Ancient Roots

The current show at TMA shows the connections between the past and present in Mexican visual art

Judithe Hernández is a contemporary American artist, born in LA, but her work draws in part on the great Mexican art of the 1930s.

As a member of the early collective Los Four in Los Angeles, Hernández helped pioneer the Chicano mural revolution. Inspired by the great muralists Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, the Mexican-American artists celebrated mexicanidad – a sense of Mexican identity—and painted the walls of American cities with Aztec imagery. But they also painted Chicano life, depicting heroic farmworkers laboring in America's fields.

As one of the few female muralists, Hernández likewise painted works about women; like Frida Kahlo, a contemporary of the muralists, she used the body to explore issues of women's identity.

At Miradas: Ancient Roots in Modern and Contemporary Mexican Art, a big show at the Tucson Museum of Art, a marvelous—and monumental—pastel by Hernández combines both influences: the sweeping political themes of a Rivera, rendered on a large scale, and the intimate personal-is-political themes of a Kahlo, rendered small.

Her "Mano Colorado, Mano de Sangre, Mano de Opresión (Red Hand, Bloody Hand, Hand of Oppression)," is a brilliantly colored grid of nine small portraits of a woman's face, separately framed but mounted to form one large work. Energetically drawn in bright strokes of pastel, "Mano" pictures a long-suffering brown-skinned indígena. In each image, her face has been violated in a new way; she's been bound or blindfolded or marked up with wild geometric shapes. But in every instance, bloody handprints mar her face: the prints are on her eyes, or her cheeks, or her chin. Drops of blood fall like tears.

Drawn from the collection of the Bank of America, this large show aims to demonstrate the influences of ancient Mexican art on 20th century and contemporary practitioners. ("Miradas" means "glimpses.") The opening work, "El Guerrero (The Warrior)" a large-scale acrylic and crayon on paper by Mexican artist Javier Chavira from 2004, explicitly reworks the aesthetics of ancient Maya and Aztec sculpture. The warrior's head recaptures the geometry of the art of the Indian ancestors, but it's magnified to a huge size and painted in wild colors.

Rivera and Kahlo each make a minor appearance. Frida appears not as an artist but as a subject, in a black-and-white 1930s photo by the Mexican master Manuel Alvarez Bravo. She's in typical Indian dress, and she stares boldly back at Bravo, and at us. Rivera is represented by a small black-and-white litho, "Frutos del árbol de la vida," from 1932. It's a beautifully composed drawing of a group of children, their figures rounded and still, in the signature Rivera style. A girl at center distributes apples, those titular fruits from the tree of life.

These earliest pieces capture the excitement of Mexican artists as they redefined art in the 1930s. They rejected the old European academic styles and fused defiantly Mexican imagery with avant-garde experiments in cubism and expressionism. Bravos pioneers the vision of urban Mexico as a geometry of lines. His photo "La Maria" pictures an Indian woman hurrying down a street, her flowing traditional garments contrasting with the starkness of the street's horizontals and pared-down adobe architecture.

Siqueiros exhibits exuberate late-life color lithos from the 1960s. Retired from the rigors of mural painting, Siqueiros continued to celebrate traditional Indian life, in lively near-abstractions of women, swathed in shawls in a market, dancing in front of flaming orange mountains.

Masters from a later generation, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Zuñiga, check in with mesmerizing lithos—of still lifes, of Indian women. And in a whole room devoted to women photographers, Graciela Iturbide, born in 1942, brings the cross-cultural conversation up to date, to the saga of migration. Her "Mujer Angel, Desierto de Sonora, Mexico," a black-and-white photo from 1979 pictures a guardian angel watching over the dangerous desert that connects Mexico and the United States.

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