You will be greeted with an unusual but immediately compelling sight as you enter into the exhibition space at HudsonJones gallery in Camp Washington to see the current show by Maryrose Cobarrubias Mendoza. Titled red, white and brown — new drawings and sculpture, it’s a lovely and deeply thoughtful, quietly emotional show. All the work was made specifically for this exhibition.
On the floor, between the pristine white walls, are two oversized pieces of ruled white paper, their horizontal blue lines conjuring visions of a giant child, seated at a giant desk, doing homework. At the top of one of those is a third sheet, looking like a paper hat folded origami-style, like something a bored but imaginative student might create in class.
You might be ready at this point to leave this piece, thinking the work is charming and the artist is something of a magician to use such simple, everyday materials — just paper and colored pencil — to suggest so much. And she is.
But there’s more to the work, titled “ism,” than that. There are several ripple-like folds in the otherwise flat sheets, and that large “party hat” is actually a small-scale boat. That changes how you perceive this work — a ship is traversing the ocean, facing the waves, and as you step back you can picture the water’s endlessness. You can almost feel the wind. It’s a mirage as much as an artwork.
The gallery’s checklist provides a backstory for the work. Mendoza, who is currently associate professor and drawing coordinator at California’s Pasadena City College, came to the U.S. from the Philippines at age 3, at the end of the 1960s. “Ism” comments on the way the U.S took control of Spanish territory after winning the 1898 Spanish-American War, and then had to fight against a liberation movement. The title “ism” could be short for “imperialism.” But you can read the work another way — as a history of immigration to the U.S., of people coming with very little (paper, pencil) to start a new life and eventually creating something very valuable. Something as big as an ocean.
Mendoza does draw in a traditional sense; a colored pencil on paper piece, “trunk III: Inappropriation,” is of a standing, facing-forward woman’s bare chest, arms at her side, displaying the tattoos of the Philippines’ indigenous Kalinga tribe — they spread out and downward from her collar and breasts, looking like growing roots.
The title of Mendoza’s sculptural “Growing Up Brown” is a signal that it might be autobiographical — especially once you learn this replica of a brown crayon is the same height as the artist (it stands on a thin platform). The artist used plastic, foam, paper, ink, colored pencil and acrylic paint to create it, and the piece is lovingly, carefully crafted. The brown crayon is actually plastic, but its wrapper is drawn on paper. The words “Crayola” and “American” are painted onto it. On one level, the artist sees herself symbolically as an object that makes art — that seems a potent self-image. On another, she sees herself nervously standing out as a child (the age most people use crayons).
“Kapwa” is a sculptural wall piece that uses false perspective to make us experience cut, flattened and folded cardboard boxes as fully dimensional objects stacked against the floor. Mendoza has repeatedly painted in gouache the logo-like word “Kapwa” (which means “shared being” in Philippine culture) on those boxes, turning a spiritual term into something conjuring commercialism. It’s a nod to Warhol’s Brillo boxes.
But there’s a sweet, humanizing touch — on the lower right is a flattened small pink cardboard pastry box, the kind used in Los Angeles at many start-up immigrant food businesses. You can picture the owner of one such business taking a break from the hard work of stacking heavy boxes for a quick, satisfying sweet treat.
Angela Jones of HudsonJones used to operate an L.A. gallery with her husband, Michael Solway. She showed Mendoza there and is now doing so here. It’s a gain for us.
Maryrose Cobarrubias Mendoza’s red, white and brown is at HudsonJones (110 Alfred St., Camp Washington) through June 9. More info: facebook.com/hudsonjonesgallery