.Viviana Paredes at the Triton Museum

'Alimentos' interprets Mexican culture through glass

Maguey House is one of many pieces on display at the Triton exhibition, ‘Alimentos: Glass Work by Viviana Paredes.’

The sounds of a Oaxacan marketplace emanate from one corner of a gallery in the Triton Museum of Art. The sounds are coming from a small speaker covered by a fruit crate that faces Viviana Paredes’ steel and glass sculpture Ser y Comer, a street cart displaying ears of corn in a handwoven basket.

The basket itself is nestled inside a mound of dried, pale yellow kernels that threaten to spill over the cart’s edges. Paredes has etched the word “ESQUITES” in capital letters onto one of the glass, side panels. The cart itself stands on top of a platform made from a dozen wooden fruit crates.

In “Alimentos: Glass Work by Viviana Paredes,” the artist says she wanted to remind people of Mexico’s rich cultural heritage as it pertains to “a tradition of really healthy food.” For the soundtrack, she recorded 60 hours of her visits to 10 different marketplaces throughout Oaxaca.

“The marketplace, it’s this amazing mixture of ancient and new,” she says. “The produce, the types of fruits and vegetables that were abundant, things that I’ve never seen before. Indigenous people come down from the mountains and their villages to sell their things, so you hear different languages being spoken.”

Paredes also studies ethnobotany, which she describes as “the science of people’s relationships to food.” In this exhibit, she wanted to find a way to meld the personal and the political. Paredes said that her brother got really sick and almost died, “and it was all related to food.” She grew up in San Jose and recalled, “All of my relatives used to come here and work in the agricultural fields. When I’d come home, there was always a fresh pot of beans on the stove, tortillas handmade. We ate fruit all the time.” In response to her brother’s illness, Paredes started to do research about food politics and came across this famous quotation by Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State: “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.”

“Countries that have colonized other places—that’s the first thing they do,” she says. For Paredes, using glass to explore that pre-colonial relationship to food didn’t feel like an unusual choice.

“When I started working with glass, I realized that this is a really interesting material,” she explained during a recent visit to her San Francisco studio. “It’s an ancient material, which I find really interesting. It’s made from sand and silica; with a lot of heat it melts.” She glances toward the large, rectangular window facing south and reminds us, “We look at the world with glass. We look out the window of our offices, of our cars, our homes. So I thought, ‘What perfect material, glass, to put a lens on the ideas I’m thinking about, to hold those things.'”

Paredes picks up one of the wax molds for her striking sculpture Nowhere Everywhere Invisible. Three pairs of glass hands—cast from her own—are cut off at the forearms. They open their palms in prayer. Each pair holds onto something sacred: copal (a pine tree resin used in Mexican rituals), prayer beads (“They’re not a rosary,” Paredes clarifies) and red seeds she found on the ground in Oaxaca. The hands first came into being as a response to the current political climate. Paredes sees art as a way of healing the “mess” we’re in, and as a way to respond to the world with “deep thought about where we are as a people.” The act of making them was, in itself, an act of prayer.

Throughout the interview, it was hard to ignore a tall stack of dried stalks behind the artist’s left shoulder. They were resting against shelves of art supplies, papers and remnants from previous projects. Paredes identified them as maguey stalks, also known in the United States as an agave or century plant. In addition to those giant stalks, different varieties of the distilled agave plant produce mezcal and tequila. Paredes constructed Maguey House for Alimentos, a glass shelter made out of recycled, deconstructed tequila bottles. In a painstaking process, she cut out pieces of the bottles so they’d take on the shape of the maguey leaves. In Mexico she said, “They took the leaves and made shingles out of them to create shelters. Now, it would be more like a chicken coop or a storage space. But the shape of them is beautiful. I was playing with that idea.”

Alimentos: Glass Work by Viviana Paredes
Thru Oct 28, Free
Triton Museum of Art, Santa Clara

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