The first thing you notice about the works of Mexico City artist Marianela de la Hoz is that they are tiny—usually just a few square inches, done in egg tempera on wood. Once you get past the rich washes of color and remarkably intricate details, you notice something else. These pint-size paintings are deeply, deeply disturbing.
For example, in 2008's Versión autorizada de un noviazgo oficial (“Authorized version of an official engagement”), a handsome young man in a relaxed pose has slung his arm around a woman's shoulders. She stands on a pedestal and wears the flowing robes of a Virgin Mary. He looks directly at the viewer. Her downtrodden gaze is fixed somewhere in the distance, and her arms have been amputated just below the elbow.
In a painting done in 2004, a gloved hand plunges a knife into the body of a pig, whose lower half has already been thoroughly butchered. Splayed on a pristine cutting block, the animal bears a human head. It's not clear whether it's male or female, but the face appears alive and agonized. The title, scrawled neatly at the bottom left, resonates as deeply as the terrifying imagery. Teoría de la purificación a través del dolor it reads—in translation, “Theory of purification through pain.”
“When people don't know me and they look at my work,” de la Hoz says, “some of them have told me: ‘I thought you were dark.' They cannot understand.”
What they can't wrap their minds around is how this pretty, petite woman—who currently lives in San Diego with her family and looks at least a decade younger than her 52 years—could possibly produce such consistently disquieting subject matter. Sitting in a corner of Little Italy's Noel-Baza Fine Art, where she recently staged a successful solo exhibition, de la Hoz grins readily and even giggles on occasion.
“If you get to know me and my philosophy of painting, I paint this dark side of the human being,” she explains. “I am a very nice person. I have a very happy life. I have a beautiful family. I am a wife and a mother. But I paint this other side of me. It is the Jekyll and Hyde.”
De la Hoz did not always have an outlet for her Mr. Hyde. She worked as a successful graphic designer for more than a decade before she succumbed to her deepest, most secret desire: to paint.
“When my second child was born, I decided to work on my first painting,” she recalls. “It took me a whole year. It was—como se dice—catharsis? I wanted to say many things to my friends and my family. I tried to say many things that I didn't dare to do face-to-face.”
At first, de la Hoz kept her paintings hidden under her bed. She was hesitant, she says, afraid she wasn't talented enough to be a real artist. When she finally mustered the courage to show her creations to family and close friends, their response buttressed her.
“They were amazed because I had always been so nice and quiet and mellow,” she laughs. “But they said that the paintings were very well done and I should do more. So I decided I was done with graphic design and I began working full-time as a professional painter.”
That was in 1992. Since then, de la Hoz has participated in exhibitions around the globe, though she says her most memorable experience was a 2001 hometown showing at Misrachi, one of Mexico City's oldest and most prestigious galleries. Though it has since shuttered its doors, Misrachi once hosted exhibitions for national icons Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
De la Hoz works in miniature in part because she believes it provides balance to her aggressive imagery. “I have an example I always give,” she offers. “When you see Mickey Mouse as a tiny cartoon, it's so cute. But when you take your children to the park and they see Mickey as a huge character, they start crying, because they feel fear. The same happens in my artwork. I found that the way to bring people near is to do it small. It's like a spider web—they come close and are trapped.”
She says she's heavily influenced by the dark figurative paintings of Goya and Bosch. And although she concedes that her work has “Mexican flavor,” she embraces themes that are universal: love, loneliness, death. Catholicism, in particular, is a recurring motif. She attributes this obsession to her education at a nun-run school.
“In my early works, I criticized all the stupid things [the nuns] told me,” de la Hoz explains, “about religion, about education, about the role of women in society, about family—all of that. I am a spiritual person, and my family, too. But we don't believe in the things they say at church. Everything was fearful. Everything was the devil. Everything was sin. There was nothing good about this beautiful God, this merciful God.”
De la Hoz wonders if perhaps her restricted religious upbringing damaged her in some profound way. Before embarking on her artistic journey, she spent a decade pouring her heart out to a shrink.
“I was a little lost in life,” she says with a hint of lingering sadness. “I earned money, and I was a mother and a wife. But when I looked in the mirror, I saw this strange woman. I could not recognize myself. I felt this anguish. I was very shy. I could not do many of the things that normal people could do.”
She pauses and flips through a few pages in her artist's book, which is crammed cover to cover with newspaper clippings and exhibition brochures.
“With therapy I began emerging and telling myself that I was not perfect,” she concludes. “With painting—it is my passion. I don't want to do anything else. I found who I am. There was a path to follow to search who Marianela was and at last I found her.” To see more of Marianela de la Hoz's work. visit www.noel-bazafineart.com.