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April 27 - May 19, 2001 at FIG, Santa Monica

by Shirle Gottlieb

To be surrounded by the haunting, semi-abstract paintings of John de Heras is akin to entering the mysterious world of the ancient Mayans. Using his coded, kaleidoscopic paintings as our map we set off on a vicarious archeological expedition. Moved by the work, we search for clues that might reveal insights into an unknown chapter of Mesoamerican history.

For the past four decades, de Heras has been exploring this territory through numerous trips to the Mayan jungles of Mexico and Guatemala coupled with rigorous studies of pre-Colombian art. The paintings on exhibit are the result of his ongoing investigation: a synthesis of his intellect and intuition, what he's learned and what he feels, his scholarly pursuits and his artistic creativity.

We know from centuries-old ruins and artifacts that Mayan culture was highly sophisticated. Archeological sites at Palenque and Chichen Itza tell us that the Maya charted the heavens, developed hieroglyphics, discovered mathematics, and were accomplished sculptors and ceramists. Scholars also suspect that ball games with sacred rituals were an integral part of the Maya belief system--that human sacrifice may have served as a "rite of passage" to other spiritual realms.

And there it is all around us: The Mayan world expressed in Modernist terms by contemporary artist de Heras. Like a haiku poem or a classical riff on a New World coda, de Heras charts this territory with the timeless twist of magic realism. Past/present/future are one-and-the-same, and the whole is pervaded with mystery. Through the use of brilliant color, geometric grids, abstracted forms, distorted space, optical illusion, archetypal symbols, and his own personal iconography, de Heras proves that less is definitely more.

In his most minimal work (two-feet square) we see nothing but a vibrant pink flat ground with triangles and a square scored into it. This might represent the lines on a ball court or, simultaneously, the beginning of existence and the synthesis of everything between heaven and earth.

In another work there are concentric squares on a flat pink ground where blue and red balls bounce randomly about. A third work features the same pink grid--but lines radiate out from a yellow square (an observatory?) like a telescope searching the heavens for answers, while three silver balls line the far left border.

The most intricate painting in the exhibit is based on the same geometric grid, but it is covered with an all-over pattern of brightly colored red and pink spheres, circles, and abstract forms that resemble paving stones, a ball court, coiled serpents, and other more mysterious forms.

“Untitled”, acrylic/mixed media
on canvas panel, 8 x 10”, 2001.

“Untitled”, acrylic/mixed media
on canvas panel, 24 x 24”, 2001.

“Untitled”, acrylic/mixed media
on canvas panel, 8 x 10”, 2001.

“Untitled”, acrylic/mixed media
on canvas panel, 12 x 12”, 2001.

Another patterned painting features a giant serpent making its way across a diagonally scored Grand Ball Court that is rimmed by a well-constructed black and white stone wall. A large pink ball hovers over the scene, while a small white ball seems to be leading the snake.

The work that dominates the show, however, is Ixchel. It's the piece that sums up the persuasive "Symbolic Abstraction" of de Hera's life-long body of work. A wall-sized, vibrant depiction of a lost Mesoamerican civilization, Ixchel is a dazzling, intricate, multi-layered endeavor that is depicted and can be experienced, from multiple perspectives simultaneously.