LOS ANGELES — Beatriz Cortez has envisioned a communal space populated by raw steel and indigenous American plants. The artist drew inspiration from two seemingly disparate sites: Drop City, the short-lived artist commune founded in 1965 in Trinidad, Colorado, and Joya de Cerén, the ancient Mayan community in present-day El Salvador. The results are on view in Cortez’s exhibition Trinidad / Joy Station at Craft Contemporary in Los Angeles, where the space feels both freshly futuristic and profoundly ancient.
Cortez was initially inspired by Drop City’s distinct geometric domes made from car parts. The commune’s residents valued ideals of material efficiency, improvisation, and nonconformity, and while the project ultimately failed, its vision left an impression on the history of 20th-century architecture and design. Attracted to Drop City’s material sensibility, but skeptical of its reliance on capitalist norms, Cortez set out to imagine a commune with other logic. She recalled visiting Joya de Cerén, a Mayan farming village built around collective living practices that was buried after a volcanic eruption circa 600 CE and rediscovered in 1976 — Central America’s Pompeii, if you will.
Cortez is interested in connecting sites across the Americas. Born in El Salvador, the artist immigrated to the United States when she was eighteen. Her art threads cultures and histories together to imagine new sites for coexistence in hand-crafted and labor-intensive sculptures and installations. Combining organic and inorganic materials, her works are often designed to be pieced together and easily transportable — unsealed steel and zip ties are her signature materials.
In an interview at the museum, Cortez said she was drawn to the organic nature of raw steel — the way it reacts to its environment, to humans in the space, and to plants. Welding reminds her of sewing, she explained, how the precise handiwork in manipulating the material feels like the work of a seamstress. In one corner of the exhibition, a geometric dome has been built from car parts the artist diligently sourced from junk yards and melded together into interchangeable pieces. In another, latrines have been crafted out of steel, zip ties synching together a dome overhead. Maintaining imperfections, Cortez makes visible the labor required for each object, an homage, she explains, to the labor of immigrants who often take jobs they are not trained to do, but nevertheless excel at.
The relationship between welding and sewing is strongly felt in the bedroom. Struck by the heat sheets distributed to children in immigrant detention centers, Cortez constructed a shimmering bed set of steel and chain link woven together with strips of mylar. Intricate ironwork along the headboard reflects architectural details from immigrant neighborhoods in Los Angeles. And along the floor she wove a mylar petate — an ancient mat used by indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America. Transforming her sources into objects that are at once beautiful and cosmic, Cortez creates a room that feels inventive and playful, yet steeped in symbols of power and resistance.
From mylar and chain link, Cortez moved to seeds. In the center of the gallery, Cortez created a garden with plants indigenous to the Americas, including corn, squash, yerba buena, and a ceiba tree — the sacred tree of the ancient Maya. Alongside is Cortez’s sculptural interpretation of a water tower, its raised tiers designed to reflect Mayan archaeological motifs. Amid the steel structures the plants represent life, the vitality of this site’s future.
Downstairs, Cortez adds intimate remnants of her own life, filling modest display shelves with objects tied to memory. They include seashells she carried in her suitcase when she left El Salvador as a teenager; a clay brick celebrating her frequent artistic collaborations with artist Rafa Esparza; and two books, one charred and the other open, sprouting seedlings. The books reference El Salvador’s 1980–1992 Civil War, during which people often buried or burned their books so as not to be deemed subversive. The shadow boxes offer a lingering space of reflection, like a poetic anecdote at the start of a great novel.
And while Cortez’s sources are long — the materiality of Drop City, the principles of Joya de Cerén, the car culture of Los Angeles, the horror of today’s immigrant detention centers — her intention of creating a site that moves back and forth across time and place succeeds. Between each historical reference and futuristic objective, she keeps the exhibition firmly rooted in the present.
This language of historical memory — the reflection on the past, in the present, and how it relates to the future — energizes Trinidad / Joy Station. Unlike many artists who tackle the theme, Cortez’s application of historical memory is not based on a single moment, but in the entire history of the Americas. She leads a growing group of contemporary Salvadoran artists whose art looks beyond the country’s civil war to explore themes such as indigenous roots, the environment, public versus private space, and migration. Like her interchangeable sculptures, these futuristic concepts or indigenous traditions are pieced together to create new totems of meaning, and in the process, offer alternative pathways to connection.
Beatriz Cortez: Trinidad / Joy Station continues at Craft Contemporary (5814 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) through May 12.