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Astrid Terrazas: La Jardinera

The eleven paintings and single sculpture in Astrid Terrazas’s first solo show at P·P·O·W encompass far-reaching spatial and temporal terrain through powerful, graphic figuration. Rendered in bold and contrasting hues, her signs are packed like patchwork across a work’s surface, offering partial glimpses into a deeply enchanted netherworld that periodically crosses into our reality. We encounter, by turns, her Queens studio, ancestral healing practices, her dog rendered in incandescent turquoise (a signature shade), characters from Mexican folklore, and episodes of personal experience. This is painting as storytelling, rebuilt from the grand traditions of muralism, retablos, and, it seems to me, Francisco de Goya via Paula Rego. Winged guardians, human vascular systems, and other motifs recur across canvases, forging a narrative cohesion that is nonetheless rife with considered gaps. These opacities—spaces where understanding shimmers just beyond our grasp—read as strategies of nondisclosure given the proximity of the stories to the artist’s life. Terrazas’s ability to skillfully wrangle her diverse themes into legible forms and compositions, then, does not mean that such legibility will necessarily give way to meaning. This feat is as personal (since the artist views painting as a means of healing past trauma) as it is physical (since the largest canvases exceed six feet in height).

Terrazas has spoken of picking up the earth’s tokens, such as acorns, to carry with her and, at times, to touch or rub. This apparent compulsion for grounding by somatic connection manifests in her paintings through the subterranean roots of plants, exposed as if by x-ray vision, that spread downward like inverted tongues of flame. The earth also enters the work literally: five canvases feature paint mixed with sand, sometimes sourced from Terrazas’s backyard. We also find in Terrazas’s work the alchemy of ground snake bones, potato beetles frozen in resin pools, and cochineal-dyed yarn from which dangles a shell found on a recent trip to the beach town of Sisal. How to Make it on the LAND! (2022), a group portrait of the artist’s friends, explores the fantasy of agrarian living “especially for the unskilled and ignorant city-dweller,” as the gloss on the verso of a book depicted in the painting claims. The exhibition’s title comes from a ceramic street marker which the artist saw in Mexico. Labeled “la jardinera,” the sign is depicted in one of the paintings on view, accompanied by a silhouetted woman watering flowers set against a burnt sienna ground. The idea of putting down roots in a certain locale, as well as various metaphors of growth, offers a frame for Terrazas’s work, which addresses themes of displacement and recuperation. Born in Juárez but relocated to the less violent city of Dallas at the age of seven, the sense of separation is nowhere more keenly felt than in How many love tokens went missing in Mexico (2022). Here, a muscular woman with upturned braids straddles the Rio Grande, figured as a blue artery trimmed in white that cuts across the canvas diagonally. The figure is Terrazas, who holds one foot in her grandmother’s city of El Paso, and one in adjacent Juárez, where the memory of Terrazas’s uncle, who died when she was young, is ossified as a statue in green stone.

By showing the national border as a modern (and in some ways arbitrary) construct in How many love tokens went missing in Mexico, Terrazas expands the personal into the political. This goes some way toward positioning her work as a kind of paean to pre-modern and non-western worldviews, connecting conceptually and pictorially with alchemical diagrams, children’s book illustrations, and the iconography of ancestral myths. In Miquipapalotl—the black witch moth and holding grief (2022), for instance, the titular winged figure hovers above a trapezoidal field in which two women act to circumvent imminent death in their house, one through prayer, the other through retrieving an underground tool. In a Mexican myth descended from the Aztecs, a sick person will die unless the black moth is prevented from touching all four walls of the home before midnight—thus the four copper embossed devils inscribed within a black circle in each cardinal direction in the painting’s upper left corner. The clock that is its mirror on the right strikes eleven: only one hour remains, and a miniature image of the house below shows us that three walls have already been touched. The proliferation of clock faces, diases, and dials as surfaces for the inscription and recombination of knowledge recalls calendar stones and their principle of cyclical rather than linear time. Note in this regard the out-of-sequence seasons that label teal pie-slice wedges in Time slipping from the Angel’s hand (2022). Elsewhere, the most conventionally-depicted clock in the show, with Arabic numerals on a pink face, is shattered, the movement of its hands stilled by an interleaved rope.

Terrazas’s most recent work is more baroque, and its imagery more dynamic, than ever before. The canvases are also larger, meaning there is more surface area to fill. Terrazas has found a mitigating compositional device in the ribbons, tongues, tubes, and veins that wind through the P·P·O·W paintings, connecting their disparate actors. A curling blue root in Miquipapalotl aims to immobilize the deadly moth, while the strings twisted around fingers in Time slipping from the Angel’s hand suggest bondage or puppetry. Such deliberate formal interconnections within canvases suggest a powerful intertextuality—the notion that texts derive meaning through relations between signs within that text, as well as with works external to it—at work in Terrazas’s paintings, each of which acts as a prism refracting larger webs of cultural connection. This non-hierarchical conceptual register is another way to conceive the thematic of uprootedness in Terrazas’s work, one that operates apart from the concerns of geography.

In Fountains, can I build one, be one? (2021) Terrazas proposes circulation as a simultaneously open and circular system. The solitary drop emitted from a fountain has not yet reached the barren landscape beneath it. If the water begins to pump, the pomegranate seed at the center of this disc-like terrain will grow, and the energy it consumes will regenerate what eats it in turn. Fountains served as the conceptual seed of Terrazas’s sculpture La Fuente (para Sydney) (2022), the tiled sphynx-like fountain at the gallery’s center. Terrazas invites viewers to deposit into it ceramic tokens emblazoned with their own wishes, which they should simultaneously read aloud. Depending on one’s point of view, this is either the most straightforward or most opaque work in the show, since the narrative whose unfurling it prompts depends upon the life experience each person brings to it, rather than that of the artist alone. Here Terrazas forges a temporality-consolidating tradition that is simultaneously age-old and future tense.