Where does wanderlust and homesickness collide?
In Cuban-born artist Maria Elena Gonzalez' work, the answer is in 70 carpetlike pieces scattered like flyers in the breeze, each one bearing a blueprint of a real or imaginary living space.
"I'm in constant motion," says Gonzalez, whose "UN Real Estates" runs at the University of Memphis Art Museum until April 19th. "When I went to Turkey, everybody tries to sell you a carpet. I ended up with three. You won't be able to escape it -- someone will get to you," she says. At the time, Gonzalez was traveling a lot -- and still is -- and she remembers being delayed on a runway, watching plane after plane land, thinking, Wouldn't it be great to have a magic carpet?
Ever since, images of undulating flying carpets have been a part of her sculptures and installations. She talks about how they tap into the desire to be anywhere, the "desire of freedom of spirit," she calls it.
In Flying Apartment Flotilla, Gonzalez' carpets bear the blueprints of the house she grew up in in Cuba, her mother's house in Cuba, her girlfriend's dream house, a friend's loft in New York, and an imaginary blueprint that resembles the Swiss flag.
"I'm always going back and forth between New York and Basel [Switzerland], where I actually live. I'm always really glad to go back to Basel, and I'm always glad to go back to New York. I feel like I'm never leaving. I'm always coming home, which is a great thing," she says.
In another piece, Weave and Wave, two shapes composed of identical tiles are positioned on the floor, forming two giant flying carpets. Because they are made with fiber-cement, they also resemble rooftops. The whole thing comes together, about three inches off the ground, to form a sort of flying city.
Gonzalez also links carpets to home on another level. Soon after her trip to Turkey, Gonzalez' father died and her mother passed away soon after.
"I described it as a rug," she says. "If you take the vertical threads out, the horizontal threads collapse."
Gonzalez began putting blueprints onto her magic-carpet-like sculptures for a 1999 outdoor installation, when she did scale reproductions of public-housing apartments near her neighborhood in Brooklyn. "I had drawn all these other people's apartments. I thought, Let's see, can I draw mine? I had a hard time remembering what my house in Cuba looked like."
The resulting piece took the form of a floor plan directly on the gallery's floor, which faded in and out as the viewer moved around the room. "I couldn't remember. Was there a window there? How big was this room? I got interested in the process of recollection and memory," she says. "Things are not always as real as your mind would like them to be."
While Gonzalez usually works with industrial materials, for a recent show in New York that centered around feelings of anxiety, she chose a different medium. Gonzalez made two towers: one of glass and the other of her and her girlfriend's fingernail clippings.
"I didn't make them exactly the same. I didn't make them 'twin,'" she says of the obvious connotation, "but there was a definite relationship. One was glass and very fragile and there wasn't anything around it. The viewer was filled with the sense of 'If I get too close, will it fall and break?'"
Gonzalez still spends a lot of time traveling and says pictures of her are always a blur because she can barely sit still. After a short stay in Memphis, she heads back to New York, then to L.A., then Baltimore. After that, who knows?
"I live moving around," she says.
"Now I've got to figure out how to cash in on these frequent-flyer miles."