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February 21 - May 30, 2004, at Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach

by Shirle Gottlieb

Forget the title. The light-hearted imagery that springs to mind at the sound of the term, A Woman's Touch, is the antithesis of the powerful work you'll encounter here. Three years in development, this astonishing exhibit showcases the sculptures of four exceptional women artists from four geographic regions of Latin American who express their inner vision through four different materials.

With the exception of Maria Izquierdo and Frida Kahlo, most Latin American women were denied artistic recognition before the 1960s. The artists in this exquisitely installed exhibit, therefore, are products of cultures which have only recently allowed women to participate in the male-dominated world of sculpture. Peruvian Margarita Checa works in wood, Puerto Rican Susana Espinosa sculpts in clay, Panamanian Isabel de Obaldia molds forms from glass, and Mexican Patricia Waisburd (known as "Peschel") constructs with paper. However, each explores the human figure. Upon entering the gallery, you'll notice that a rose-colored glow radiates from the analogous colors of the sculptures. Juxtaposed as they are against complimentary teal-blue walls, the wood, clay, glass and paper forms are a knock-out.

Working mostly with polished olive wood, Checa carves lyrical life-sized figures. Highly stylized with downcast eyes and bald bowed heads, they appear to be frozen in time. Whether children, animals, adults in a row boat, or a baby in a mysterious box, these lovely mythic archetypes evoke loneliness, alienation, and quiet supplication.

By contrast, Espinosa builds raw, earthy, androgynous figures from clumps of clay. Largely unglazed and very mysterious, these captivating totems resemble religious relics from some pre-historic archaeological site; or conversely, they conjure both surrealism and post-Modernism. "Clay has been used since the beginning of the human race," says Espinosa, "It is the closest material to nature we have. . . .the most primary, the most universal, and it will never run out as long as the earth exists."

Margarita Checa, “The Doors of Perception
(La puertas de la percepción)," 2003, olive
and mahogany wood with bullhorn
and silver inlays, 81 x 43 x 24".

Margarita Checa, "The Hidden
Place (El lugar escondido),"
2000, olive tree, 22 x 10 x 15".

Susana Espinosa, “Blue Woman (Mujer azul)," 1998, clay/oxides/clay paste/glaze/wood and acrylic, 65 x 12 1/2 x 9 1/2".

Susana Espinosa, “White Personala I (Personala blanca I)," 1997, clay/oxides
and clay paste, 38 x 10 x 6” (diptych).

Isabel de Obaldia, "Snakes (Culebras)," 2004, sand-cast glass, 26 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 2 1/2".

Isabel de Obaldia, "Marine (Marino)," 2003, kiln-cast glass, 26 x 9 1/2 x 3".

Peschel, "The Lady of the Key
(La dama de la ilave)," 2003-04,
recycled paper, 67 x 28 x 28".

Peschel, "Is Not a Dream (No
es un sueño)," 2000, recycled
paper, 73 x 33 x 33".
Glass, too, has great seductive power, as you'll discover when you see de Obaldia's stunning male torsos. Composed from translucent forms that have been molded with color, smelted, cleaned, carved, polished, and finally assembled, each three-piece torso is embellished with a different theme. Dramatically covered with snakes (Culebras), lizards (Legarto), messy eyes (Ojos Revueltos), or blue eyes (Ojos azules), these 26-inch sand-cast sculptures relate to the ritual flora and fauna of indigenous Panamanian culture. With light shining through them, they cast shadows on their pedestals that take on a supernatural appearance.

All of the work here is outstanding, but it's Peschel's that receives the most comments. From a distance No es un sueno (This is not a Dream) appears to be a traditionally sculpted angel flying through space. A close inspection, however, reveals that it (and all of Peschel's figures) are created from recycled brown paper. Paper traces its roots back to pre-Hispanic times, of course. The Maya and Aztecs used tree bark called amate, and papel picado decorations play an important part in Day of the Dead celebrations. But this is the first time we've seen life-sized figures composed from ordinary brown paper that has been soaked in glue, molded and shaped over forms, then left to dry until it hardens and becomes three-dimensional sculpture.

Although Peschel's work depicts scenes of everyday life, a spiritual aura emanates from each of them. In Who Am I? (Quien soy?) for example, a hooded figure hides behind a mask that shields its face from the world. In another work, And the Soul Made Itself Comfortable (Y el alma se acomodo), a lifeless female form slumps over in her chair as if her soul has just departed; and in Kaddish three empty bodiless robes stand around a Hebrew prayer book reciting the ancient prayer for the dead.