Pain on Paper

This is the happiest painting I could find: a woman, naked, is adrift underwater. Her brown body is limp in the current, her hands and feet bound by seaweed. Coral creeps up toward her form from the deep blue; across her face lies a peaceful expression. It looks trippy until you notice the thin cuts, and the fact that the face is not a face at all, but a mask stitched together by a clumsy, uneven hand. This is as light as artist and activist Judithe Hernandez allows her solo exhibition to get. There are other weightless figures–one goddess suspended in midair has lost her limbs while another is tightly constricted by ribbons. The only thing as conspicuous as the artist’s skill is her message: being human is hard, a woman harder, and life as a Latina occasionally downright grisly.

Nestled next to a Pilsen playground the National Museum of Mexican Art’s collection runs the gamut of Mayan artifacts and modern ephemera. Displayed in a spacious room set apart from the permanent collections, Hernandez’s work proves a perfect addition to this canon. She incorporates ancient imagery with documents of contemporary Mexican tragedy, and is something of a piece of history herself.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Judithe Hernandez was painting colossal murals in the Barrios of Los Angeles as part of the legendary artistic collaborators Los Four. The group was an artistic force behind the Chicano civil rights movement, advocating for the rights of farm workers and attempting to end racial discrimination and the Vietnam War. In this exhibit, Hernandez targets chauvinism as the worst threat left standing.

Hernandez often toys with the fusion of the savage and the sensual. One nude assumes a sultry pose and gazes confidently out of the frame, an ornate wrestler’s mask discarded by her side and a red hand clutching her severed heart. In Hernandez’s reinterpretation of God’s Genesis, a lusty Adam mounts a joyless Eve, and in the next painting, we see Eve wrapped in barbed wire as further punishment.

Much of the museum is devoted to depictions of the Madonna, ranging from solemn, gilded 18th century renditions to more abstract, modern incarnations. Hernandez paints virgins too, but hers are twisted. One version shows Mary bound at the neck and crowned by a concrescence of roses whose thorns leave red rivulets running down onto her garb. Another depicts a woman tattooed with faded flowers against a sinister backdrop of black and red. Lest we miss the point, the painting is entitled Virgin of Darkness.

In the most affecting series, drawn headshots of women are stamped with masculine, blood-red palm prints. There are ten portraits, each of them violently distorted; high-cheekbones are bisected by gashes, lacerations blot out eyes, and in spite of it all, the women’s faces are impassive. What is most chilling is their universal look of acceptance.

This is dark stuff and the relentless march of marred but beautiful bodies across Hernandez’s canvases begs the question: Where is she getting her material? Is the angst abstract, the hurt psychological, or is the entire exhibition just a timeless theme that a cagey sixties provocateur took the time to perfect? It would certainly be comforting to confirm that Hernandez’s subject, her reduction of Mexican womanhood to a state of defiance in the face of continuous violence, is at least a little melodramatic. But a cursory survey of the history of Ciudad Juarez reveals what the neatly printed museum description was tactful enough to omit; the border town that gives the title to one of the exhibition’s three series has in the last decade borne witness to the murder and mutilation of over four hundred women–mostly young girls working in sweat-shops. The incidents have prompted the media to resurrect a word: femicide. This art doesn’t dramatize the subject, it dresses it up as Aztec mythology, giving the girls brightly patterned masks, making it easier to look at and harder to look away.

Hernandez uses absurd colors. Her women are just as likely to be teal as tan, and she has no problem attracting attention to a canvas through the lurid juxtaposition of yellows and purples. Compared to the reality she tries to draw attention to, however, her eye-popping pastels are pretty soft on the eyes.

National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W 19th St. Through May 1. Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm. Free. (312)738-1503. nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org