By Karen Muelhbauer
In the late 1970s, Goddard College had a small office in Los Angeles. Run by Susan Rennie, the site sat at the crossroads of art and feminism and graduated a number of activist-artists, including 1980 alumna Mónica Mayer. Still active today, her practice includes performances, installations, social practice, drawing, and graphics. She has been presented throughout the world and works to blur the lines between art, activism, and pedagogy.
Mayer’s college career began at Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas, in her hometown of Mexico City, where her passion for feminism was ignited after attending a talk on women artists. The negative reaction by male students who attended the presentation — arguing that women are biologically less creative than men — made her aware of the societal shift that needed to occur before her work could carry equal significance.
“At that moment, I realized that unless we changed society, our work as women artists would never have a chance, and apart from making art, I had to work towards changing society,” Mayer explained.
Mayer moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to join the buzz of feminist activity happening at the Woman’s Building, founded by Judy Chicago, Sheila de Bretteville, and Arlene Raven. There, she met more female artists who had earned degrees at Goddard’s L.A. location. Based on their recommendations, Mayer decided to pursue a Master of Arts in Sociology of Art at Goddard.
Working with advisor Suzanne Lacy, she bridged what she was learning at the Woman’s Building with her studies, titling her thesis “Feminist Art. An Effective Political Tool.” In fact, her time at Goddard became a foundation for the entirety of her career.
“Doing an M.A. and writing a thesis gave me the time, space and tools to develop ideas that have been basic to my art practice,” she said.
Mayer points to Lacy as a considerable influence on her art. “From the beginning, I was interested in her work because [she] and Leslie Labowitz as Ariadne: A Social Art Network were doing public, political performances, using both the streets and television to present them. Working with them redefined my ideas of art.”
In 1978, Mayer developed a radical piece on sexual harassment called “El Tendedero,” which translates to “The Clothesline”. Because the work has remained so relevant throughout the years, she has been invited to recreate it for organizations in various countries, including the Hammer Museum in L.A. and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington.
After studying at Goddard in L.A., Mayer returned to Mexico and formed a group. The Generación de los Grupos is “characterized for their collective work, their political commitment and for working with what we call ‘non-object’ art — things such as performance, installation and video.” Thus, in collaboration with Maris Bustamante, Mayer formed Polvo de Gallina Negra (Black Hen Powder), which became Mexico’s first feminist art collective.
Polvo de Gallina Negra focused on unconventional art, presenting performances in the media and intervening in various social situations. Their name was inspired by a powder used in Mexican witchcraft to protect women from the “evil eye,” and they used humor to change the idea of the woman’s role in Mexico and the portrayal of women in mass media.
The renaissance of female liberation continued in Mexico City via Tlacuilas y Retrateras. The group was born out of a workshop Mayer led at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and developed a project called “La Fiesta de Quince Años” (“The Party of Fifteen Years”). Tlacuilas and Polvo made up two of the three feminist art groups in Mexico City at that time.
In 1975, she and Victor Lerma started what would become a lifelong partnership in life and art. In 1987, they began performing an ongoing piece about the Mexican art system called Pinto mi Raya. One of the many aspects of the project included developing an archive that contains more than 300,000 newspaper clippings of articles published between 1991 and 2016 featuring art in Mexico.
Mayer’s extensive list of artistic achievements includes writing as well. She has penned numerous books, citing her most important work as Rosa Chillante: mujeres y performance en México (Screeching Pink: Women and Performance in Mexico), published in 2004. She also spent 20 years writing for “El Universal” newspaper in Mexico.
Since 2011, Mayer has focused on “De Archivos y Redes” (On Archives and Networks), a project in which she creates art based on archives she has visited. The work takes form as performances, drawings, demonstrations, workshops or additional archives.
To this day, Mayer reflects gender issues in her art and draws upon the feminist ideals she cultivated at Goddard College in L.A., and she is continuously guided by her set of values: “A love of learning, being empathic and trying to make this a better world for others and myself.”