Los Angeles-based artist Beatriz Cortez was born in El Salvador and emigrated to Phoenix, Arizona when she was eighteen years old. She creates hand-crafted, labor-intensive sculptures and installations that honor manual labor as she references capitalism and its environmental impact on the planet.
Cortez received her Ph.D. in Latin American literature from Arizona State University in 1999. In 2000, she moved to Los Angeles to teach in the Central American Studies department at California State University at Northridge where she now leads classes on Central American novels, art, and film. In 2013, she received an M.A. in Visual Arts from Cal State Northridge and in 2015 an M.F.A. degree from the California Institute of the Arts.
Cortez produced her first major work in steel, a geodesic dome “Black Mirror,” that she exhibited at Cerritos College Art Galleries in 2016 shortly after graduating from Cal Arts. This piece explored the politics of vocational work. Steel is the raw material used most often by her for sculptures that are inspired by architecture. “There is something interesting about metal that is so strong, but you can turn it into liquid and make it malleable. . . Steel is organic.” She welds the structures herself. “I love making pieces with steel that are stitched together. . . When I’m welding I imagine myself a seamstress”
Her installation “Trinidad/Joy Station” imagines a future communal space station, the ultimate architecture of survival seen through an indigenous lens. The installation’s name comes from Trinidad, Colorado, the home of Drop City, an early artist commune whose improvised geodesic dome architecture joins with the collective living practices of an ancient Mayan village, located in El Salvador. This work is dedicated to the survival of indigenous peoples and the celebration of human resilience as she connects the Americas by bridging the present, the past, and the future.
Cortez’s work explores simultaneity, the existing in different places at the same time. She made two versions of her “Tzolk’in,” the Mayan name of the sacred calendar for agriculture. It is a large steel kinetic sculpture, whose movements are based on the Mayan agricultural calendar. The first version was shown on the Westside of Los Angeles at the Hammer Museum. The second, a larger version, was installed on the city’s Eastside in Glassell Park, a postindustrial strip of land. A surveillance camera at Glassell Park allowed for its viewing in real time on a screen at the Hammer. This unidirectionality was intentional since both sites don’t “offer the same circumstances or opportunities.”
She has made a series of furnishings out of chain-link fence, woven with strips of mylar blankets, the kind used by Central American migrants held in immigration detention centers. This piece was inspired by her finding out that the Japanese Americans, who were interned in Manzanar during World War II, made a beautiful garden to lift their spirits in the face of injustice.
For the Smithsonian Institution’s multidisciplinary show “Futures” Cortez made three welded steel sculptures titled “Chultun El Semillero.” They reimagine the underground storage used by the pre-Columbian Maya as a vehicle for a speculative time travel to “a future that can hold all of us, our technologies and knowledges, our collective survival.”
Her work has been exhibited internationally in El Salvador, China, and Ecuador. In the United States her sculptures have been displayed in group exhibitions in Marfa, Texas; the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Queens Museum; the Socrates Sculpture Park in New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In California she has exhibited at the California Pacific Triennial at the Orange County Museum of Art in 2017; U.C. Riverside as part of “Pacific Standard Time:L.A.” in 2017; Hammer Museum’s 2018 “Made in L.A.” biennial; and Los Angeles’s Craft Contemporary Museum in 2019.