Courtesy of the Artist

Nicole Marroquin’s words are printed on the wall of a gallery: “Guns, corn, breasts, jalapeños, nostalgia and violence are some of the vocabulary I use,” she says, “to describe the relationship between bodies and the places they occupy.” A few feet away on the adjoining wall, Marroquin’s work backs her words. Charming clay figures–including flaccid guns, nippled jalapenos, and toreadors–cavort on what appears to be a single giant blue quotation mark.

Marroquin’s art shares this exhibit, “Cabeza de Barro” (“Clay Head”), at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen with the fantastic and grotesque works of Alfonso “Piloto” Nieves. Both artists primarily use clay to depict psychological symbolism, transforming the space with wit and inventiveness.

Marroquin’s art is more personal. “I spent a lot of time with statues of saints during mass as a girl, and was comforted by the fact that people who had suffered so much were looking out for me,” says the San Antonio native. “Now my creative community in Pilsen inspires me and looks out for me.” Her tribute to this community is a series of untraditional portraits that mimic the saintly statues of her childhood and imbue them with “power symbols” to make them represent more than just faces.

Her three busts, called “Explorar” (”To Explore”), “Aguantar” (“To Endure”), and “Representar” (“To Represent”), feature, respectively, a tattooed swimmer with ears of corn on his goggles, a red-headed woman covered with flower decals and the word “endurance” emblazoned on her chest, and a squinting, bespectacled man whose face pokes out of the roaring jaws of a bear. These busts combine the reverent and the irreverent: like any holy statue, the Endurance woman sports a halo — but it is in the shape of a dart board, and her cheeky, mischievous smile is anything but saintly.

In contrast to Marroquin’s references to mass and halos, Nieves’ art is dark, decadent, and haunting. Take, for example, “El Gusano de la Envidia” (“The Worm of Envy”) where the fat segments of a worm’s body rise from a concrete base and transform into the aching chest muscles of a mutated man with three faces. His four bloodshot eyes roll up towards the sky in agony, his three mouths gasp, and a group of fingers pulls apart a hole in his pectoral muscles. Meanwhile, the side of his face is a castle, with a gaping mouth as a drawbridge and an invasion of maggots eagerly climbing a ladder on the parapet towards the stronghold of his empty skull.

For Nieves, clay, which has to be fired in a kiln, may hold ironic significance because his studio burnt to the ground in 2008, taking seven years of work with it. He had no choice but to pick through the rubble and start again, and so his work has a measure of hope as well. “My art may appear dark and decadent, yet within the darkness there is light,” he says. “Through this decadence I reveal that we all share the capacity to raise ourselves and develop a harmonious livability with nature and with ourselves.”

While both Nieves and Marroquin chose from themes that demonstrate their deep connection to the symbols of their culture, they had no choice when it came to their medium. “Clay is one of those things–it picks you,” wrote Marroquin in a blog post in 2008. “It will haunt you and chase you down to the ends of the earth. And anytime you are working on anything else, if it’s picked you, you’ll just be thinking about it. It’s like love. No, it is love. It’s amazing.”

National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W 19th St. Through May 15. Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm.(312)738-1503.