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From Cradle to Grave 

The ‘Mujeres’ show at Raices Taller celebrates women’s art and lives

click to enlarge “El Triunfo de la Vida” (Triumph of Life) by Sherrie Posternak, mixed-media encaustic

“El Triunfo de la Vida” (Triumph of Life) by Sherrie Posternak, mixed-media encaustic

A little girl's frilly pink dress dangles from a collage of newspaper obituaries.

Right near the dress's tank top and ruffled skirt are announcements of the deaths of Martha Pios Ramirez and Juanita Burruel, sealed under a layer of translucent blue-green encaustics. Silk rose petals—which could either grace a child's birthday party or be strewn into a grave—adorn the dress, which is likewise fixed in place by waxy encaustic paint. And the artist has trimmed the edges of this poignant work with lace and sequins.

Sherrie Posternak's "El Triunfo de la Vida" (Triumph of Life), a mixed-media encaustic in the "Mujeres, Mujeres, Mujeres" show at Raices Taller, embraces the whole of a woman's life, from girlhood to old age, from birth to death. And it uses traditional women's crafts–once maligned in the world of high art—to tell that triumphal tale.

The annual women's exhibition at Raices Taller is always a celebratory affair, with brand-new artists sharing the crowded wall space with seasoned veterans. This year's edition has more than 90 pieces by almost as many artists, many–but not all–of them zeroing in on some aspect of women's lives. And while many work in the classic genres of painting, ceramics and photography, artists such as Posternak creatively use traditional "female" media such as thread and cloth and frills, consciously elevating them to the exalted status of oil and canvas.

Cathy Hampton deploys clothing as a metaphor for women's traditionally restricted roles. Her haunting mixed-media "Reflections" has black-and-white photos of dresses lit by tiny lights; the images glow inside a shadow box framed in wedding white.

One of the photos pictures a bridal gown, its skirt ruffled all the way down. This dewy confection is on a headless mannequin and a pearl necklace marks the line where the head has gone missing. Elsewhere a dress is fraying on dressmaker's form; holes have appeared in the cloth.

But the pièce de résistance is a Frida Kahlo-esque figure in another photo, a real woman seen from the back. At first she seems to be wearing an old-fashioned corset. Upon closer inspection we see that her stays are laced not into cloth but into her own flesh. These straps are not only constricting her. They've torn holes into her body.

Photographer Maya Holzman, in two beautifully lit and colored photos of "Mexican-American Workers," looks at the impact of different types of clothing on our perceptions. In both images, a women is seen working in a restaurant kitchen. One worker wears a long traditional Mexican skirt in sky-blue, and her hair is pulled back into a braid that goes down her back. She's stirring a pot of sauce. The other women has on a fast-food uniform—black cap, shirt and pants—and she's wielding a mop.

Whether inadvertently or by design, Holzman's pairing of the two women addresses our preconceptions of labor. The traditional woman appears more "picturesque" to us, and more in control of her work, while the other seems to be a cog in the fast-food machine, doing work that's menial and repetitive. But is it just the costume that persuades us that one woman is better off?

More playfully, Elizabeth Ledezma has created an entertaining 3-D cocktail dress. Her "Found Objects" is a life-sized dress made entirely of bottle caps and aluminum strips cut from shiny beer cans. The hypothetical owner of this dress, it seems, is a girl show just wants to have fun.

Apart from these meditations on clothing and meaning, the show's works are all over the map, literally in the case of Kim Crooks. Her "Do I Look Illegal: The Journey" is an encaustic/collage that fuses a map of Central America and Mexico to a loose sketch of the Southwest desert.

Tall and narrow to convey the northward trajectory of the journey, it features a faded, crinkled snapshot of a woman and child, dropped, perhaps, by a migrant, and a Virgin of Guadalupe, whom migrants pray to for help on their journey. And in a hole carved into the thick surface of the work lie 10 tiny carved heads, reminders of the desert dead.

Two paintings picture young girls brimming with life and possibility. In Theresa Hentz's oil "Tucson Portrait," an energetic girl about 10 years old heads across a sleepy street, some low-slung Tucson houses and trees in the distance. The loose, lively brushstrokes mimic the girl's energetic lope into her own future.

Lydia Maldonado honors a young athlete in "Basketball," a painting of a teen in her team uniform. She stands with the ball in her hand, the basket like a halo over her head and a smile of utter satisfaction on her face.

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