Mexico's Impressive Women Artists Finally Coming Into Their Own

SOME of the best works produced over the past 70 years by Mexico's outstanding women artists are currently on display at the National Academy of Design here, as part of the multifacted ``Mexico: A Work of Art'' festival. Included in this impressive and wide-ranging exhibition are over 100 paintings, collages, drawings, and photographs by 22 artists representing an extraordinary variety of styles and techniques. Four or five of the women are fairly well-known in the United States and Europe. Two, Frida Kahlo (1907-1957) and Leonora Carrington (b.1917), have solid international reputations, and at least a half-dozen of the others deserve greater recognition beyond the borders of their own country.

At the moment, it appears likely that they will get it. Mexican art has entered a boom period, and that nation's better women artists seem finally to be coming into their own. Frida Kahlo's phenomenal recent success in the world art market is only one indication of how things have begun to change. Thanks to this exhibition and to the other major shows of Mexican art that will go on display here this year and next, many of the artists on view at the National Academy will soon be both better known and capable of demanding higher prices than ever before.

The exhibition should not, however, be seen as comprehensive. According to Edward Sullivan, its curator, ``We have attempted to choose the most representative figures for most trends of the time period dealt with. There are, of course, many other excellent artists whose works form a part of this complex panorama. It is our hope that this exhibition will inspire productive polemics regarding the subject....

Some of the most intriguing - as well as painful - pieces on view touch on profoundly personal matters in ways that are both imaginative and intimately revealing. No other 20th-century artist, for instance, has been more openly confessional than Frida Kahlo. Nothing was too private or painful for her to describe in vivid detail in her art, whether it concerned her tragic miscarriage, her numerous operations, or her obsessive love for her frequently unfaithful husband, Diego Rivera. Everything was grist for her creative mill, and more important, she knew how to take full expressive advantage of it in generally small but effective images that have lost none of their impact in the nearly half-century since she made them.

Kahlo was not alone in her use of extravagant imagery, however. Remidios Vardo (1908-1963) produced a number of delightful paintings that are charmingly provocative in theme and highly refined in technique. Her 1958 ``The Creation of Birds,'' is particularly imaginative and successful, and not unlike the paintings produced by one of the world's best-known female Surrealists, Leonora Carrington.

Although not Mexican by birth - her mother was Irish and her father English - Carrington became a Mexican citizen shortly after her arrival in that country in 1942. Her richly detailed and wildly imaginative canvases filled with mythical beasts, neoclassical buildings, and as odd an assortment of humans as one can find anywhere in art, soon brought her international renown. Her five paintings in the show are both original and impressive, if perhaps also a bit too precious to be taken altogether seriously. Even so, ``Temple of the Word'' is a fascinating creation, a kind of minor, updated Hieronymus Bosch.

Imagination also reigns supreme in the collages and mixed-media constructions of Lucero Isaac and Marie Jose Paz; the near-primitive canvases of Maria Isquierdo; and the haunting, double-image photographs of Kati Horna. The paintings of Olga Costa and the photographs of Gracielo Iturbide, on the other hand, are more straightforward - although no less moving and effective for that.

Of the more recent artists, Rocio Maldonado is by far the most impressive. Her two very large drawings, ``Stones'' and ``Thorns,'' the first executed in 1985 and the latter this year, would more than hold their own in any international drawing exhibition.

In all, this exhibition comes as a pleasant surprise, primarily because of the number of women artists who qualified for inclusion. Our ignorance of their names is our fault, of course, not theirs. In the history of 20th-century Mexican art, women painters, sculptors, and photographers have held important positions. Many women played significant roles in the so-called Mexican school of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, but with one or two exceptions, North Americans have limited their appreciation of Mexican art to the work produced by its male artists. Until roughly a decade ago, even Frida Kahlo was known primarily as the beautiful and talented wife of Diego Rivera.

At the National Academy of Design through Dec. 2.

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