 that evokes all the promises of the new 20th century. This led me to the reencounter with local Architect Henry Klumb and his utopian quest for a new social imagery in the mid-modern Puerto Rican society. Klumb's ideas hold a strong influence on my actual work: full of success as well mayor failures in how we inhabit the contemporary Caribbean."
When Mari Mater completed the «End Game» («Fin de juego»)," series in 2000, she staunchly began to research new techniques, experiment with assorted materials, and read new authors-the time was at hand to go forward and the old methods of painting as well as former ideas about art and culture no longer applied.
An aesthetic evolution evident the paintings made between 2001 and 2003. «Mosaic», («Mosaico»), 2001, a horizontal painting, presents the viewer with an abstracted alteration in viewpoint. This piece indicates Mari Mater's increased shift from pictographic psychological illusionism toward pure non-objective abstraction. The readability of this work of art requires a moment for the viewer to acknowledge that he/she is looking down into a bathroom decorated with lively patterned ceramic tiles. The perspective of this picture refuses to accept pictorial, boundaries thus subsuming the volume and interior space of recognizable realism.
In May of 2002, Mari Mater returned to New York City, with the intention of visiting select galleries and artist studios, and engaging in conversation with artists including Julia Sass, a Danish painter, and Ivelisse Jimenéz. Her goal was to look especially at artists' work that would help her clarify certain difficult issues that she was having with painting. She found the paintings of Linda Besemer, Susan Rothenberg, David Reed, and Richard Prince to be inspirational, since she recognized an affinity between their approach to painting and her own thinking. She especially admired how Jimenéz and Reed took into account the surface and non-surface factor of a painting.
Prior to visiting NYC, she had been struggling with the piece titled «Penthouse», -after this trip Mari Mater altered both her technique and method of painting. "I realized that at a certain point I would have to lay this painting down on the floor. Pigment behave in a very different way when working in this manner because it accommodates to the canvas and settles down, as opposed to when it is applied to a vertical canvas. If it is very liquid, gravity will exert its force and the paint will begin to drip. I also thought that painting horizontally would help me to better visualize horizontality. The position of my body vis-à-vis the canvas would perhaps retain the movement of my body around it and not only of my hand (which is what happens when you paint vertically)…. Many of the paintings I saw were essentially intertwined to the ideas I was working on, albeit with other results; however, Besemer, Jimenéz, and Reed took into account the surface and non-surface factor." «Penthouse» is undeniably a benchmark work! The challenges surmounted through the making of this image move Mari Mater further away from narrative figuration. A finely tuned abstract quality saturates this painting through its translucent multi-layering of planes. A viewer must search the entire picture to comprehend the composition, since the negative spaces within the image are as essential as the obvious landscape and architectural details.
«Balcón», 2002 («Porch») and «Currents», 2003 represent vital intermediary works that disclose additional crucial shifts in direction from figuration to abstraction. At this time, Mater had gained a new awareness about the relationships between shapes, and came to realize that color placement and spatial treatment were powerful elements unto themselves.
What's more, during this period Mater establishes a friendship with Kike (Enrique Renta), a hugely successful international Puerto Rican abstract painter, and fellow member of the Quenepón junta. With the absence of Carlos Collazo from her life, Kike becomes a significant confidant whom she can and does engage in consequential conversations. Their intense discussion on issues of Modernism, the role of abstraction, and what it is to be a Puerto Rican artist, further compels her to abandon all aspects of figuration.
A peculiar blend of experimentation and restraint is felt within the surface of the two paintings. In the large-scale canvas «Balcón», each component within the frame retains its individual identity yet interacts with the disjointed structure of the composition. Figurative and abstract elements co-exist within a bright yellow Matisse-like color field working to create a painting that demonstrates enigmatic spatial illusion. Even though this painting still conveys identifiable references to Puerto Rico, an overall geometric flattening transpires. The domineering opacity of yellow as well as the presence of translucent inscrutable forms floating in the forefront of the canvas jointly transform this image based in reality into an abstraction targeting spatial illusion-one feels as if they were peering through fantastic windows into outlying spaces. The spectator observes a simultaneous micro/macro world. "I thought my new work had to do with light, form, and my attempt to abstract but it was not until I made "«Porch» («Balcón») that I began to think of my work as related to space." 
A manifestation of additional structural inventiveness is evident in the multi-sectional work «Currents», 2003. The spatial dynamics in this image demonstrate Mater's adeptness with surface concerns and her use of color, light, and rhythm-the very basic ingredients of painting. In this work she moves ahead with a personal abstract language for painting and shows confidence that she can accept the structural limits of two-dimensional depiction - that is, the flatness of the painting's surface, and builds the composition without concern for illustrational illusionism. The loss of depicted volume and mass is replaced with the inner energy of the painting derived from Mater's treatment of color and the segmented puzzle-like elements.
Mater O'Neill's current art parallels the metamorphosis of painting and art -no longer must painting be confined to a stretcher, to narratives, or to themes. Mater's work since 2004 bears out a pushing and pulling of the language of non-representation through the accomplishment of painting, concept, and component construction. She squeezes both content and narrative rhetoric out of this work. In an essay she wrote, "I had already abandoned the sterile discourse imposed on Puerto Rican artists when I painted the series entitled «End Game» («Fin de juego») (1998-2000). It allowed me to think about the nature of painting in itself and its representation. To paint without a theme is to paint with pleasure and misery; it is an act of faith to face the challenge. Painting without an agenda has made it possible for me to define painting through language and not through its medium per se (canvas, pigments, linseed, etc.)- even if I maintain narrative because of my use of figuration." 
The systemic paintings from 2004 perform a silent deux within the space they occupy, beckoning the spectator to experience the art within its wholeness. Carefully shaped individual panels begin to appear. According to Mater O'Neill' "Art has the capacity to make visible that seem concealed. It makes us reconsider, look at things again, and try to understand how we connect to them. To understand is to delve into things, to include one's self in them; it is to understand and to sometimes accept without understanding." Much of the current work articulates and questions the language of painting and experience. She shares views on seeing with the theorist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. "Art, according to Merleau-Ponty in his essay «Eye and Mind» , emerges from that brute force that operationally ignores revealing the imprecise, mobile and blurred shape of the world." For Merleau-Ponty, art is closer to the energy of life than science and philosophy because it gives primacy to perception."
In the present day work, there are no ponderous themes that bedevil so many of the contemporary exhibitions that display polemically based art-her work is open-ended and welcomes individual interpretation while possessing subliminal power through its structure and distinction. "To abandon the agenda and enter into abstraction creates a rift between content and theme (particularly, the absence of). At any given time, painting may also deviate from its intended path. Pigment, gesture and form operate alone, independent from me. Even if in many areas I maintain the traditional figure-background parameter, I am interested in abandoning an immediate reading of the work, the act of seeing my painting as a totality at the same time, and to force the spectator to question what he/she is seeing (to force the gaze to pause). What I lose in immediacy, I gain in reflection. But the Puerto Rican spectator and many foreigners who are familiar with Puerto Rican history (mostly politics and art) resist the ambiguity of interpretation. My intentions are blurred, indicating uncertainty, difference, and off-centered subjectivities as a transformation, most of which I achieve thorough abstractions, aesthetic styles and their relation to the figurative form."
Mari Mater follows her newly defined vision of painting based on investigation, reconsideration, and conviction. To have vision, after all, is an act of faith that is not a part of a strategic plan but a belief in self and certain principles. She pushes and pulls the language of non-representational work through painting, concept, and construction. In her super-sized painterly constructions, there exist fields of textures, varied materials, layers of color, and impeccable technique. Her very bias towards the physical properties of the materials employed in each work extends to the materialistic conception of the art itself. Allowing oneself to aesthetically appreciate the specific piece in its wholeness liberates this art from elaborate labels and wall texts-onlookers fashion their own thoughts and need not worry about prefixed meanings. Mater does not produce abstraction based on any subject or theme-it is not linked to previous expressionist imagery. Her brand of art is based on a tremendous amount of the distillation of information from life experiences but not on any specificity of a thing, event, or emotion. Essentially, her model is to play with whatever problems arise and present a worthy challenge. Moreover, materials and techniques associated with painting encode a critique of painting: her paintings are about becoming and seeing-if anything-they can be viewed as a meta-language. According to the artist, "This art is a matter of fact with no mimetics, no representation, no cause: what it is, it is here, outside of language. To me painting is ineffable -when a painting is a painting, it is ineffable."
Listening to her words calls to mind Frank Stella who, when asked about his work, said "My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there is there." He has become known for the famous quote-What you see, is what you see! Stella early on attacked the idea of transcendence and upheld a denial of expressive content in his art despite the use of such emotionally charged narrative titles as «Die Fahne Hoch», (raise the flag high-come from the Nazi marching song of «Horst Wessel»). Mater shares Stella's persistent resort to the logic of formal structure for content. Notwithstanding their protest against painting as a vehicle for content, each artist's work illustrates the theory of formal structure and the use of mysterious titles.
After much experimentation and deliberation, the leap away from pictorial reality is achieved in the painting «Colors (to Donna Summer)», that she begins in 2003 and does not complete until 2004. In this ambitiously outsized work, a further examination of the nature of painting, sculpture, and architecture is pursued as both a system of working as well as a physical manifestation. It reveals Mater's acceptance of a painting's obvious flatness, in which the shallow space of abstraction affords color and allows shape to float freely. The solution of this composition signals yet another conceptual point of aesthetic departure through its monumental vertical scale, (13 feet), her treatment of diverse surfaces derived from mixed industrial media, and its perceptual challenge to the viewer. Within an extended expanse made up of basic geometric configurations, assorted stripes, and contrasting color, she activates the linearity of this painting 's flat surface. Here she demonstrates a deeper awareness of the relationships between space, color, and dimension. This painting articulates her comprehensive shift to abstraction and makes obvious this artist's understanding of the language of painting, as asserted by Deleuze.
During the production of «Pink (To Monroe)» 2004-05, Mater hired a wood specialist and an art conservator, César Piñero to assist her with its complicated fabrication. She paints only seven of its 32 interlocking stretchers-the remaining panels are made by an upholsterer and a motorcycle painter. By varying the placement of the forms, the combinations of the elements, and their orientation, relational connectives between the forms and their spatial placements open out. The asymmetry of the curiously combined geometric shapes and their odd placement create a surprisingly elongated arrangement that hugs the architectural setting it occupies. The wall holding this work activates the linearity within the varied combinations; however, this wall is to be perceived as a spatial plane where the figure and ground come together and not as the container that holds the painting. The varied amalgamation of the shapes, colors, and textures throughout the planar expansion of this painting activates the wall holding its structural canvas. The luxuriant prominence of the assorted panel surfaces enhances its general quality, and the underlying ghost forms beneath the mesh scrim in the right half section add to the visual mystery of the overall construction. An alluring figure and ground unification is generated by Mater's use of the grid and mesh. This creates an ethereal screen that alludes to a zone in between the frame, the painting, and its place of installation. Its vacillating stripe sizes and undulating warm reddish/pink colors define the spatial essence of this work. «Pink» represents a point of departure from the singularity of the canvas, giving Mater permission to take painting to a new level- one experiences an installation in the physical space of the room, and in which conception and perception interpolated.
In the latest construction, «Enable Blue» 2006, O'Neill is more interested in how we see things than in the things that are seen. The title of this construction calls to mind both Yves Klein's work and his noted monochrome special blue pigment. Mater acknowledges that she first researched Klein's color and considered using it for this work, though she decided against it in the end. The invention of this work takes the form of seven small repeated geometrical elements that are uninflected and subdivided according to part-to-whole ratios-these objects were entirely prefabricated according to her specifications, and can be installed in changeable ways including all or only a few of the modules. The identical units comprising «Enable Blue», are carefully fitted into the upper ceiling corners of room or gallery-observing this work one is witness to the interaction of architecture, painting, and sculpture. It is not merely an object, a painting but also a phenomenon - a subtle unexpected experience that only can be had if one is aware of the entirety of the space they are occupying. In other words, a viewer must scrutinize the place they are standing in-they cannot casually walk by or take things for granted-one needs to look up in order to locate the blue and gold forms hung above them. A sculptural presence is felt as one observes the illusory weight of gravity created by the illusory mass suspended above their field of vision. Time is required to observe this many-sided piece that hangs outside their normal perceptual field. In such a work of art-the experience of the reader is what is relevant. "To abandon the agenda and enter into abstraction creates a rift between content and theme (particularly, the absence of). At any given time, painting may also deviate from its intended path. Pigment, gesture and form operate alone, independent from me."
Mari Mater spoke to me about the work of art: "In «Enable Blue» the spectator becomes the partner in crime- he/she 'corrects' the perspective in order to see a floating rotating cube where physically cannot be. It evokes the history of the illusionary power of painting, therefore it becomes truth and false at the same time. According to designer Milton Glaser, this is the characteristic of essential truth, the contradictions. For me, I might add, this ambiguity gives the liquidity to the parameters, in able for the borders to be flexible thru time. «Enable Blue»" it is not the famous 'Alberti's window': it is a painting that invades the space. But just like a vampire, the spectator has to invite them into the room."
Despite the similarity of María de Mater O'Neill's contemporary constructions to Minimalism, her language-oriented abstractions exemplify an ongoing personal investigation of painting. Her current inquiry is a mixture of thinking, making, and seeing in order to explore and make connections between all three. Mari Mater is an artist who engages in incessant intellectual deliberations with herself, and believes painting to be an ongoing argument with art history, and acknowledges that things are produced at a certain time and place. While some may find this lack of final satisfaction unsettling, it affords María de Mater O'Neill the exact fuel that propels growth and compels her to never settle on past achievements. For her, it is not the quest of the moment, a definition of self, or the one and only hunt for fame. For O'Neill it is imperative to advance the truthfulness of painting, the meaning of art, and the feeling of confidence required to disregard the consequences of her creative acts. Mater welcomes the opportunity to surmount difficult problems and is not afraid to follow uncharted paths despite the consequences, so long as she foresees stimulating territories to extend and expand. "Now I understand the constant remark on my work: 'she is in transition'. The shift from one line of research to another is interpreted as a quest (which is true) for a particular stylistic language (which is not true). To me, one of the main aspects of artistic production is this quest; change is also fundamental."
The latest works undeniably manifest a neutral impersonality in contrast to romantic biographical figuration. Although Mater's art now asserts an overtly non-symbolic physicality in contrast to forms that purport to be vehicles for emotional introspection, I caution viewers not to become comfortable with her new work---nothing is predictable with Mari Mater! One should not expect to recognize her creative production in a decade or so from now given this artist's propensity for transformation. Her restless mind and thirst for new limits instills in this curator the confidence that María de Mater O'Neill will continue to venture into new territories, allowing allow herself to juxtapose jarringly different styles and play off whatever is necessary to complete a problem or aesthetic investigation. She is an individual who truly is interdisciplinary, working with multiple interacting independent layers of discourse without ever subordinating one to the other. Astute facility with the languages of figuration and abstraction permits Mater to select from a broad range of ideas, styles, and methods without feeling constrained by any single dogma.
During the organization of this exhibition and catalogue, Mari Mater said to me, with wide eyes and firm pose, "there is in this world only thing we can be certain of, and that is death! Right! That's it! " To blatantly accept the reality of life's uncertainty in such a self-assured manner empowers one with a rare independent freedom to surmount obstacles and embrace adaptation in spite of mainstream trends.
©2008 - María de Mater O'Neill