Human Scale

By Margaret Regan

CRISTINA CÁRDENAS IS deep into her Yellow Period. The emotional portrait paintings that the Mexican-born Tucson artist is showing at José Galvez Gallery are bathed for the most part in a golden light. But this light is not always heavenly, though her women are posed like saints. Their eyes are cast upward toward heaven, their lips have been pierced by thorns ("Corona de Flores') and their bleeding hearts have been wrenched from their chests ("Retrato en la Calle Meyer"). These suffering women are drenched in the gold of melancholy, in the somber amber of despair.

The new pictures, fluidly painted in gouche on paper and highlighted in crayon, are marked like all Cárdenas' work by an effortless draftsmanship; hardly anyone else around can draw hands and feet so well. Gathered into a two person-show, Retratos Intimos, Mascaras Pintadas (Intimate Portraits, Painted Masks) that also features Cárdenas husband, Gonzalo Espinosa, Cárdenas' works are part of a series she says is about violence against women, particularly along the border.

There are hints of political tempests tossing these women. For instance, a sea of tiny Mexican flags surrounds the woman in "Retrato con Banderas (Portrait with Flags)" and she holds her hands out, as though resisting unseen forces. One of the few pictures of men, "Un Mexicano in Francia (A Mexican in France)," shows a somber-faced young Mexican worker far from home. But these works don't carry the political clout of Cárdenas' larger, earlier mural-like works on such painful subjects as immigration. The intimate portrait format leads a viewer to think mostly about emotional, rather than physical or political violence.

pix Recently, a travel grant took Cárdenas to France, where she painted several of these yellow pictures. It may be that travel prompted Cárdenas, a fan of the great Mexican mural painters, to try out this small size. But she has not abandoned her reworking of Mexican motifs. In fact, like Frida Kahlo before her, she finds the bloody iconography of traditional Mexican religious art is a perfect vehicle for portraits of agonized women in psychological hell. And following the lead of Hispanic holy art, the works' violent religious ecstasies have an undercurrent of eroticism. In "Retrato en el Infierno I (Portrait in Hell I)" the saintly woman abandons her modest silence and shrieks as the luscious gold and orange flames lick her naked flesh. In "Infierno II" her breasts have multiplied and shoot out lines of pain.

All the women resemble Cárdenas physically, though only one picture--of feet and legs--is specifically identified as a self-portrait. A half dozen years ago Cárdenas did a large painting of the bare feet of desperate women who were crossing the barbed wire at the border, heading al norte. In this new piece, "Myself in Giverny," Cárdenas shows herself with her own feet firmly planted on the ground in Giverny, where Monet painted, but she surrounds herself with tropical Mexican flowers. This is a self-confident piece, of a woman sure of her identity both as an artist and as a Mexican out in the world.

Cárdenas is just one of four local painters now showing in galleries who are using the human figure to explore questions of identity. Down at Raw Gallery, Joe Forkan has appropriated figures from old masters paintings and modern media and reworked them into acrylics on canvas. Atop a rendition of a young serving girl straight out of Flemish art, "Counterweight," is a row of three close-up portraits of women's faces, each cropped like a photograph. A painted snapshot of the weary pope floats strangely above a sorrowful basset hound in "His Master's Voice."

pix Forkan, a Tucson Weekly cartoonist who ordinarily works in black ink, revels in his thick applications of paint and fauvist colors. At times he emulates the "bad painting" school of art, making deliberately ugly pictures designed to make a viewer wince--there's a grisly work of a bloody butcher, dogs and bones. And his satirist's cynicism breaks out in a picture of a bride and groom threatened by a storm ("Chance of Showers" is the deadpan title) and in "Vanishing Species," which pairs the nuclear family with the saguaro cactus.

Also at Raw is Heather Green, a gifted young painter who is showing four oils of an admirable mastery and complexity. Her large canvases are thinly painted in moody monochromes of beige and brown. Like Cárdenas, Green takes her inspiration from Mexico, where she lived for a time. She constructs Spanish-style architectural spaces that are metaphors for empty psychological space. In the dreary cafe of "Sub Rosa," a woman glares suspiciously at the man's she's with. He's hiding behind a mask.

Masks, of course, are a classic motif in Mexican folk art and a perfect vehicle for examining questions of identity. Espinosa, at Galvez, brings a fresh perspective to this well-worn device in his acrylic paintings by substituting leather boxers' masks for the more standard painted Indian masks. In "Repetition of Ideas," Espinosa paints a large, round boxer in simplified shapes and bold colors. The mask conceals the boxer's head, while a tiny echo of his body, painted at the upper right, floats like a dream of his true self.

Retratos Intimos, Mascaras Pintadas continues through February 10 at José Galvez Gallery, 743 N. Fourth Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday though Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and 6 to 9 p.m. on Downtown Saturday Nights. For more information call 624-6878.

A show of recent paintings by Joe Forkan and Heather Green continues though February 10 at Raw Gallery, 43 S. Sixth Ave. Hours are 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. for Thursday Art Walk. Also open on Downtown Saturday Night. For more information call 882-6927. TW

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