Miguel A. Mendoza: “There’s my family. My country, the way my people live in the mountains. The rest is from my soul.” Lucy Gellman Photos; all artwork by Miguel Mendoza.
A woman lies across her floor, asleep on her arms as a sheet folds beneath her knees. Another raises a shell to her mouth, her breasts heavy and full. Her arms flex; a shawl drips over them. Nearby, a family of skeletons gathers in the grass, purple mountains rising in the background. As one strums his guitar, music is nearly audible from the frame.
These are just a few of the characters in Raíces sin Fronteras / Roots Without Borders, a new exhibition from Miguel Angel Mendoza at the New Haven Free Public Library. A vast and thrilling collection of the artist’s multimedia work, the show runs through March 20.
“You see different styles here,” he said at an opening Wednesday night. “There’s my family. My country, the way my people live in the mountains. The rest is from my soul.”
From its outset, the exhibition is a deep treasure trove, each piece telling a different story. On one wall, several black-and-white woodcuts draw the viewer in, jumping from ancestor worship to reverence for the natural world.
Each is completely self-sufficient: a huge crow digs its talons into the ground, wings ruffled and detailed as it turns its head. A stork (Cigüeña) extends its wings and leans into the water, balletic even as it looks for food. A bird perches on a branch, leaves extended like fingers beneath it. Close by, skeletons lift their voices to the sky, jaws wide in song.
The longer one looks, the more the prints talk to each other. In one, a skeleton tips her head back, singing right to a sliver of moon that hangs in the upper righthand corner. Musical notes dance around her skull; a thick black braid grazes her skirt. Just an image away, a fellow skeleton sings beneath a blazing sun, covered in a wide brimmed hat. They feel, instantly, like two pieces of the same whole.
The woodcuts are just a jumping off point. Throughout the exhibition, the artist has installed vibrant, cacophonous compositions that depict his village in Oaxaca.
They transport the willing viewer to a Mexico that is pulsing with life and heart, chatter and music. In several of the images, it’s hard not to sway and sing as a band starts to play and dancers lift their skirts, ready to move.
In others, one stops to study skeletons in motion, and is hit by the intense bittersweet of loving someone after they have left their physical body. By Andando El Camino, one finds themselves wanting to join two musicians on their trek, blue mountains rising against a fire-orange sky as the two walk and sing.
In a central space that feels like the show’s inner sanctum, Mendoza has also celebrated the female form, with smooth blue-grey oils and watercolors in inky black and white. They are holy and meditative more than they are sexual: the artist has rendered full and heavy breasts, but also soft and aging bodies, some bent in prayer and meditation. In Desos (Desires), it seems that he has tapped into something beyond himself, with a composition that seems like Francisco Goya has guided his hand for a little bit.
Together, it amounts to a wonderful and kaleidoscopic kind of storytelling. Born in Villa de Zaachila, Oaxaca, in 1967, Mendoza began painting when he was just seven years old. As a child and then a young adult, he studied multiple forms of art, hanging onto a magical realism that still flows through his work.
In Oaxaca, he worked as a teacher, passing technique down to his students as he honed it himself. But when he came to Connecticut 20 years ago, he didn’t have as much time to paint. He still doesn’t.
“I have to keep working and working,” he said. “It takes me forever to do one piece.”
In this sense, he and the library have done New Haven a great service by bringing the work into public view. While has long exhibited work in the hallways of MakeHaven, it has remained a secret that is too well kept. Here, it is front and center, traversing politics and history (in addition to ancestors, the artist has paid homage to the 43 students who went missing in Ayotzinapa in his work) to the sheer beauty and magic of a landscape he knows well.
The show is a delight, but it is also a call to arms: to break the borders that have made Mendoza’s home a dirty word in the popular American imagination. To properly compensate the artists who are calling the city home, and to understand their worlds as part of ours.
Miguel Angel Mendoza Melchor’s Raíces sin Fronteras / Roots Without Borders runs in the library’s Ives Gallery through March 20. For more on library hours, visit its website.