Chilean painter Maria Victoria Polanco has been at work for two decades now, presenting her audience with an imagery that is both intuitive and domestic. Household furniture and well-dressed little girls make their way into her paintings, but the happiness Polanco imagines is also made more complex by a general atmosphere in which almost anything can happen, including the suggestion of violence. She paints outsized houses that dominate both the gallery wall and the gallery itself; in another painting, we see the prominent display of fishhooks. The female domesticity suggested in much of her art has to do with a larger concern: the way in which the world perceives women, and the way in which women perceive the world. Primarily, it is the image of women Polanco is concerned with, for she creates the scenes and artifacts of life at home in ways that undermine our expectation of its comfort. Polanco, living in South America, may have more than just a bit to say about cultural mores there, even if she does not necessarily make her meanings explicit. As an artist, she relies on the suggestive image, culling the archives of dreams for a slightly humorous, slightly surrealist vision in which a feminist outlook is suggested without being directly expressed.


Women painters today both embrace and repudiate traditionally female themes, in ways that increasingly make their art memorable. Polanco is no exception; her work challenges the nature of a female sensibility by constructing a feminine imagery that subverts the seemingly irreversible boundaries of the world as she knows it. In one painting, a faceless little girl wears a short dress; next to her is a table, with a real cloth attached covering the table’s top. On it Polanco has drawn a plate with utensils and a glass; close by is a high-backed chair, painted on the wall like the girl and the table. The imagery makes for a small altar to domesticity, yet the girl’s face is blank. The general effect is generic; we have come upon a typical situation, in which propriety holds dominion. Even so, the tableau also speaks to the invisibility of children, their lack of power in a world run by adults. Polanco, the mother of a youthful son, sees clearly the opportunities of childhood—from a psychological as well as formal angle. In another installation, a bed, chair, night table with lamp, window, and picture have been painted on the wall, while next to it one finds small paintings filled with the imagery of advertising, primarily in red and blue.


It is clear, here, that the world’s economic power is invading the private sanctity of the home. The impersonal, mass appeal of the designer’s lettering, created to sell a product, interrupts—indeed, imposes itself—on the very personal imagery of a bedroom. Polanco is not necessarily a political artist, yet she works with an implied critique of the way the world is. She contrasts public with private realms as a way of describing her circumstances, which inevitably point to a hard-won sense of independence. It can be argued that these paintings work up a series of personal references that enables the artist to face the world; her black-line wall drawings, as artificial as the commercial imagery close by, nonetheless posit a world that speaks to the mute world of furniture and homely design, which offers some solace and a bit of protection from the outside world. To make her point clear, sometimes Polanco will even include a real chair as part of her installation; its authenticity as an object shows us that the representation of the home is meant to be as real as possible, crossing the traditional divide between art and life.


The bridging of the gap between the imagination and actual experience occupied the core efforts of the 20th-century avant-garde, and in her own way, Polanco continues what they began. When art is purely formalist, it often becomes a plaything of the elite; however, work that addresses social reality alone equally often seems righteous and self-justifying. Polanco has the balance right; even her decorative paintings, for example, one that offers a kind of wallpaper and decorative patterning, over which a meandering white line has been painted, resonate as inspired attempts to imitate the reality of a life lived as Polanco might live hers. As an artist, she does not have the immediate presence of a feminist tradition that would support her as it supports American and European women. But it is clear that she is finding meaningful relations between her experience as a person and her life as a painter—even if she has to make up the commentary as she goes along. In the long run, Polanco’s strength as a painter will be seen as more than ordinary, for she invests her art not only with imagined effects, but also with actual causes, even if we, her audience, are not always sure what they are. Both representative of and ahead of their time, Polanco’s paintings tell us in no uncertain terms what it means to be a female painter.


Jonathan Goodman poet and art critic. He has written articles about the world of art for publications including Art in America, Sculpture and Art Asia Pacific and others. Teaches art criticism at the Pratt Institute in New York.