Raquel Mendoza – A Space of Her Own

Linlin Chen

My first encounter with Raquel Mendoza was in the woodshop at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where we both worked as teaching assistants at the First Year Program’s Core Studio class. I was drawn to her bright smile and warm, outgoing personality immediately. She was a graduate student, one year my junior, majoring in sculpture. From then on, more laughter and works were produced by Mendoza in the shop, and our friendship simultaneously grew.

Mendoza’s works reveal her experience and experiments with physical and natural space and her curiosity and cognition of psychological and spiritual space. Brought up in a Mexican immigrant family in Southern California, Mendoza is from the same town as artist John Baldessari: National City, California. As she recalled in her statement, a private, personal space was a luxury rather than a matter of necessity in her household, where she is the youngest of eight children. Meanwhile, Mendoza said that she is fascinated by American culture’s obsession with largeness: “massive SUV cars, multi-story houses, and supersized meals.”[1] The fascination with cultural massiveness and her own childhood experience encouraged her to explore the size of physical spaces and the impact it takes on people’s inner world.

In her early works, with a witty and humorous approach, Mendoza transferred multiple spaces into a condensed space that looks reasonable than ridiculous. In Home (2006), she built a single narrow room that functions as kitchen, bathroom, living room, dining room, and bedroom. This may be inspired by her own household’s multi-functional living room, which was a public space for the family during the day and transferred to a bedroom for her brothers at night. In Mini Bar (2007), she built a tiny yet fully-functional bar in her father’s tool shed. Three to four people could squeeze in it and entertain themselves with a karaoke machine, television, and all kinds of drinks. These works are bright and cheerful, as well as honest and straightforward. Mendoza pays great attention to detail and these installations are well crafted with authentic small articles. They showed us the artist’s perception of using spaces in an efficient way.

The same concepts and approaches can also be found in Bomb Shelter (2006), an old refrigerator that has been built into a shelter to protect the imaginary nuclear bombs from North Korea; Fishing Boat (2007), a 17-foot boat that provides an entire fishing experience; as well as in Skate Park (2006) and Bedroom (2007).

Mendoza’s interest in and inquiry into personal and physical spaces later expanded to public and psychological spaces that often are associated with social and political events. This idea can be traced back to some of her earlier works, such as Sandinista (2006) and Bomb Shelter (2007). It was tested in her Entrance Exam (2008), which responded to a school shooting in Northern Illinois University. Yet it was not fully developed until her MFA graduation work, Leak (2009), which was “(i)nspired by the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis in which Chechen rebels held over-900 theater spectators during the second half of the celebration production Nord-Ost .”[2] Mendoza used white Plexiglas to build a structural model of the Dubrovka Theater, the venue of the tragedy. Then with the help of a water pump, plastic tubes and PVC pipes, she created a pumping system that would let oil leak from the entrance of the theater. It differs from Mendoza’s previous works, which are enriched by details and provide audience an experience. Leak features geometric structure and minimalism aesthetics. In an abstract and austere style, with contrast color, it signifies the dramatic and traumatic event. It offers the audience a spectator’s perspective, instead of inviting the latter to experience in the spaces created by the artist in her earlier works.


Looking closer into Mendoza’s works, we can find there is a hidden layer containing her special interest of using small mechanical devices. This sometimes encounters and parallels her inquiry of spaces, such as in Leak (2009). It is intensified in her recent works: Dump(ed) (2010) and Waitlisted (2010). These works show the shift and expansion of her interest to kinetic sculpture, environmental issues, and other related subject matters.

I am also mesmerized by the witty use and interpretation of ordinary objects in Mendoza’s works: in Park Bench (2007), she hid gums, potato chip bags, pens, notebooks and other small items in the arms of a park bench; in Boot Alarm (2009), she attached an LED light and wires on a pair of boots left outside an apartment; in unaired (2010), she painted a tape cassette with acrylic and altered the shape of the reel. These small daily objects are telling; they are themselves and metaphors. Mendoza’s sharpness and sensitivity let her capture these transient moments and beauty in our everyday life.


Mendoza is a prolific and diligent artist, which is proved by her tireless artistic pursuit after graduating from the School of the Art Institute. The works made after her MFA program bring us an earnest, serious artist’s portfolio, which is created in a space of the her own, yet can be experienced by a broader audience.

[1]  Artist Statement, Raquel Mendoza.

[2] Ibid.