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Bright visions, fine contours.

IT IS DARK AND BROODING or luminous and blithe. It is concertedly conventional or outrageously innovative. It is regional or universal, distinctly feminine or not feminine at all. The work of Latin America's women artists defies classification and generalizations. Stylistically, the creations of Latin American women artists run an enormous gamut, from baroque to impressionist to abstract to minimalist. But one thing is clear. During the past decade Latin America has seen an explosion of painting, sculpture and photography produced by women artists, many of whom are working on the cutting edge of their profession.

At the more traditionalist end of the spectrum is Mexican painter Anamario Hernandez, whose intimate still lifes capture the quiet beauty of familiar objects. Hernandez finds her inspiration in typical Mexican artifacts--ceramics, dried flowers--for which she uses natural pigments. Often she paints interior nooks or windows. A bottle standing on a table, a spike of wheat, a key--these everyday objects take on metaphorical dimensions for Hernandez, who uses them as symbols of life, promise, ruptures, endings and new beginnings. However, she is careful to keep her symbolism simple so that the painting does not become mired in layers of meaning. One of the strengths of her work, she believes, is its accessibility to the untrained viewer.

There is a distinctly architectural quality to the composition of Hernandez's paintings and to her use of line and light. The daughter of Agustin Hernandez, a prominent architect, the painter admits that her father has influenced her work, although he has often been a severe critic. For Hernandez, the greatest challenge is to make art a tool for discovery, rather than a straitjacket. "She must be alert to new ideas and willing to experiment. Otherwise, she will fall into the trap of repeating herself. Then, instead of opening doors, her own personal style will limit her."

Like Hernandez, Chilean painter Ruby Aranguiz experiments with light, but while the former creates a soft luminosity through the use of whites, blacks and pastels. Aranguiz's paintings exude radiance. A lyrical expressionist who has been strong influenced by both the cubists and the impressionists, Aranguiz uses light in landscapes to separate the different elements, thereby producing a cubist pattern. For example, in Ibiza Boulevard, the intense light directed at the buildings seems to blind the viewer to detail, creating the impression of a series of illuminated boxes under a brilliant blue sky. "I achieve the maximum vibrancy of color by means of contrast, separating elements with grays or with intermediate colors that balance the two tones I wish to highlight," she explains.

Although Aranquiz has painted still lifes and landscapes of the different places she has lived--Chile, Spain, Mexico, California--her favorite subject is the human figure. In many of her portraits, the use of small, feather-like brush strokes has the effect of dulcifying the images. In her pastel, Macarena Reading, Aranguiz uses delicate strokes and highlights the flesh tones with blues and purples to create an almost Renoir-like softness. The light is concentrated on the face, which is kept from looking harsh by the girl's sensitive, concentrated expression, the delicateness of the hair, the fragility of the collar, and the subtlety of the surrounding pastels.

In many works Aranguiz depicts a figure--a person, a house, a boat--realistically in bright colors in the foreground, then uses pale, subdues shades to create a contrastive background. In Woman Wearing a Chinese Robe, for example, the redness of the robe is offset by the soothing earth tones of the hills. This technique forces the viewer's eye to focus on the central element in the painting.

While the work of many women artists reveals resentment or range, Aranguiz's brims with joy and warmth. It is for this season that the best-selling Chilean writer Isabel Allende chose several of Aranguiz's paintings to illustrate her book jackets. "I don't think about death," says Aranguiz. "That is to say, I don't want to think about it. I'm a Pisces and, therefore, I love my existence. I'm a dreamer and a Bohemian. I want to paint things that are agreeable to look at. I want to capture the beauty of the world in my work." Aranguiz's effervescence bursts through in her art. Her luminous canvases are a veritable celebration of life.

In contrast, the works of Cuban painter Hilda de Quesada Collins provoke feelings of wrath or disorientation. "I want the ambiance of enigma," says Collins. "Although I want the viewers to draw conclusions of their own, my wish is to direct them." Collins uses dramatically contrasting colors--black, vivid yellows and blues, and blood red, for example--to jolt the viewer into an awareness of the conflicts and paradoxes of human existence. The placement of opposite elements--for example, exuberant flowers and dead bark--in paintings such as No! and Death of Innocence bring the viewer face to face with the constant interplay of the forces of life and death in nature.

Maria Badias, also Cuban, experiments with color and form to create purely abstract paintings that convey a dehumanized concept of the universe. Badias combines technique and chance "to tap into the greater logic incomprehensible in the apparent chaos that surrounds us." Her works combine black and primary colors in patterns that may be symmetrical or disconcertingly asymmetrical. She explains the creation of her piece The Coming of a Little Love, done in pen, ink and pencil, this way: "This piece started out as a rather formal study of perspective and turned into something more. It is based on a strict grid design that serves as the skeleton for what can best be described as a play of proportions, contrasts, and logical versus illogical spatial relationships." The title of the painting, says Badias, was taken from a poem by Carl Sandburg: "The idea behind it is that of a tiny, structured world being penetrated and shattered by a mysterious force of great power and brilliance." Badias sees this work as pivotal in her development. With it, she learned to free herself from her original plan, allowing the imagination to roam freely and eventually to take over so that the painting could develop on its own. The Coming of a Little Love was used as the cover illustration of the Spanish-language edition of Reinaldo Arenas' novel, El portero.

Arenas chose another painting by Badias, The Color of Summer, for the jacket of his novel of the same name. In this work, Badias sought to combine "the crisp precision of the radiograph pen with the looseness and abandon of oil pastel." Badias explains "touches of oil paint were used to add richness and variety of texture" to the piece. By using this technique, she was able to achieve a contrast between drab, sober colors (black, grey, olive green) and brash, bright ones. She clarifies that "the large, open areas convey the scene of flowing air and light of Cuba, the setting for Arenas' novel."

In radical contrast, the paintings of Alicia Torres, from Colombia, convey a sense of order and balance. Torres' strong geometrical forms positioned against stark backgrounds and framed by the limits of the rectangular canvas represent a search for stability. The painter explains: "Conceptual art has had great influence in today's art. It appeared as a reaction to the psychological, cultural, social, economic, aesthetic, and stylistic alienation in the artist's world. It was characterized by the abandonment of conventional forms, the democratization of means of expression and the appearance of the concepts 'art object,' and 'happening.' Under these circumstances, artistic manifestations were characterized by an uncontrolled liberation that broke with the principle of stability and hindered the manifestation of fundamental plastic values. In order to rescue painting from this whirl of unconventionalism, it is necessary to accentuate the purest elements in a rational, balanced, primary form. Of these elements I have chosen color because I consider that, when it is treated structurally with sensitivity and technical purity, it in itself constitutes the most expressive of the elements of artisitc communication." Although critics have characterized this type of art as dehumanized and devoid of feeling, Torres stresses that the color itself conveys emotion.

Although Torres' purpose is to combat the sense of chaos that permeates much modern art by reintroducing rationality into painting, she maintains that her use of fixed geometric shapes does not bind her or diminish her artistic freedom. In spite of the fact that her selection of lighting, colors, and forms responds to a rational intention, explains the painter, she takes latitutde in the organization of the elements with which she is working. Spacial relationships and the intensity of tones may be modified according to her emotional state, always keeping in mind the conscious objective.

Several women artists experiment with mixed media, combining elements of painting, photography, sculpture or collage. Among the most exciting and innovative is the Peruvian photographer Jeanette Ortiz Osorio, who imbues her work with an otherworldly, dreamlike quality by painting filters, which she then combines with a photograph, so that it appears as if she had actually painted on the photo itself. "My photography is very intuitive," she says. "Much of it emerges out of strong images and feelings that haunt me until I am able to express them in my art. The images originate in dreams as well as in conscious experience, and vary from bright and colorful to dark, subtle forms. The feelings I express range from sensuality to frustration, aggression, and terror." In several works Ortiz softens strong, masculine figures, imbuing them with a dreamy sensuality. In others, she provokes a sense of claustrophobia by circumscribing the central figure with a harsh, threatening, or chaotic background.

Grimesa Amoros, also from Peru, has been influenced by contemporary figurativism, which she has developed along her own lines, often through use of collage techniques. Nature and the human form are her dominant themes. Amoros combines natural elements, often humanizing them, in dynamic, vividly-colored paintings. By depicting the musculature of trees, for example, Amoros stresses the interdependence of man and nature.

Like their male colleagues, many Latin American women artists have been inspired by native Latin American themes or by the folk art of their particular countries. Sometimes this influence is less evident in their subject matter than in their preference for bright, vibrant colors. Costa Rican painter Rossella Matamoros explains, "The fact that I am a Latin American woman enables me to represent a culture that is a mixture of different traditions, specifically the Catholic religion and the Indian presence. In my art, there are Indians with their dances and their love of movement and nature, as well as elements inherited from the Catholic faith. My style is defined by personal and universal symbols that represent for me what is happening in Latin America and the rest of the world." In an effort to explor the diverse elemtns of her heritage, Matamoros experiments with textures, tones, movement and pattern.

Other painters deny that their work is distinctly American. Ruby Aranquiz points out that her main influences have been European, although, she says, the landscapes of her native Chile are never far from her mind.

Carmen Trujillo, from Cuba, has the distinction of being the first female Latin American instructor at the prestigious Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. Although Trujillo was not particularly influenced by Cuban popular art, the fact that she grew up surrounded by the sea is reflected in the strength of her line, which captures the power and spontaneity of waves. In many of Trujillo's paintings, the ocean itself is present, sometimes as background. In Woman of the Sea the female figure that emerges from the waters is at one with nature: the roll of the waves is repeated in the curve of her breasts and shoulders, and the splashing waters are integrated into her hair. In Dreaming at the Beach, the calmness of the sea reflects the sunbather's serenity. In other works, the influence of the sea is evident not in the subject matter, but in the energy of the line, the repetitive, wavelike curves, and the artist's preference for blue.

Perhaps one of the most debated topicts in art circles is whether or not there is such a thing as "women's art." "I do not paint as a man or woman, as a North American or a Cuban," says Carmen Trujillo. "I paint as Carmen. My style is my own." "We all receive the same training," adds Jeanette Ortiz Osorio, "so there cannot be any such thing as a 'feminine aesthetic.'"

Leah Poller, an American artist who is also Director of Worldwide Contact Gallery in Washington, D.C., shares this opinion. Last spring, in cojunction with the College Art Association and the Women's Caucus for the Arts, Worldwide Contact Gallery presented an exhibit of works by Latin American women, some of whom are mentioned in this article. In selecting pieces for the show, Poller was not looking for a specifically feminine perspective. "I was looking for artists working on the cutting edge. The show was a celebration of creativity more than a proof of the existence of a distinctly feminine Hispanic art. The issue is not whether there is really a female aesthetic. The problem is that Hispanic women artists simply do not get recognition."

The exhibition at Worldwide Contact Gallery was called "A pesar de ..." ("In Spite of ..."). Poller explains the multiple interpretations of the title: "'In Spite of' can indicate that despite opposing forces, one can overcome; or it can suggest that due to the very existence of opposition, one chooses to go beyond, to dare, in spite of the arbitrary and unacceptable restrictions ... In the realm of culture, all artists aspire to be known first and foremost as international. Subclassifications of race, origin, and gender can provide clues to understanding a work, but in no way should be applied as qualifiers. Unfortunately, statistics prove that this ideal has yet to be attained. And when an artist is female and Hispanic 'A pesar de ...' is the reality."

Although there may be no distinctly feminine aesthetic, for many women artists, art is a means of celebrating womanhood. The Cuban sculptor and painter Laura Luna was inspired by the Venus of Willendorf, one of the best known Paleolithic works of art, to create her exuberant, rotund female nudes. For Luna, the Venus, a stylized female figure that represents fertility, is the greatest expression of womanhood.

Luna says that her work is, in a sense, autobiographical. Because her father was imprisoned by the Cuban government in 1962, she was raised almost entirely by women. These two circumstances--the constant presence of women during the childhood and the imprisonment of her father--would later translate into major themes in Luna's art. The images that dominate her work are the corpulent female nude and Icarus, or other winged figures that symbolize ascension and the search for freedom.

For Luna, the two images are related. The evident eroticism of Luna's female figures--winged or otherwise--stems from their sensuous roundness and their color. "But let's not forget that eroticism is part of the plenitude of femininity that I am always trying to exalt," she explains. Luna glorifies womanhood--including female sensuality and woman's role in procreation--by liberating it for the traditional, idealized images of women that predominate in Western art. Thus, her stylized female figures are an intrinsic component of her celebration of freedom.

Like Luna, many Latin American women artists are fascinated with the female figure. Women painters tend to produce less "perfect" female forms than their male colleagues. Rather than fitting women into rigid, idealized molds, they seem to rejoice in the fleshiness, blemishes, and warmth of their models. Surprisingly, few female artists paint or sculpt male figures. "The male physique is less plastic than the female," explains Ruby Aranguiz. "Besides, models are hard to find and there is simply no market for males."

Jeanette Ortiz Osorio has a different perspective. At twenty-five, she is one of the youngest of the emerging Latin American female artists. "We're not accustomed to seeing and appreciating masculine beauty," she says. "But I photograph models of both sexes. For me, beauty is not limited to one sex or the other. Younger artists are dropping the old prejudices. You will see," she adds, "with my generation everything is going to change."

Carmet Trujillo agrees that things are changing, but in a different way. "Before," she says, "the focus was Europe. Everyone was interested in European art, and Latin American artists always went to France to study. Now, the center of everything is the Americas. This is where the most exciting things are happening."

One of the factors contributing to this explosion of creativity in the Americas is the increased participation of women in the arts--not only in the visual arts, but in literature and music as well. In spite of the difficulties, Latin American women artists are forging ahead, helping to create an atmosphere of aesthetic renovation that will last well into the next century.

Barbara Mujica is a writer and professor of Hispanic literature at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. where she also directs El Retablo, a Spanish-language theater group.
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Title Annotation:Latin American women artists
Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1991
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