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At the Fitchburg Art Museum, Daniela Rivera digs deep into disaster

This year’s Rappaport Prize winner channels her Chilean heritage. But the issues she embraces embody catastrophes not bound by any border

Daniela Rivera captures the hands of Chilean miners with her "Where the Sky Touches the Earth" series.Charles Sternailmolo

FITCHBURG — There’s just a handful of works in Daniela Rivera’s solo exhibition — six, depending how you count — but that’s more than enough to fill the contemporary galleries at the Fitchburg Art Museum to the brim. It also depends on how you choose to define “fill." Absence is as powerful as presence in Rivera’s work, and “Labored Landscapes (Where Hand Meets Ground)” spills over with both.

Rivera, who teaches at Wellesley College, was already well-known in the region when she won the $35,000 Rappaport Prize in August, awarded annually to a New England artist by the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. “The Andes Inverted,” her vast installation for the Museum of Fine Arts in 2017, suspended a glowing anthropomorphic mass above the mezzanine of the contemporary art wing, while the Davis Museum on her home campus of Wellesley hosted a solo exhibition last year. The Fitchburg show had been in the works long before the Rappaport Prize was announced, but it feels like a victory lap all the same.


Rivera came to the United States from Chile, where she grew up amid the depravations of the Augusto Pinochet regime (she arrived here in 2002). “Labored Landscapes," like much of her work, simmers with a plea for social justice in her homeland. But her themes — labor, exploitation, falseness, disaster — are depressingly global. Her work at the Fitchburg roots in specific circumstances — time, place, calamity — but it slips easily into a universal narrative of dispossession, writ large.

That’s partly because Rivera carefully elides specificity in her monumental works. She plays deftly with the toggles of material, implied labor, and oblique imagery. She tells a story less than she conjures a feeling. That’s what I mean by absence: In one of the galleries, a large cube, open on top and bottom, teeters on a single edge, like a mousetrap awaiting its prey. It’s tucked off in a corner, all alone in a broad space. To see it, you have to negotiate emptiness; you traverse an unsettling void that leaves you feeling helpless and small.


The object itself, ominous and dull gray, offers no comfort; once you reach it, you realize it’s a set of canvases on wooden stretchers — the backs of paintings you need to duck inside to view. Here, Rivera subverts art-world convention in the subtlest of ways: She foregrounds structure, giving labor top billing over the precious romanticization of art — a nod to Minimalism, where form and material had their own walled logic, impervious to outside context. But the void it occupies isn’t so empty, either. The gallery’s walls are scored with thousands of tiny gestures, etched with copperpoint by Rivera herself. The whole space rejects the idea of art as something spiritual, the product of dark magic. The show is a monument to work — laborious, time-swallowing work.

Daniela Rivera's "Tilted Heritage" sits alone at the Fitchburg Art Museum. Charles Sternaimolo

The piece, “Tilted Heritage,” has other layers — it was made in response to the 2014 fire in Valparaíso, Chile, where thousands of homes burned when firefighters couldn’t navigate the steep incline on which the city was built — and the work reveals itself with an air of eerie mystery. The surfaces of the canvases would be abstract paintings, but for the now-notable presence of coagulated char and ash. Instead, they become a kind of landscape, subtle and bleak, that show you little but leave you feeling much. How do you capture in an image the despair of a city vaporized in an instant? Rivera avoids the obvious to instead evoke, opening up instead of closing off.


Across the hall, “Where the Sky Touches the Earth,” a series of three massive paintings of pale hands swimming in shadow, seems to be made by another artist entirely. Rivera shows herself to be fluent in multiple languages, from abstraction to Minimalism to baroque figure painting. But whatever the form, her preoccupations cut through. The hands flutter and turn, or sit clasped in a lap. Disembodied, they have lives of their own, evoking urgency, anxiety, resignation. Huge and tacked loosely to the wall like tapestries, the paintings, as objects, feel precarious, like they could drop at any time. That turns out to be apt. The series grew from the artist’s trips to Chile’s Chuquicamata copper mine, a man-made canyon of ridges plummeting deep into the earth. Generations of workers built homes and lives there, raising children and making community. At its peak, it numbered some 24,000 residents. In 2002 the Chilean government, which owns the mine, deemed the region uninhabitably toxic. It forced the town that had grown alongside the mine — all 2,500 residents — to move in 2004.

So the community was nurtured by the very industry that came to see it as expendable (the mine persists, though the town does not; a two-week strike by its 3,200 employees ended in June). That dynamic is hardly unique to Chile. We don’t have to look far in this country — from languishing coal mines to shuttered factories and the devastated towns they occupy — to commiserate. That pain, for Rivera, lives not in a pedantic scold but in small gestures made large enough to see. The hands belong to workers and their families; their gestures were recorded as Rivera interviewed them about forced relocation. Those same hands held jackhammers, or shovels, or laundered filthy safety gear; they also built homes and schools, or held soccer balls and crayons. They’re collateral damage, subsumed in a force that operates beyond human scale.


Her paintings do what they can to match it, though they never could. The works all but tremble with humanity, so often dismissed or ignored in our industrious little species’s urge to dominate at a planetary scale. Any photograph can tell you what we can do to a landscape, from open pit mines to deforestation to wildfires to urban sprawl. The cost to our ailing planet becomes clearer by the day. But the cost to us? That’s a harder picture to take. Rivera’s work captures landscapes not of the earth, but of the soul.


At the Fitchburg Art Museum, Through Jan. 12. 185 Elm St., Fitchburg. 978-345-4207, fitchburgartmuseum.org

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.