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Phillips Collection show commemorates victims of domestic violence

Washington artist Marta Pérez García’s installation ‘Restos-Traces’ is part of the museum’s ‘Intersections’ series

An installation view of "Restos-Traces" by Marta Pérez García at the Phillips Collection. On the far wall is Francis Bacon's "Study of a Figure in a Landscape" (1952). (AK Blythe)
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When the pandemic rendered many public places menacing, people sought asylum in their own homes. But for the women commemorated in Marta Pérez García’s bilingual Phillips Collection exhibition, home was anything but a safe space.

“Restos-Traces” comprises 19 life-size female torsos, made primarily of shaped paper. (The show’s Spanish-English title — “restos” means ruins or remaining — alludes to the preservation of memories.) They represent victims of domestic violence, “women who are not here anymore,” as the Puerto Rico-born, Washington-based artist explained at the show’s opening. Abuse, brutalization and murder of women by male partners increased significantly after March 2020, according to many reports.

The pandemic caused a global surge in domestic violence. For victims with few options, abuse has become the new normal.

All the elegantly crafted figures are headless, and 17 hang from the ceiling, filling much of the gallery that holds them. Visitors are encouraged to walk gently between the swaying sculptures, inspecting their individual designs and communing with the spirits they embody. The experience is involving, enveloping and a bit eerie.

Pérez García made more than 30 effigies since the beginning of last year. Most of the ones at the Phillips are in shades of white, beige or rose; two are dusty black. They are festooned with nails, pins, studs and other metallic embellishments, as well as hair and film negatives. Many have prominent spines, sometimes protruding or detached. (These symbolize strength, the artist says.) A few sculptures include letters in molded relief that spell out single words: “silencio,” “invisible” or simply “no.”

The figures express a sort of barbed sexuality. Breasts are emphasized with arrays of sharp metal objects or are, in one case, replaced with a set of agonized faces.

Two of the figures have partial sets of teeth at their crotches. The 17 bodies, it appears, are battlefields. Yet the formed-paper mannequins are delicate as well, with open areas and tattered filigree through which light streams. Often the bodily contours meld with filmy items of clothing that are fixed in place but seem to ripple. Two of the figures are free-standing, and one perches atop a basketlike framework that contains a pile of heads. This heap can be read as evidence of a crime, like the chamber full of bodies of wives killed by Bluebeard in the French folk tale. Yet the heads appear peaceful, as if waiting to be restored to their rightful places atop the torsos.

This ambiguity is characteristic of Pérez García’s figures. She identifies them as victims but also describes them as “survivors.” The contrast between softly fashioned paper and hard-edge metal signifies the twinned qualities of vulnerability and indomitability, destruction and endurance. The sculptures are wispy, yet do indeed have strength.

“Restos-Traces” is the latest installation in the Phillips’s “Intersections” series, in which contemporary artists respond or relate to the museum’s permanent collection. Pérez García’s sculptures were made before the possibility of a Phillips show arose, and thus were not conceived in dialogue with any particular artwork. But the artist later selected two of the museum’s pieces to display with hers.

One is Francis Bacon’s brutally expressionistic “Study of a Figure in a Landscape,” an anguished 1952 painting that has long unsettled the museum’s traditionally contemplative vibe. The other is French artist Annette Messager’s 1989-90 “My Little Effigies,” acquired in 2014 and less typical of the Phillips’s holdings. It’s a set of 13 plush toys that are paired with small close-up photos of body parts and framed texts that recount a range of emotions. These assemblages dangle on the wall via long cords.

Like the torsos of “Restos-Traces,” Messager’s mixed-media pieces feel both intimate and isolated. Both are constructed from spiritual archetypes and actual found objects, yet are evocatively personal. They contain traces of real life.

If you go

Marta Pérez García: Restos-Traces

Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. phillipscollection.org.

Dates: Through Aug. 28.

Admission: Admission to the museum’s first floor, where the installation is located, is free.

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