The artist Yvette Mayorga, clad in a black sports bra and leggings, stands arms akimbo behind a barbed wire fence near the U.S.-Mexico border. The fence is laced with tiny American flags. Mayorga’s image blinks and then disappears. This scene is quickly replaced by an ornate domestic space displaying religious figurines. That gives way to a shot of street vendors selling food and luchador masks under a bright sun. Miniaturized migrants, weathered and dirty and carrying backpacks, walk past the merchandise laid out on the ground. All the while, a remixed cumbia track plays at a manic pace, like carnival music made sinister.
These images are from Really Safe in My Room, in America, a video installation that was part of Mayorga’s 2016 MFA show at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The video, which combined personal photos with found images of the border, was part of one of her now-distinctive installations: a garishly painted room decorated with cake frosting (preserved with a coat of acrylic) and filled with paintings, party supplies, and sculptures layered with foam, paint, toy soldiers, plastic handcuffs, photographs, bags of Cheetos, angel figurines, plaster, and even more frosting. It all represents the American dream, and how that dream looks to immigrants hoping for a better life.
“I’m interested in having the viewer think that they’re going to experience something maybe sensory or decadent, but then, through being attracted to the colors, to the smell, they discover that the work is about something else, something more profound, something darker,” Mayorga says. “In that same sense it’s also a metaphor to the illusion of the American dream, that America itself can seem to be something very decadent, luscious, promising to somebody coming from another country. But, you know, it can fall short of that.”
Mayorga, 26, is short and striking, with her dark bob and bright red lipstick. Her work is mature in its consideration of border politics—though, paradoxically, she uses a conceptual framework based on the board game Candy Land. It’s also personal. Mayorga’s parents migrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, an era when migration from Mexico into the United States was steadily increasing. Her father in particular had a harrowing experience: he crossed into Texas inside the hood of a car, packed in with another man beside the engine. (Her parents have since become citizens.) As a first-generation Mexican-American, Mayorga feels guilt at not having had to endure such hardships. That’s partly why she feels it’s imperative for her to bring these stories not just into the open, but into the art world.
The artist uses bright colors (hot pink, kelly green), confectionary sights and smells (cakes, frosting, oversize Candy Land props), and signifiers of American prosperity (palm trees, a ceramic Louis Vuitton purse) to lure in her audience. But a closer look at the elaborately staged scenes reveals darker images. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents hide in the brightly patterned wallpaper. A body peeks out from under the hood of a car. A gold nameplate necklace spells out “Illegal” in cursive script so oversize it might fit around the neck of the Statue of Liberty.
Allison Glenn, the associate curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, first encountered Mayorga’s work at the 2016 MFA show. “I was completely enamored of the installation,” she says. “I was really impressed at the depth, the concept that she was engaging with, the material, how she approached it. It all seemed really fresh.” After a studio visit, Glenn invited Mayorga to exhibit work in “Out of Easy Reach,” a cross- institutional exhibition she was curating in Chicago that highlights the artistic contributions of women of color who use abstraction to explore both personal and universal histories. The show is on view concurrently at Gallery 400 at UIC, the DePaul Art Museum, and the Stony Island Arts Bank; each location centers around a different theme. Mayorga is part of the Gallery 400 exhibition, which focuses on issues of spatial politics, mapping, and migration. “I think that her work really problematizes a linear narrative or a one-dimensional perspective of the immigrant experience,” Glenn says. “It’s important to include works that deal with this narrative and are part of this larger global conversation.”
Mayorga grew up in Moline, Illinois, a small city of around 40,000 residents on the Iowa border. As a child, Mayorga never quite felt like she fit in with the area’s majority-white population. “I still had friends that were Mexican, friends that were white, friends that were black, but I always felt a little bit of that disconnection,” she says.
Her house felt like a sanctuary, a safe space where she could fully express her identity. “Home to me, especially in Moline, was my point of reference to being Mexican,” Mayorga says. “All of the objects that were inside, everything that happened inside, felt very much like: this is my identity. Then stepping outside, going to school, felt very American. I felt kind of displaced in those interactions. So to me, the home was political in that sense. It was also where I could form that identity of feeling like I was Mexican and American, but mostly Mexican, there. Kind of like an island in like a larger place. I felt like I was in two spaces at the same time.”
The youngest of five, Mayorga knew from an early age that she wanted to be an artist. She often followed the artistic cues of her older siblings, two of whom had a talent for drawing. Her brother, Alex, wooed his high school girlfriends with illustrations of roses. Mayorga remembers going to school and copying his flowers. Her classmates saw her work and would ask her to make drawings for them. “I think that’s the moment where I was like, ‘Oh, I can draw.'”
Though she was always interested in art, Mayorga didn’t visit an art museum until her late teens. Her visual references came from pop culture—she loved Hello Kitty and the Mexican-American Tejano pop star Selena—and the baroque imagery of the Catholic Church. For most of her early life, she spent summers in Jerez, Zacateca, her parents’ hometown in central Mexico. “Having that experience, of being able to be in Mexico for the whole summer and see where my parents grew up, see what the culture was like there, gave me access to a whole other visual language,” she says. “I was really interested in the religious iconography of the Virgin Mary and these really excessive decorations that were found in the church, whether it was church in Mexico or church in Moline. All of the baroque influences, now that I can name it. The gold, the angels, and the ritual in itself.”
This interest in art led her to study painting as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. But the program, which had a heavy emphasis on oil painting and the masters, bored her. It wasn’t until she took a sculpture class that she really felt inspired. “To me, [sculpture] was more present,” Mayorga says. “It was more like art in space rather than art trying to be a space through painting.”
Excited by the possibilities of sculpture, she decided to pursue an MFA in fiber and material studies at SAIC. She admired the work the faculty was producing, and wanted to see how fiber could be incorporated into her own sculptures. Lisa Vinebaum, an associate professor in the department who was Mayorga’s graduate adviser in her final semester, recalls Mayorga applied for the program with a strong, cohesive body of work. “She came in knowing that she wanted to work on themes of the border and the American dream,” Vinebaum says. Mayorga was already making work around these ideas as an undergrad, but in grad school she began incorporating more personal narratives and was less ambiguous about what she was trying to express.
During her time in grad school, Mayorga worked steadily on improving her installation skills, which culminated in her room-size thesis project. Titled Really Safe in My Room, the work incorporated many of her now-signature elements, including rococo motifs and lots of frosting. The confectionary aspect also stems from Mayorga’s family history. Growing up, her mother and aunt both worked as bakers, making elaborate cakes and pastries. These sweet memories make perfect sense in the artist’s work, which contrasts symbols of celebration with the violence of the border. The video makes those themes even more explicit.
“I felt like the work—the installation work, the monuments, all these separate components—could talk about the political things that I was interested in, but I felt like video had a quickness,” Mayorga says. “I could just conflate all these images at once and kind of scream the message instead of having it be more nuanced.”
Really Safe in My Room also contained pieces from Mayorga’s ongoing Monuments series, which she began in 2014; five of them will be on display in “Out of Easy Reach.” The monuments are sculptural totems that each represent a different person who is important to her. Ranging in height from around three to more than six feet, the pieces are complex, layered assemblages made of frosting, found objects, party decorations, acrylic paint, and an assortment of other materials relevant to that individual.
“The Monuments series was me thinking through imagining people crossing the border and becoming covered in this idea of the American dream,” Mayorga says. There is an emphasis on representing people who have crossed the border. At Gallery 400, the largest monument is an homage to Selena. “Just seeing her on the TV, or seeing her face, a brown woman, I think was the most important part about her being present,” she says.
Another monument is dedicated to her father. One is a portrait of herself. “A lot of them have sacrifices embedded in them,” says Glenn, the curator. “Not just sacrifice, the full gamut of emotions that comes with starting a new life and leaving a country.”
Since graduating from SAIC in the spring of 2016, Mayorga’s been busy. She spent that first year in the Chicago Artists Coalition’s yearlong Bolt residency program, which culminated in her first solo show, “The Politics of Desire.” During the residency, she met Janine Mileaf, the executive director of the Arts Club of Chicago, who selected her for a solo booth at last year’s Expo Chicago. Mayorga had about six months to create a new installation; she chose to build it around the concept of trying to create art after the November 8, 2016 election, and the energy it takes to keep going in such a stressful, scary time.
The result, High Maintenance, made a huge splash, drawing mentions in Hyperallergic, Bad at Sports, and the Reader. Saturated in hot pink, the installation was partially inspired by time Mayorga spent in Miami in 2017 on a Fountainhead artist residency. On display were tiered cakes as tall as people, a ceramic pair of Nike sneakers, and a series of frosting-laden bas reliefs illustrating lush scenes of American excess: in-ground swimming pools, ornately landscaped yards, palm trees, gold chains.
Mayorga maintains a regular studio practice, putting in a full week’s work in addition to the administrative tasks that come with regular gallery shows. She’s also a part-time art education coordinator for the National Mexican Museum of Art, where she teaches art to kids off-site at schools and community centers.
“What gets me the most excited is to be able to give them that connection [to fine art],” Mayorga says of her students. “That they can see themselves in art history, in history, and so that maybe at a younger age they feel like it’s something that’s possible for them to pursue.”
Busy schedule notwithstanding, Mayorga is exactly where she wants to be. Ever since she had her own studio at the U. of I., she knew she wanted to be a full-time artist, sharing her story and that of her family. And though she has been exploring this subject in her art since long before the last presidential election, her work has taken on a sharper resonance since then.
“Sometimes it feels harder to make work, or to think about what is art’s role in all of this or what can art do,” Mayorga says. “But at the end of the day you realize that art is powerful.” She is happy her work can provide a counterpoint to the often disparaging remarks the president makes about immigrants. “More than ever, it gives me more of that wanting, that urge, to make this kind of work.”
Despite all her thinking and creating work based on the idea of the American dream, when I ask Mayorga if she thinks her family has achieved it, she’s ambivalent. She thinks her dad would say that he had, but she’s not so sure when she thinks about the sacrifices he’s made and the toll that decades of factory work has taken on his body. But in another conversation several weeks later, while explaining why it’s important for her to tell her father’s story, Mayorga seems to have overcome her earlier ambivalence.
“It’s a real story of an immigrant who came to America, who made a life, who had a daughter that’s me, and how I was able to achieve going to college and follow this career of mine,” she says. “Wanting to be an artist at a young age seemed super impossible. Thinking about living in a capitalist society and having to make money, and how do you make that work? Being able to achieve that dream, I feel really thankful for that. And I feel like it’s inherent that I would want to talk about my experience growing up. Maybe another young girl seeing my work can feel like she’s being represented also, or her father’s story is being represented, or her mother’s story, to feel like we’re not aliens, that we are people. And these things happen to people, in order to achieve something greater.”
She pauses for a moment. “I guess I’m technically the achievement that my dad wanted.” v