Eugene Weekly : Visual Art : 4.24.08

Attentive Skeletons and Joyful Dragons
Latino artists of the Northwest at Jacobs

From Armando Olveda’s kinetic, bright paper-mâché sculptures to Carmen R. Sonnes’ homage to Robert Rauschenberg, the “Latino Visions” show at the Jacobs Gallery provides Eugene with an array of work from Oregon and Washington artists.

Utza by Armando Olveda
Mi Compañera by Analee Fuentes

Curator Analee Fuentes, who teaches art at Linn-Benton Community College and lives in Coburg, says that in a time of anti-immigrant sentiment, she thought it was time for Eugeneans to experience some of the art produced by Latinos in the Pacific Northwest. First up through the door: Bend artist Cristina Acosta’s intensely colorful La Conquistadora/The Corn Maiden/Deni Spider Woman, an iconic image honoring her European Hispanic heritage and the Native American heritage of so much of Mexico.

Acosta’s other retablos — paintings on flat, sometimes carved wood, usually found on or behind altars and honoring saints — honor her heritage and claim space for the sacred feminine from a variety of cultural traditions. Eve and the Tree of Knowledge beautifully balances not only materials and colors but also the received idea of Eve as betrayer with the honoring of Eve as universal mother. Birds, the moon, gold and silver mix with the image of Eve cradled and cradling, receiving life and ready to give it.

By contrast, Fuentes’ stunning Mi Compañera (My Companion) shows a mature woman aware of the constant threat and presence of death. As anyone who has been to a Dia de los Muertos/Day of the Dead exhibit should know, the theme of skeletons (called calaveras, specifically, for Dia de los Muertos celebrations) runs through Mexican folk art. Fuentes’ large-scale oil — not in a folk art tradition — also refers to the European medieval and Renaissance themes of the memento mori. In Mi Compañera, the woman (a self-portrait of Fuentes with her palette), the skeleton stands with its hand through the vibrant artist’s arm, gently inclining its head towards hers. Combining passages of fine technical skill with a depiction of bittersweet knowledge and empathy, Mi Compañera adds emotional solidity to the show.

So do the paintings by Sonnes, a Portland artist. Her Espejo (The Mirror) refers to icons and retablos through its flat, golden background, but her focus lies on a woman torn in two directions, looking away from herself, expressing a division in the opposition of red and blue cloaks. And her poignant, potent My Big Breakdown, a tender, smart and strong piece that references Rauschenberg’s famous Bed, shows Sonnes’ willingness to experiment with material and make the American canon her own.

Paulina Hermosillo, an artist who lives in Salem, documents cross-cultural influences on Mexicans and Mexican-Americans with her photography. Though her superb Farm Workers Field Camp, Woodburn, Oregon is hung badly and far from the center of the show, it’s definitely worth the search. And her Pants, a tongue-in-cheek color shot that blends surreal imagery with a generous portrait, also deserves better placement.

Like Hermosillo, Portland’s Olveda was born in Mexico, and his brightly colored alebrijes — little paper-mâché animal/monster figures, in the tradition of famous Mexican artist Pedro Linares — honor his heritage. Sin Titoeo, a dancing dragon-like creature with blue wings, seems to be just landing, in energetic form, on its pedestal. The arcing, stretching neck and body of the dog/dragon Uzta makes a line of sinuous, patterned joy.

Other patterns wind their way through the show. Seattle artist Rodolfo Rios Garza contributes several of his dot-matrix like paintings to the exhibit. One, The Truth Lies Somewhere Between Black and White, demonstrates incredible brush control as tiny dots gradually fill half of the canvas, covered with black feather-like strokes.

Fuentes notes that Latino artists in the Northwest “are like the Lewis and Clark of I-5” — moving from California, Mexico, Peru and Texas to Oregon and Washington. As with any group exhibit, some of the pieces are less than compelling, but the bulk of this show shines with its themes of cultural memory, personal narrative and skillful work.         

“Latino Visions” runs through May 17 at the Jacobs Gallery. It will be a stop on the May 2 First Friday ARTWalk.