Thin, translucent layers of shaped and stretched natural latex are mounted onto walls or wooden boards to extend the limits of painting—these are Elena Dahn’s New Bodies, on view at the Buenos Aires-based artist’s first New York exhibition. Hosted by Revolver, a contemporary art venue launched in 2008 by Giancarlo Scaglia in Lima and subsequently in Buenos Aires and on the Lower East Side, the exhibition is an invitation to rethink the relationship between body and painting, performance and mark-making, space and surface.
For over a decade, Dahn (1980) has been working at the intersection of painting, sculpture, and performance using ductile materials in varying dimensions and configurations. She has created vividly colored, abstract plaster and silicone sculptures as well as heavily textured high-reliefs by smearing pigmented mounds and streaks of plaster directly on gallery walls and letting them drip down to be shaped by the force of their own weight and gravity. Her process, always corporeal, results in both abstract and organic structures.
Since 2019, Dahn has been investigating the question of pictorial support and surface, body, and process in painting. She mixes acrylic paint with liquid natural latex, then pinches, folds, and elongates the elastic latex skins, occasionally manipulating them with ropes, and finally, she mounts them on the wall or on wooden boards and seals them with polyurethane. Her paintings are reminiscent of geometric, modular forms or misshapen grids, yet they also bring to mind female body parts and organs.
In the vertical folds of Notation (Pale Peach) from 2022, the pinched latex forms rows of irregular, hole-like shapes that look like blemishes or decorative lacerations, while in the 2023 Double Tie (Gray), two horizontal rope pulls in the dark gray latex on both sides creating a forcefully molded, double hourglass shape. The transformation of the material from liquid state to stretchy, often translucent and always ethereally beautiful latex skins evokes the way bodies and other living things morph and shift over time. The paintings’ bodily existence is further emphasized by the torturous process of their construction and molding. In Dahn’s hands, the latex becomes similar to human skin and flesh—it is subjected to brutal shape-shifting and violent procedural transformations.
New Bodies includes two latex works directly created on the wall. Torn (2022) is the lower body of a squatting female figure made of bright red, lacerated, and punctured latex; Torsos (2022) is a collection of black female chests with flesh-colored breasts in many shapes and forms with plastic tubes attached to them. The audience can activate the piece by blowing into the tubes and inflating the breasts. The ludic, participatory aspect is counteracted by the macabre connotations of surgical tubes that call into mind illness and the medical procedure of mastectomy.
Dahn’s fragmented, dismembered female bodies are waiting to be both animated and reanimated. Similar to Anna Maria Maiolino’s performance photo, By a Thread (1976), which represents three women of different generations connected by a thread held in their mouth, Dahn’s tubes act as intimate, physical links between viewer and object, life and death, whole-bodied humans and painted ones in pieces. Together with the blood-colored Torn, a gruesome reference to rape and childbirth, the two murals point to the violent polarities of female corporeal existence, simultaneously implying sexual violence and motherhood, acts of carnage and nurture.
The exhibition’s largest work is the monumental performance mural Pendiente (2022), whose Spanish title can mean pending, pendant, and slope. The flesh-colored latex contains two pairs of slits that were activated by Dahn and Francisca Rivero at the gallery. The women inserted their upper bodies in the orifice-like openings, leaned forward supported by nothing but the skin of the painting, a surface stretched to its limits. Imitating an inverted double birth, the performance turned the soft yet resilient latex into a veil, a shelter, a womb, and an architectural enclosure that contained and surrounded the two women’s bodies.
Playful, violent, and erotic, the performance demonstrated that for Dahn, the surface of the painting and its support is not only the same but also another body. As the Portuguese artist Helena Almeida wrote when referring to her performative, inhabited drawings—“I turn myself into a drawing”—Dahn too embodies and becomes a painting.
Dahn’s practice is a strategic reworking of various legacies and genealogies of postwar Western art. Her work relates to the long and intriguing history that is the spatialization and the sculptural transformation of the support as seen in Luciano Fontana’s slashed and punctured paintings, Sam Gilliam’s unstretched canvases, or in Steven Parrino’s torn and twisted monochromes. Her work also brings into play those corporeal painting practices that emerged in the wake of the Pollockian drip and its heavily mediatized reception, including Yves Klein’s anthropometries, the Gutai performance paintings of Kazuo Shiraga and Saburo Murakami, as well as multimedia works such as Carolee Schneeeman’s violent, feminist parody of Pollock in Up to and Including Her Limits (1973-76).
The process-based aspects and the anthropomorphic connotations of Dahn’s work evoke post-minimalist practices that range from Robert Morris’ felt sculptures and Lynda Benglis’ poured latex floor pieces to Eva Hesse’s open-form, often biomorphic installations and Hannah Wilke’s layered latex reliefs. And the moving, constrained body in Dahn’s live performances calls to mind the bound and roped bodies in Simone Forti’s dance constructions and Trisha Brown’s choreographies such as the 1970 Man Walking Down the Side of a Building.
Dahn’s references to process-based practices and the corporeal and multimediatic expansion of painting in the work of neo-avant-garde artists indicate a historical awareness and they also signify a political allegiance. Her embodied and performative latex works speak to the agency of female bodies and the practice of women artists. Her gendered work proudly displays its connection to seminal female figures like Maiolino, Schneemann, Almeida, Hesse, Ana Mendieta, Zilia Sánchez, and Martha Araújo and expands on the performative turn with bold innovation and subtlety.
Dahn’s work is about embodiment and animation, and it is both a body and an event. Her process-based practice reimagines the corporeal agency in the creative process with rarely seen conceptual vigor and sensuality. She turns painting into a performative, polymorphic activity and makes work that depicts and emulates the experience of inhabiting female bodies.
Elena Dahn: New Bodies, Revolver Galeria, 88 Dldrodge St, 5th floor, NYC
About the Writer: Ágnes Berecz is a New-York-based writer and art historian. In 2019, she published the book, 100 Years, 100 Artworks: A History of Modern and Contemporary Art (Prestel), a singular and decidedly non-comprehensive overview of artists and their works across continents and media from the aftermath of World War I to the end of the 2010s. The New York correspondent of the Hungarian art monthly, Műértő, and she regularly publishes reviews and feature articles on global contemporary art both in Europe and the United States. Her writings appeared, among others, in Art Journal, Art in America, Artmargins and the Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin as well as in many European and US exhibition catalogues. Berecz received her PhD at Université Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne) and teaches at the History of Art & Design Department of Pratt Institute.