This has been the summer of women’s art in Colorado, with the Denver Art Museum’s heralded Women of Abstract Expressionism already looking like the show of the year and inspiring a number of other exhibits around the area featuring women artists. These events are part of a national re-evaluation of the role of women in modern and contemporary art.
In line with this trend is Ana Maria Hernando: We Have Flowers, an impressive solo filling a set of exhibition spaces at the CU Art Museum at the University of Colorado Boulder. This handsome exhibit zeroes in on some current pieces by a noted local artist whose chosen subject is about being a woman — or, more properly, about women’s history and experiences. While Ana Maria Hernando addresses this subject conceptually and abstractly — something that separates her work from the main current of the mostly representational and literal feminist wing of the art-of-identity movement — the imagery and techniques she embraces make women the definite center of this show.
Hernando was born and raised in Argentina, and she still maintains close ties with her home country. She came to the United States thirty years ago to further her art studies, graduating in 1990 from the prestigious California College of the Arts; after living in various places across the country, twenty years ago she arrived in Boulder, where she established her studio and has remained to this day. While her work focuses on feminine content, South America is also central to her oeuvre — and in the pieces at the CU museum, she refers to her heritage in a wide range of ways. For instance, the exhibit’s title, We Have Flowers, refers to an experience that Hernando had on a recent trip to South America. When she visited an isolated vineyard town in Argentina, one of the women who lived there took the artist on a tour of her extensive vegetable garden, which she cultivated for her family’s food supply. Then, as the tour ended, the woman showed Hernando a small patch in the corner. Pointing to the blooming plants growing there, she told the artist,“We have flowers” (in Spanish, of course). The woman was poor, so the flowers were a luxury — yet apparently were worth the extra effort and resources they required. The experience really struck Hernando and was the inspiration for this show.
The title piece is a wall-mounted installation in the shape of a giant white flower. In the center is a ring of pink, flower-shaped embroidered elements; beyond these are bits of veil and another set of flower-shaped pieces, all of which are arranged in concentric circles, with the final circle of the flower’s “petals” made of pointed bits of veil radiating out in all directions. Elements similar to the flower-shaped ones, these mostly white, have been scattered across the wall and spread onto an adjacent wall. The flower-shaped embroideries for this piece as well as Hernando’s other works are custom-made by cloistered Carmelite nuns in Buenos Aires; Hernando sends the nuns drawings of what she wants — the patterns to embroider — and the nuns (and their families) carry them out in fabric and thread, then send the finished pieces to Hernando’s relatives in Argentina, who ship them to Boulder. The embroidered pieces are related in both motif and material to the products the nuns sell to support themselves: the mantillas that women wear in church in Argentina.
The initial space dedicated to We Have Flowers is anchored by a large installation, “Un Vestido Para la Ñusta,” which translates to “A Dress for the Ñusta.” According to Hernando, the piece refers to a female mountain spirit known to the indigenous people of Peru. The installation is in the shape of the cup of a gigantic bell, a roughly symmetrical mound that rises more than seven feet high and is eight feet wide; it is simultaneously symbolic of both a dress and a mountain. To build it, Hernando covered a completely hidden armature with several layered courses of enormous petticoats crocheted in yarn that together function as a single skirt. Hernando commissioned the crocheted petticoats from Peruvian women living in small mountain villages; when the textiles arrived at Hernando’s Boulder studio, she dyed them black.
At the top of “A Dress for the Ñusta,” a profusion of embroidered veil pieces are clustered like a bouquet of flowers; these came from the cloistered nuns. On the floor, surrounding the base, are transparent cast-acrylic roundels in white, rose and black. Embedded in some of the roundels are embroidered flowers for veils.
The show includes other installations, notably two that have been conjoined: “Reina” and “Un Río de Cantos Blancos.” “Reina” is a wall-sized embroidered veil that has been pierced, its voids defining a fleur de lis. The bottom is draped onto “Un Río de Cantos Blancos” and in the process becomes incorporated into that floor-bound piece. “Un Río de Cantos Blancos” comprises an arrangement of dozens of cast-acrylic roundels done in clear, white and green, some with the embroidered flowers encased within them. Placed here and there on top of the roundels are doilies that have been molded via a clear acrylic medium into bowl-like floral shapes; they are used not only to accent the cast-acrylic elements — which they do very well — but also to better link “Reina” to “Un Río de Cantos Blancos.”
For Hernando, the crocheted and embroidered items that she commissions and then incorporates into her pieces represent the idea of the “hidden” work of women. She sees the traditional role of women as facilitating the lives of others, in particular their family members: The women prepare the food, they take care of the house, they raise the children, etc., and all of their labors are undone each day and need to be done again the next. By appropriating the textiles made by these women, Hernando attempts to make their invisibility visible, and to immortalize their transient efforts. This is particularly poignant today, when most embroidery and crocheting is done by computer-guided machines and not by women working in their homes or in a convent, carrying on crafts that represent traditions handed down from mothers to daughters over centuries.
The works in the show most closely associated with the floral theme are a small group of black-on-black paintings: simple, abstracted renditions of flowers, the details of which can barely be made out. With an almost calligraphic sense for line, Hernando minimally depicts the flowers through a few broad strokes. The blackness of the palettes further enhances the less-is-more approach; the deep darkness of the blacks and grays used to express the flower imagery results in an unexpectedly rich visual experience despite the limited hues. They’re gorgeous.
Hernando’s We Have Flowers is a compelling, sometimes breathtaking visual experience that demonstrates the artist’s ability to convey feminist content conceptually while aesthetically reconciling opposing visual effects. As a result, her signature pieces somehow manage to be both subtle and dazzling.
Ana Maria Hernando, through October 22 at the CU Art Museum, 1085 18th Street, Boulder, 303-492-8300, colorado.edu/cuartmuseum.