Dos hermanas, Virgen de barro (The Two Sisters, Virgin of Clay) is a bold and arresting painting in both style and content. While only five elements populate the field appearing to offer an elusive, indirect narrative, the work is complex in its historical and socio-cultural point of view. Dos hermanas's intrigue lies in its layered meaning, which may slowly reveal itself through dialogical contemplation.
Rocío Maldonado received her training at the National Fine Arts School La Esmeralda in the late 1970s followed by studies in the ateliers of Gilberto Aceves Navarro and Luis Nishizawa. She turned to artesanía (craft), muñecas de cartón (papier-mâché dolls), and other less ephemeral dolls of gesso, wax and fabric, as objects of study for large-scale canvases and drawings that she produced from 1981 to 1987. Dos hermanas, and Maldonado's production in general during this period, is representative of the neo-expressionist tendency dubbed neomexicanismo in Mexico, a nomenclature, which correctly suggests a renewed consideration of local identity, but one in which "Neo-Mexicanists poke fun at worn narratives of historic continuity, national unity, and romanticized indigenism."
Congruent with her artistic generation's interests, Maldonado indeed reexamines constructs of identity, but more specifically, in her muñecas paintings she appropriates and re-interprets the familiar (popular art and the classical) to critically question the female condition. Additionally, Dos hermanas invokes the legacy of the modernist Mexican countercurrent artists Frida Kahlo and María Izquierdo, whose work was at once autobiographical, intimate, national, and aware of the European avant-garde. Kahlo and Izquierdo looked to colonial devotional art (ex-votos and retablos), 19th-century Mexican provincial portraiture such as that of José María Estrada, and the Italian Metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, among other stylistic influences, inspirations, and concerns. Signs of the above are visible in Maldonado's work and it is this pastiche that situates her firmly within postmodernism.
The "two sisters" indicated by the title, are the muñeca de cartón, blown up to human-sized proportions, and the sculptural head of Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, desire, and beauty. Placed in close proximity to one another in a compressed interior space, their unseeing fixed gazes confront the viewer, who is forced to consider the relationship and disparity between these two icons of feminine beauty.
Naming her muñeca "Virgin of Clay," Maldonado elevates the ephemeral toy to devotional icon, audaciously suggesting that the figure is a manifestation of Mary--likely the bronze-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, the most prominent icon of the spiritual conquest of the indigenous peoples of New Spain. The trampled, single rose at her feet canonizes this incongruous virgin, as out of season roses were the sign that the Guadalupana gave to the indigenous convert Juan Diego to take to the Bishop Zumárraga. The vase of lilies connects these sisters; lilies symbolize not only the Virgin's purity and innocence, but also motherhood--in Greek legend lilies were formed from drops of the goddess Hera's breast milk. The excised heart further invokes layered cultural history: pre-Columbian human sacrifice and the civilization/barbary paradigm, as well as Catholic devotion to the sacred heart of Mary. Moreover, the merging of the sacred and profane is underscored by the heart's resemblance to female genitalia.
Maldonado retrieves and arranges elements selected from a visual vocabulary that is highly personal, but also accessible and provocatively compelling; through juxtaposition she brings into question hierarchies of race, standards of beauty, and fixed cultural boundaries, while erasing separations of high and low, the sacred and profane, purity and sexuality, the animate and inanimate, and the civilized and the "barbaric." Dos hermanas is a testament to the profound relevance and depth of Maldonado's oeuvre.
Teresa Eckmann, Assistant Professor of Contemporary Latin American Art History, University of Texas, San Antonio
1) Teresa Eckmann, Neo-Mexicanism, Mexican Figurative Painting and Patronage in the 1980s (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010), 5.