Rebeca Méndez has come to terms with her identity. Having been called a teacher, filmmaker, photographer, graphic designer, and fine artist, Méndez has lovingly embraced all of these labels. In fact, Méndez has always been interested in different disciplines. For most of her childhood, she trained as an Olympic gymnast, learning to use movement to communicate emotion at a very young age. As a teenager, Méndez and her family moved from Mexico to the United States, where she had to adapt to a new culture. In college she studied physics and mathematics to pursue her dream of becoming an astronaut. After a year, however, she was introduced to something much more gratifying and more abstract: graphic design. Méndez felt she would finally be able to express her total identity and the many layers it embraces when she combined the knowledge and experiences of her life into graphic design.
In The Will of the Potato (1995), Méndez takes us through pictorial and conceptual layers of symbolism. At first glance, the poster looks like charming wallpaper with delicate and cheery floral motifs on a cream ground. But a closer look reveals that the wallpaper is not pristine; there is a decidedly dirty or sun-damaged rectangular area that takes up most of its surface. Furthermore, there is a somewhat unidentifiable shape beyond the darker cream color. What looks like a misshapen blimp is actually a potato wrapped in latex. With her visual device of layering, Méndez forces us to scrutinize this object, but as we try to determine what it is, our view is disturbed by black lines of crossed out text cutting across that delicate background. Curator Ellen Lupton suggests, in Design Culture Now, “Rebeca Méndez designs complex surfaces in which images accumulate in veil-like layers.” Visually, her work seems to transition from 2D to 3D and from text to image.
Méndez’s interest in symbolism and iconography began when she was a child. Her father worked as a chemical engineer, but had a passion for Mayan history and, with fellow enthusiasts, traced glyphs and icons throughout the Mexican landscape. His influence on Méndez can be seen in her invented iconography.
For this reason, conceptually, Méndez’s artwork is more complex and enigmatic. According to her, the potato in this and other posters (1996-59-8) serves as a symbol for mankind. It represents Earth, the soil, energy and strength. By wrapping the potato with an extra layer of protective “skin,” she believes she has given it a choice: either grow roots and break through, and free of, the restrictive latex or rot and die. While Méndez’s inclusion of six lines of text, five of which are crossed out, delivers a visual interruption, the meaning of the remaining visible line brings forth another layer of interpretation to the poster. Michel Foucault’s text, “The Birth of the Asylum,” from where this quote is copied, offers an understanding of mankind by tracing the development and evolution of the insane asylum. The text is actually a footnote in Foucault’s essay: “6. I knew, as did everyone, that Bicêtre was both hospital and prison; but I did not know that the hospital had been built to nurture sickness, the prison to nurture crime.” It refers to the different power structures within asylums and prisons, and how those structures affect each individual’s identity as a patient or a prisoner.
Méndez has had a successful career integrating identity and symbolism with her graphic art. She has been on the faculty of the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles since 1985, and in 1998 she founded Rebeca Méndez Design (RMD). Her acclaimed posters earned her the 2012 National Design Award in graphic design, a feat that propelled her career to the national stage. Méndez embraces her multiple roles as an artist and reminds us that art, like life, can be seen through a myriad of lenses from which we can draw layers of significance.
- Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit, Women of Design: Influence and Inspiration from the Original Trailblazers to the New Groundbreakers (Cincinnati: F.W. Publications, Inc., 2008), 132.
Steven Skov Holt, Ellen Lupton, Donald Albrecht, Design Culture Now. National Design Triennial, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 211.
Women of Design, 132.
5 Rebeca Méndez. Graphic Design America: The Work of Many of the Best and the Brightest Design Firms from Across the United States, Exhibition at Gallery 1220, 1998.