The painter Cristina Cárdenas has used art to raise up a man who in these borderlands is officially hunted and despised. It's unclear whether the fellow, the subject of the painting "Un Mexicano" in Cárdenas' new show A flor de piel, is dead or alive. His eyes are open, but they could be the fixed in a death glare. His arms are wrapped in a white winding cloth, and the claws of a dead chicken hang near his head. Cárdenas has given the wretched man a halo in gold, and stamped it with Mexican milagros that might yet bring him small miracles: a foot, a heart, a flower.
This migrant painting is hardly the first in the Tucson painter's political oeuvre. In the early '90s, before the desperation of Mexican migrants to the U.S. was being widely discussed, Cárdenas painted an extraordinary homage to their plight.
That long painting was like a political banner flung out across the grungy wall of the first Central Arts Gallery or, more to the point, it was like a Mexican mural in the great tradition of Rivera and Orozco. The painting was so long it suggested the whole winding border between the U.S. and Mexico: Its heroes were impoverished migrants walking across a deadly American desert strung with barbed wire. What I remember most about the painting were the travelers' feet, sore and weary from their long trek, but beautifully drawn and endowed by the gifted Cárdenas with a poignant heroism.
The painting not only made a fervent cry for humanity; it marked the auspicious debut of Cárdenas on the Tucson art scene. A native of Guadalajara who earned a bachelor's in painting there in 1980, Cárdenas picked up an MFA in printmaking at the UA in 1990. It was clear from the start that she's a painter of ideas, and a wonderful draftswoman and colorist. Unfortunately, exhibitions in her adopted home state have been few and far between since then. She had one of the early New Directions shows at the Tucson Museum of Art and in 1999 she had a solo show at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, but she's exhibited more often out of state and in Mexico.
A flor de piel, her new one-woman show at the UA's Joseph Gross Gallery, is a welcome change. A gathering of 11 mostly new paintings and five works in the new-to-her medium of photography, the show continues her explorations of Mexican/American identity. Her fine painting "Un Mexicano" notwithstanding, Cárdenas these days is working less on political imagery related to immigration, and more on feminism and mythology.
She still steeps her work in Mexican symbols, "reclaiming icons and concepts and moving beyond traditional constructions of what is Mexican or Mexicana," as she notes in an artist's statement. She uses gouache and acrylic paint, sometimes layering them over charcoal drawings; her works have such a strong line and such thin colors that at times they are more akin to stained drawings than to conventional paintings. The artist almost always paints on amate, a leathery paper Indians in Puebla make from tree bark. The golden-tan amate adds a rough, hand-hewn quality to her works, and since the ancient Aztecs wrote their codices on it, it immediately links her paintings to her country's past.
Most often Cárdenas uses her own body as the instrument for her explorations. The beautiful female nudes in this show, rendered large and golden, are at once sensual, heroic and strong. They explicitly overturn traditional Hispanic/Catholic conceptions of docile femininity and reclaim the earth as a source of female power. In "Santa Agave," a 2001 gouache and acrylic on amate, a secular female saint towers above the viewer, throwing her head back and grasping her arms above her breasts. She's got a giant golden halo but her wings are made of agave, sharp and prickly, and wholly of the earth. Agave's counterpart is "Santa Perversa," a 2001 work in gouache, acrylic and ink on amate. Perversa is another nude torso with an unusual shining halo: Gyrating plants creep across it. Perversa triumphantly holds a hummingbird above her head.
Cárdenas's depiction of maternity is likewise forceful. A muscular woman in a goddess's white dress flies across a golden sky in "Carganda a Ella," a 2000 gouache and acrylic on amate, pulling a little girl in a pink dress along by the hand. Ribbons in Mexican stripes of red, green and white flutter along behind them. The mother thrusts her other hand out bravely toward the future. Teetering below is a Catholic basilica; it's in the clouds too but seems unable to keep up. Conveniently at hand to the flying pair are a treasure chest of Mexican flaming hearts and a pre-Colombian snake.
The painter frequently invokes the power of the ancient Mexican past, even painting herself as an Aztec goddess in "Yo Como Xochipilli," a 2000 gouache and acrylic on amate. Again she makes motherhood a force to respect. The artist hunkers down in the traditional birthing squat, but she herself is at the same moment being born out of the haunches of the goddess, who's drawn faintly behind her in charcoal. Even the maligned Malinche gets a new look here. The Indian woman who gave birth to Cortez's child and whose translations of Mexican languages helped the conqueror defeat her people, Malinche is a person of ambivalent status in Mexican mythology. Whether she is victim or traitor remains unknown. In Cárdenas's 1994 painting, "Malinche/ Coyolhxauqui," Malinche is transformed into a tragic image in an Aztec codex: Her bleeding body parts have been chopped up and rearranged in a stylized circle. She's both beautiful and horrifying.
It's impossible to look at Cárdenas's work without thinking of her predecessor Frida Kahlo; in one painting of two little girls, "Nina Zotziles," Cárdenas directly borrows a Kahlo image of linked hearts. Certainly the younger artist's incorporation of Mexican symbols into her paintings of female figures owes a lot to Kahlo, but the heroism of Cárdenas's figures is more closely descended from Rivera and Orozco. In fact, the weakest work in the show, "Vestido Rojo," a painting of a woman in a red dress, seems mundane specifically because it's missing the epic quality Cárdenas learned from the great muralists. But respectful as she is of her forebears, Cárdenas is wholly original, making a contemporary art that's steeped in Mexican myth and history.