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Nkima Stephenson / For Spectator

Deborah Cullen-Morales, director of Wallach Art Gallery, and artist Lina Puerta discussed Puerta's new mural "Manigua" in the lobby of Miller Theatre on Tuesday evening.

In New York’s concrete jungle, it is hard to imagine lush ferns and twisting vines climbing on the walls, but in Miller Theatre, you will find just that.

Lina Puerta, a New York-based artist, has recently installed her newest sculptural mural, “Manigua,” in the lobby of the theater. The work was chosen in collaboration with the Uptown triennial, a Wallach Art Gallery initiative to survey the works of artists living in northern Manhattan.

In Miller Theatre’s lobby, she and chief curator and gallery director Deborah Cullen-Morales held a discussion on Tuesday on the inspiration behind “Manigua,” and Puerta’s most recent projects and residencies.

The name of Puerta’s installation, “Manigua,” translates to “mysterious scrubland or impenetrable overgrowth.” It was chosen, according to both Puerta and Cullen-Morales, for the connotation of secrecy that it evokes in the Spanish language. It is part of a series by Puerta called “Botanico,” which “explores the tension between humanity and the botanical world.”

“Nature comes into abandoned spaces and starts to take over,” Puerta said. “It is nature fighting back.”

Nkima Stephenson

For her, this message was especially appropriate given the urban environment of New York City. In a city where the vast majority of plant life is carefully manicured gardens, Puerta was inspired by the weeds that regain territory lost to what she considers excessive development.

In the mural, jagged segments along the edges of the ceiling are painted to resemble cracks, from which greenery, patches of fleshy pink foam, and synthetic materials ranging from textured fabrics to jewelry protrude. The sharp juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial aim to show how artificial consumerist products have intruded on the natural world.

“Materials guide my process, and I am attracted to celebratory and festive materials,” Puerta said.

She spoke of working in the Materials for the Arts warehouse, a space in which anyone can leave objects and materials for artists to use, and joked about how she “almost became a hoarder” because of the variety of mediums she was given to work with. In “Manigua,” the liberal use of different textured and colorful fabrics reveal this affection for variety.

“We live in a world of abundance,” Puerta said, referencing the multitude of unused items that she found in the warehouse.

She explores the idea of overabundance and consumerism in many of her works, all of which incorporate nontraditional materials.

“I know that she is very knowledgeable and widely traveled, and I think she is a very socially committed artist, but I don’t think that is always very overt in her work,” Cullen-Morales said.

Although this commitment might not always be clear in her work, it was evident as Puerta spoke of the inspirations behind all of her projects. Even while she was completing a residency at the Kohler foundry from 2014 to 2015, a location that produces synthetic consumer products, she used cast iron to create tree branches that were then covered in lace, an image reminiscent of “Manigua.”

As the conversation concluded, an audience member commented that she had to continuously remind herself that the plants were fake and that the wall was painted, not cracked. Without using anything natural, Puerta succeeded in giving the illusion of nature taking back urban space on the Columbia campus. | @ColumbiaSpec

Lina Puerta Miller Theatre Wallach Gallery