Commonwealth and Council

The Mayan

Clarissa Tossin


Clarissa Tossin’s “The Mayan” explores (re)appropriation, (mis)representation, and (mis)translation in a series of sculptures based on The Mayan theater in Los Angeles—a prototypical example of the late 1920s Mayan Revival style that co-opted the architecture and iconography of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures. 

Originally a venue showcasing a range of theatrical productions, including musicals and comedies, this Mayan-inspired setting has also been used as a Hollywood film set, a porn theater, and now a nightclub since 1990. Tossin starts from the lobby’s interior, conceived by Francisco Cornejo, where re-interpretations of Mayan glyphs and figures, such as the ruler Ha' K'in Xook, appear from floor to ceiling throughout. Based on the archeological sites of Quirigua and Piedras Negras in Guatemala and Yaxchilán in Mexico, some fragments and arrangements become indecipherable, while others are recreations recognizable to someone familiar with the lexicon. Silicone imprints of the walls and doors are combined with cast figurative gestures borrowed from other Mayan imagery, particularly that of dancers that adorn ceramic vessels. The type of silicone used is commonly employed for special effects to imitate skin. The core of Tossin’s project plays with her notion that ancient Mayan iconography and accompanying architectonic forms predicate a sophisticated and performative relationship to language. The series of sculptures intend to bear these qualities and situate them in dialog with (mis)translation. The dexterity to create such intricate and densely coded hieroglyphs and their corresponding visuality implicates the body’s symbiotic relationship with the intellect of Mayan cosmology. Ideas of reproduction continue through the artist’s use of fabric, synthetic hair, and feathers sourced from the internet as well as the Los Angeles Fashion District, directly adjacent to The Mayan theater. These bring the serpent, jaguar, and quetzal—animals central to Mayan cosmology—into play and emphasize our increasingly mediated relationship with the natural world through mimesis. These elements along with the silicone imprints and cast gestures are trussed by wooden stands and become yet another new creation that calls for critical examination within a continuum of appropriation, representation, and translation. Like the architecture of The Mayan theater itself, Tossin’s work fractures the idea of the copy. As more fanciful references, they pastiche backwards and out of order, repeat and re-imagine. Not forgetting the power dynamics at play, Tossin looks to appropriation as a process of translation and recreation, albeit with some lost elements of comprehension or context. In an act of what Homi Bhabha calls “convergence,” Tossin undertakes her own processes of choice and exclusion, but with the intent to highlight an essential tenet of the anterior—the sophistication of the Mayan performative body.

Clarissa Tossin (b. 1973, Porto Alegre, Brazil; based in Los Angeles and Cambridge) has exhibited at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the Museum of Latin America Art, Long Beach, CA; the Queens Museum, New York, NY; Wesleyan University’s Zilkha Gallery, Middletown, CT; CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco, CA; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, MI; SITE Santa Fe, NM; the Blaffer Art Museum, Houston, TX; among others. She recently concluded a commission from the city of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs for the Getty Foundation’s initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA as part of the exhibition “Condemned To Be Modern” at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. Also part of PST: LA/LA, her work will be shown in “Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas” at the UC Riverside Museum of Photography. Tossin received funding from California Community Foundation (2014), Fundação Joaquim Nabuco (2015 and 2014), Artpace San Antonio (2013), the Center for Cultural Innovation (2013 and 2012), and has recently been awarded a 2017-18 Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard University. Clarissa Tossin gratefully acknowledges Matthew Looper, Professor of Art History, California State University, Chico; Megan E. O’Neil, Associate Curator, Art of the Ancient Americas, LACMA; and the owners of The Mayan theater, Sammy Chao and Susan Chao, without whom this project would not have been possible.