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Spectral Signs, Suggestive Symbols 

Signs and symbolically loaded designs have long held a special place in the work of Spanish and Latin American artists. Maybe it all goes back to the influence of the Moors, who often used symbolic forms in place of graven images, which were forbidden in Islam. Whatever the reason, coded meanings and cryptic iconography run deep in the Hispanic psyche, as seen in works ranging from the paintings of Miro and Picasso to the prose of Borges and Marquez. And now the paintings of Antonio Carreno and Theresa Herrera confirm what we already knew, albeit in uniquely different ways.

A native of the Dominican Republic and currently a resident of New Jersey, Carreno works with a vocabulary of signs and symbols that sometimes seems to hark to that eerie nexus between surrealism and abstract expressionism, a charged space cohabited by the ghosts of Antonio Tapies, Joan Miro and Arshile Gorky. But Carreno's roots are in the Caribbean, and that changes everything; his symbolic vocabulary possesses the gravitas of his predecessors yet also recalls native American pictograms just as his colors and textures often hark to the islands, to the abundant sun and sand of his native tropics.

All of this is evident in Fiesta, a 4-by-6-foot canvas inhabited by animated squiggles, loops, arrows and s-curves, all seemingly vibrating in a cacophony of suggestions: of string, brass and percussion instruments, of dancing bodies, of torsos, limbs and breasts all rendered in the sparest, most abstractly suggestive marks set against patches of gold, violet, avocado and rose, like the afternoon refractions of a stained-glass window against an old masonry wall. Like Tapies, Carreno sometimes mixes sand with his paints to lend his surfaces a more concrete and tactile texture, a sense of something solid on which his linear universe of spectral symbols can enact their ambiguous dance of innuendo. In Ocasa de la Noche the forms are closely related, yet their disposition and placement, as well as the more somber background tones, suggest a much more private place, internal, shrouded and contemplative, a space of sighs and silences. Those, along with his pastel Amarillo y Rojo, are among the most memorable works in a selection that can sometimes seem a little homogenous, yet always reflects a certain pristine awareness of how signs and colors can conspire to converse with us in their own special language of forms and metaphors.

Mexican-American artist Theresa Herrera has her own symbolic vocabulary that often employs the traditional designs of Aztec and Mayan -- or even Celtic or central Asian -- peoples in her brightly colored abstractions. If this sounds complicated, her approach is fairly accessible, maybe a tad extroverted. Herrera is into spirituality of both the traditional and multicultural variety, and the various guises of the goddess are obviously important to her. Consequently, hints of feminine anatomy are often subtly interwoven, even in her most abstract efforts.

But you have to look twice. The first thing you notice is her colors, luminous pastels that seem to melt into each other like swatches of pale neon light, as we see in Leap of Faith Cosmogram, a kind of mandala of luminous floral and spiral forms. Although the symbols are anthropological, there is a faint hint of the feminine in all this, just as Georgia O'Keefe's floral studies were often more than just flowers if you looked closely enough. Same goes for Celestial Mandala, ostensibly little more than a cosmic circle with some cumulus cloud formations spiraling around it, and Potencia de Fuego Espiritu, a painting of intense flames that on second glance may seem somewhat sexier than mere carbonic combustion. It can all seem a little fluffy at times, but that may be part of her accessibility. Herrera once explained, "People want to separate the earthly from the spiritual, but I'm always reconciling dualities in different forms, finding ways for them to co-exist in harmony. ... In the physical plane there has to be a union before a creation, which means that existence is a shared experience. So why deny our ecstatic moments? Why not share ecstasy? My purpose in life is to bring truth, beauty, peace and joy to the world and, in this way, to myself."

click to enlarge Theresa Herrera's Leap of Faith Cosmogram, with its luminous pastels, has a hint of the feminine in its anthropological symbols.
  • Theresa Herrera's Leap of Faith Cosmogram, with its luminous pastels, has a hint of the feminine in its anthropological symbols.


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