Whatzup,Columbia City, IN, Sunday, April 15-21, 2004, Page 22, Art is a Verb Column

Identity Searches
By David Tanner

“I seek to unveil what racism and colonialism have suppressed, creating art that documents the post-colonial and neo-colonial experience —art that challenges and empowers.”
-Yasmin Hernandez

Two very talented, young, articulate and rebellious artists are paired in a new exhibition “Our Stories/ Nuestras Historias” at the Avant-Garde Gallery for the rest of this month, plus a special one-day extension for the Cinema Center’s fundraiser on May 1. Local painter Ricco Guerrero once again displays his abilities as he explores some of the iconography of his Hispanic lineage as well as his evolving photo-realistic figurative work. Guerrero’s attention swings somewhere between vibrant graphic imagery (his four takes on his own version of a Mexican board game are simple, direct and edgy in their messages) and more contemplative (and larger) forms of celebration, captured motion and familia.
Loteria, an older, European form of bingo has been played in Mexico and elsewhere (“Even Gringos love it!”) for more than a century and in fact can be purchased locally. The game has long been a favorite of Mexican-American, Latin American, Chicano, Latino and Hispanic (finding an authentic ethnic label can be a loaded challenge) families. Rather than letters and numbers, Loteria boards are affixed with images which correspond to those on playing card-size paper icons which depict variously a hand, crescent moon, watermelon, Diablo, bird, boot, rooster, mermaid, sun and Pre-Columbian symbols, etc. The cards are picked and players fill their boards with dried beans or corn markers. When complete the players shout “Loteria!,” as in “Bingo!.”
Guerrero, using this pre-TV and Game Boy parlor game as inspiration, has created a new version with more contemporary, even shocking, images. His visual puns play off the vintage pictures and are fresh, the colors bold and striking, while his sense of irony is always present. So, too, is his hope of one day taking his work to New York for a chance at exposure to the “big time” —the obvious irony here being that his paired partner Yasmin Hernandez, who lives and works in the Big Apple, struggles herself to find exhibition opportunities in the scarce space of the often closed environs of the established gallery world.
The work of the politically fluent and committed 28 year-old Hernandez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, caught the eye of gallery owner Sal Soto nearly a year ago in the pages of the magazine Urban Latino. The subsequent discovery of her website, ww.yasminhernandez.com, prompted Soto to invite her for the current appearance. Married to her architect husband, who she met while they both studied at Cornell, Hernandez (her degree is in Fine Arts with a concentration in Latino Studies) works as an educator for El Museo del Barrio, a field she first encountered during internships at both the American Folk Art Museum and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Riddled with references to the repression and heroics of Puerto Rican and women’s history, Hernandez’ mixed-media pieces provide testimony and witness to the struggles of a people. Salvation is for the most part not realized here. On the other hand, the artist—perhaps in counterpoint to an older culture—has created five altar-like installations, each featuring a painting depicting victims or historical occurrences, which are draped with cloth and constructions to hold artifacts and candles. These shrines, equally powerful and provocative, are context-driven and need knowledge of Puerto Rican and Caribbean people’s history to fully comprehend them.
In perhaps her most striking piece Hernandez uses a historically familiar photo of Puerto Rican activist and revolutionary Lolita Lebron (she was one of four armed FALN members who assaulted the U.S. House of Representatives 50 years ago and spent 25 years behind bars before receiving a pardon from President Carter in 1979). A strikingly beautiful and educated woman, Lebron was portrayed in American media of the day as a sort of “starlet gone bad person,” with little attempt to understand her actions, let alone the reasons behind them.
That said, Hernandez painted this still much-revered figure, in the nude, with shadows of prison bars running up and down her body, her arm restrained as in the original photo by a policeman. Surrounding the portrait, the artist cleverly incorporates other newspaper images of the day. The effect is poignant and leaves Hernandez with a slight sense of trepidation, and she wonders how such a depiction may be received in a New York exhibition before an audience of older generation Puerto Ricans familiar with Lebron.
All in all this exhibition brings a much needed, edgy voice to the local scene. Here are two artists who are unafraid to sacrifice the sort of navel-gazing, “art for art’s sake,” “will it match the couch?” attitude that so permeates post-modern ideas to make statements about things, ideas, events, memories and identities that concern them. Note: Not recommended for the shy or apolitical.

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