Sensuous Saints

Cristina Cárdenas' newer works at Tangerine Gallery may lack rigor, but her talent is undeniable

The first time I saw Cristina Cárdenas' art--and Cárdenas herself--she was hanging giant works on paper on the wall at the old Central Arts Gallery on Congress Street downtown.

It was the early '90s, or thereabouts, and Cárdenas was a fairly recent immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico, where master muralist José Clemente Orozco painted some of his greatest works. Cárdenas had trained at the university there under some of his assistants. And her paper work at Central Arts, a startling piece about immigration, was like a mural in its size and seriousness.

Rendered in charcoal, it pictured a barbed-wire fence that continued from one piece of paper to the next, the way real-life barbed wire then rolled horizontally across the borderlands. (How quaint compared to the major fortifications we have today.) Below and behind the wire were the bare feet of migrants, drawn heroically large. Somehow, those feet, all by themselves, conjured up the pathos of the migrants' long journeys, and of their painful departures from home.

The extraordinary piece augured great things for the artist. In the years since, Cárdenas has continued to develop her gift for drawing--and painting--the human body. Almost no one else can paint hands and feet as beautifully and as expressively as she can. And she's developed a fine painting style that layers color upon color, building her acrylics and gouaches up to a shimmering translucence.

Cárdenas' recent art is on view at Tangerine Gallery in midtown in a small, one-person show called Derroche de Amor, or Squandering Love. The new works are not nearly as political as that long-ago drawing was. Instead, in lush paintings of women and children, Cárdenas uses semi-surrealism--or Latin magical realism--to conjure up psychological states. And she also uses indigenous materials--particularly the bark paper made by Indians in Oaxaca--to rework Mexican myths.

"I use modern techniques on ancient surfaces to create new representations of female archetypes derived from classical Mexican antiquity," she writes in her artist's statement. She also makes "contemporary interpretations of female saints and intimate (auto)biographical portraits of womanhood and motherhood."

"Santa Dormida" (Sleeping Saint), a large painting on bark paper, attempts nearly all of these themes. The languid female figure, stretched out in slumber on a bed, hits on any number of cultural touchstones, from Aztec goddesses to Christian saints to the erotic nudes of Western art history. Goya's "La Maja Desnuda" comes to mind.

Yet multiple symbols testify to the sleeper's Mexican cultural identity. She's dressed in Mexican native garb--the kind of skirt and blouse popularized by Frida Kahlo--whose gauzy fabric allows a view of her shapely breasts. She sleeps on a Mexican print blanket; religious candles are alight with yellow flames on a nearby stool, and the window opens to a view of a pair of smoldering Mexican volcanoes that play a part in Aztec myth.

Representing two real-life volcanoes near Mexico City, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, the peaks figure in an Aztec tale of tragic love. The doomed man became Popocatépetl, and the woman Iztaccíhuatl, also known as Mujer Dormida, since it's said to look like a woman's recumbent body. Cárdenas practices a little cultural syncretism here, merging the saint and the Azteca into a single figure. Part fairy tale, part myth, the picture is a kind of erotic religious fantasy.

An adjoining painting, "Santa Guadalajara," continues the theme. It's also painted on the native bark, a crinkly surface that gives a satisfyingly rough texture to the paint. This saint of Cárdenas' hometown stands in front of the towers of what I presume is the town cathedral. (Cárdenas also studied architecture in Guadalajara.) Like Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the woman appears to be a captive in the cathedral square. She's pinned in an ornate latticework of bars and loosely bound by ribbons encircling her naked torso.

But, again, in a nod to mexicanidad, she holds aloft cactus pads, discreetly (and dangerously) covering her breasts. Her glowing skin is golden, and her eyes are closed in erotic rapture.

It's hard to know what to make of these sensuous saints, so beautifully rendered. Cárdenas revealed in an interview last week with Sooyeon Lee on Arizona Illustrated that she intends to express woman's power through the body. But these women seem not powerful, but passive, pinned in myths not of their own making. Their charged eroticism and mythological trappings put them just this side of kitsch. Cárdenas' intentions are clearly serious, and her talents large. Not every picture is going to match the power of that long-ago border piece, but one wishes for more rigor.

For her pictures of children, she also sometimes borrows from Mexican religious iconography. But these engaging portraits suggest real kids rather than myths. "Niña Zotzil/Zotzil Girl" and "Niño Lengua/Tongue Boy," small square paintings on wood, are each pictured beneath a shrine-like arch painted in shiny copper leaf. And each one charms, the boy sticking his tongue out, and the girl grinning at the birds that have alighted on her head and shoulders.

"La Cena/The Dinner" is more complicated, a psychologically fraught scene that hints at danger. A painting about parents' fierce love for their children--and their inability to protect them at all times--it comes closer to the seriousness of Cárdenas' earlier work. Painted in bright gouache on wood panel, it depicts two small, vulnerable children, a girl and a boy, seated at a table covered in a white cloth.

The children are gorgeous--the little girl is crowned with flowers, and the boy is seen in profile, his fat cheeks all but crowding out his nose and mouth. And the colors are radiant. The wooden floor is a golden amber, the walls of the bedroom beyond a brilliant red. The sun pours through a window, bathing the children in loving warmth.

But something is amiss. This home--or family--is about to shatter. The table teeters. The children are untethered, floating up near the ceiling. A doorway is askew, and the bedroom out-of-kilter. Instead of food on the table, there's a bloody human heart. A sharp knife is at the ready, prepared to slice it in two.

Squandered love, indeed.

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