Heavy rain in Colombia

Omar Valencia’s mother doesn’t have long to live. She has one more journey to make before her time is due, a final pilgrimage with her son back to her native Colombia. In anticipation of their departure, Valencia’s gallery, the Oxala on West 18th Street, celebrated the end of its eight year tenure this past Saturday night. But the sound of the door slamming was barely audible amidst the evening’s clamor: salutations of old and new friends, the clinking of wine glasses, children’s laughter, and red heels clicking to Latin American rhythms.

Wading through photography installations, couches, and kitchen cabinets, it was hard to distinguish where Valencia’s home ended and where the gallery began. But visitors weren’t tip toeing around potential border-crossing; the space was the border in and of itself. The front room, the most deliberate gallery space, was adorned with a central photography series across three walls. Each photo featured the same full-bodied women in elaborate Victorian-gothic costume, her face painted in white and black, the traditional colors of Día de los Muertos .  Postured suggestively in each shot, the female subject was set against various distinctive Chicagoan and Latin American landmarks. Legs spread and hair tossed, she leans against the rails of a balcony in a shot taken from the ground, Mexican and American flags wavering in the background.

Following the trail of photographs around the room, the last portrait–propped up in a thick yellow frame–featured a markedly different woman, an honest, aging face of distinction: Omar’s mother. Beside her portrait sat an auction sign-up sheet to help fund Valencia’s and his mother’s trip. While the event had no official theme, it was hard not to regard each artifact–from trinkets such as Frida Kahlo printed coasters, bags, and postcards to the photography exhibit at large–as homage to the woman not in the room.

A glass case off to the left side held an array of elongated pencil drawings on rough papyrus paper, a series created by the visiting artist Bert Menco. The female subject of the drawings–a distorted paper-doll like figure–was standing erect in each, seemingly stretched due to the paper’s length.  But with closer inspection, the woman’s face was multiplied throughout each image. Subtly interwoven into the foreground, multiplications of the central woman’s face crafted the context. In one, the central figure bore an umbrella defying the downward pelleting of rain, her face re-created in each falling drop. In the umbrella overhead was yet another countenance mirroring the subject’s gaze.  The mountains of Colombia, where Valencia’s previous gallery was located and where he will shortly return, are no stranger to heavy rainfall.