LA Times Loto
Plunging Headfirst Into Hernández's Mythic Realm

William Wilson, Oct 12, 1998

Something unexpected happened in Long Beach. At a stroke, its fledgling Museum of Latin American Art has been transformed from a physically constricted boutique into a showplace of serious proportion. Literally. An expansion of 10,000 square feet makes the place--at least spatially--an institution to be reckoned with.

The inaugural traveling exhibition lends every hope that the museum now has its artistic act together as well. "Omnia: Laura Hernández, a Trip Into the Realm of Myth and Dreams" introduces the Southland to a 37-year-old Mexican artist from Oaxaca. Her show arrives here from the organizing Museum Bochum in Germany and moves on to Paris. Locally the installation was coordinated by the Museum of Latin American Art's Cynthia MacMullin. It's hard to imagine the museum where this protean epic wouldn't be impressive.

Representing five years' work, it amply fills the big space with pulsating paintings and resounding monumental heads. Sheer volume reveals Hernández's energy.

Paradoxically, one of this art's virtues is the virtual absence of new imagery. The modern Mexican aesthetic is an alloy that's equal parts pre-Columbian ceremonial iconography mixed with indigenous folk art's colorful carnival distortions. Familiar motifs range from skulls to tortured human figures, symbolic animals and emblematic signs like eyes and moons. Life, death and the elemental natural forces are its concerns. Such a program is either cosmic or cliche. Only the artist can make the difference.

Hernández does. Her overture entryway is a winding path through a cobalt moonlight night bordered by planting beds full of candle-lit skulls. It avoids Halloween banality only because dozens of head bones are individually crafted. The problem is spatial. The piece is open to the lobby when it should feel contained. As it turns out, that was the artist's intention, but the fire department wouldn't have it. The compromise is, blissfully, the only bad move in a superb show.

Seven monumental papier-mache heads act as centerpiece. Clearly inspired by giant stone works of the ancient Olmecs, they participate equally in fiesta folk work. Hernández individualized each to suit its symbolic function. "The Cosmic Man and the Elements" has a fish mouth, eyes hidden by a white stripe and a crocodile headdress. "The Dreamer," pale blue with a mask of bird wings, is festooned with phases of the moon. There isn't a platitude in the lot.

The exhibition is conceived as a single complex cosmos and experienced as a series of color-saturated sensations. Based in primal time, it joins the electronic present evoking the imagery of baroque special-effects films roaring through galaxies of earth, air, fire and water. Hernández's combination of intuitive drive, artistic control and painterly touch borders on the awesome.

The artist splits her working time between Oaxaca and a studio in the Netherlands. The cosmopolitan connection shows in individual panels. An image of intertwined lovers' heads is an improvement on Chagall. "Adam in Paradise" brings L.A. artist Charles Garabedian to mind, as well as the Neoexpressionists of the '80s. Such links are only relevant as reference points. Whatever Hernández's influences may be they're completely metabolized.

If any stylistic description captures the spirit of this art, it's probably in a fusion of David Alfaro Siqueiros' dynamism and Frida Kahlo's delicate insight. Paintings like "When the Earth Trembles, the Song Begins" are authentically macabre and apocalyptic. "The Moon Is Feminine" is a mural-size lyric where a woman's head is formed by garden motifs. In "The Alphabet," Hernández turns letters into symbolic pictographs that make sly puns on form in the manner of Saul Steinberg. In short, the artist has amazing range.

Unfortunately the catalog is one of those overwrought affairs in which understandable enthusiasm results in more effusion than coherence. That shortfall happily fails to detract from a dawning conviction that Laura Hernández is the finest Mexican artist since the great muralists. Her work recharges one's aesthetic batteries and confirms painting as still vibrant.

* "Omnia: Laura Hernández, a Trip Into the Realm of Myth and Dreams," Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach; through Jan. 10; closed Mondays, (562) 901-9162.

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