The word photograph has certain kinds of connotations. María Martínez-Cañas is a photo-based artist who likes to push those connotations to their limits. She is a photographer who works beyond the limits of the camera.  Conceptually driven, Martínez-Cañas dissects, collages, digitally manipulates, erases, and recombines images, resulting in a range of forms that includes: photomontage, camera-less photograms, sculptural installation, and archival research. Her works are typically arranged in series, with each series revealing a different facet of her worldview.

When Martínez-Cañas was just three months old, her family fled Cuba and settled in Puerto Rico. Her family is one of many families that make up the Cuban diaspora today, scattered across Latin America, Europe, the United States and, more recently, Africa. During her adolescence, Martínez-Cañas’ parents raised her with the Cuban traditions of her heritage, giving her a strong sense of Cuban identity, but with it, a sense of isolation as well. She grew up Cuban but not in Cuba. This was a paradox that would shape and influence her early work.

At eight years of age, Martínez-Cañas was gifted with a Polaroid Swinger camera for her birthday. She took to photography instantly and she asked her parents to build her a private darkroom. This space allowed Martínez-Cañas to further explore her budding fascination with the laboratory aspect of photography. Her creativity in her childhood darkroom would eventually pay off, giving Martínez-Cañas the skills to win the Photography Award 1973-74 at the First Festival of The Arts at Colegio Puertorriqueño de Niñas at the young age of 13. Following on the heels of this success, three years later Martínez-Cañas had her first photography exhibition titled “Reflejos” at the Galería Aboy, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

After the 1977 “Reflejos” exhibition, Martínez-Cañas dedicated herself full time to photography. She attended the Philadelphia College of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from 1978-1982 and studied under Joan Redmond, Ron Walker, Eileen Berger, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, and others. During her time in the Photography Department at the Philadelphia College of Art, Martínez-Cañas began experimenting with photographic techniques such as music, printmaking, 16mm film, family images, and Rubylith film. Although adamant that she is a photographer, this is the point where Martínez-Cañas completely broke away from traditional photography. During this period she began to experiment with series, a way of organizing her art into themes, and created “Fragment Pieces” and “The Map Series”.

In 1982, Martínez-Cañas was awarded a Smith Scholarship for Graduate work at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. During her time as a student in Chicago, Martínez-Cañas had her first solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Puerto Rico, in the same town that had hosted her first exhibition, “Reflejos”, almost ten years earlier.

Her formal education did not end in Chicago. In 1985, Martínez-Cañas received a Fulbright-Hays Grant through the Institute of International Education and the Spanish Government to study abroad in Madrid, Spain. She researched extensively at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, Archivo de Indias in Seville and the Archivo de Simancas in Valladolid, and others. But it was in Madrid that she had the opportunity to study archival materials, old maps of Cuba, Havana, and other towns, as well as plans and drawings of Cuban churches, fortresses, and ships, dating from the discovery of Cuba by Christopher Columbus. The artwork that is born out of this period, Black Totem Series, intensely explores her struggle with her Cuban heritage and draws on the famous Cuban Surrealist Wifredo Lam for inspiration on the look of the totems. These negative images are fragmented, fierce, and contain realistic images that, combined with Lam’s style, create the Cuba that Martínez-Cañas has always envisioned for herself.

Martínez-Cañas continued to evolve and experiment with photographic elements. In 1998, she experimented with stains, watercolors, dyes, and the diazo process. The diazo process is a method of making copies of drawings by using diazonium salts which turn blue when exposed to ultraviolet light in presence of ammonia. In 2001, she experimented with computer-generated images for her series “Hortus” and with salvia and submerging images in water. In 2005, she experimented with creating images on newsprint, wax, and acetate; and gluing those images onto walls.

Throughout all the experimenting, Martínez-Cañas continued to make series. Some of her most famous, are the series “Viruses + Bacteria”, “Dustograms”, “Lies”, and “Duplicity As Identity”. The series “Viruses + Bacteria” created in 2003 contains unique digitized cibachrome prints created with the use of found x-rays, anatomical, and medical images combined with images of Martínez-Cañas’ saliva to create digitized files. “Dustograms”, created in 2004, was a collaborative body of work with conceptual artist Kim Brown. The series combined Martínez-Cañas’ gelatin silver print photograms, a picture produced without a camera, and Brown’s dust mound work. “Lies” deals with a period in Martínez-Cañas life when her father was wrongly accused of forging authentication papers for a piece of artwork. This lie and the perception of her father inspired her to create an entire series dedicated to lies. The images in this series are taken from crime scenes and altered into something beautiful. The beauty of the image, of the subject of the piece, is the lie. “Duplicity As Identity” started in 2008 and finished in 2009 was created with a Polaroid Land Camera. This series is particularly interesting when you consider Martínez-Cañas’ focus on her identity. The series is nine prints long, meant to be viewed as a whole piece, so that the viewer can watch as Martínez-Cañas’ image slowly appears out of her father’s face. Three prints from this series are part of the LUAG Permanent Collection.

Her most recent series “Rebus + Diversions” has moved away from what she has ‘traditionally’ branded as photography. The series features twenty assemblages, art that contains three-dimensional elements projecting out from a surface, and pushes the definition of photography further than she ever has before. The assemblages contain industrial objects, archival materials, manila file folders, and, of course, photographs. As she has evolved and struggled with her sense of identity so has her artwork. Pushing the boundaries of photography, just as she pushes the boundaries of who she thinks/knows she is.

Lehigh University Art Galleries (LUAG) Teaching Museum began collecting Martínez-Cañas’ work in 1986.  Since that time, the museum has acquired numerous pieces representing many of her series and conceptual ventures.  This exhibition, María Martínez-Cañas, presents a survey of collected works, offering a glimpse into one artist’s evolving relationship to the idea of photography. This exhibition is on display in the LUAG Main Gallery until December 10, 2017. To visit María Martínez-Cañas’ website click here.