Art mirrors the temperament of the artist. It's an old truism that is as often false as it is true. A given person's personality is not necessarily a guide to the work he or she creates.
Such is the case with Marianela de la Hoz, a generously gifted painter whose scenes are often dark and disturbing, but whose own temperament is sunny and gracious. She understands the paradox; even seems to take some pleasure in it. She is slight and soft-spoken, but chooses her words in a way that reveals her strong will and decisive vision.
For a role model in this regard, she mentions one of her grandfathers.
"He would point out grotesque things about the world, but always thought it was important to have good manners," she explains.
You wouldn't say her art is well mannered, but its disquieting scenes are beautifully crafted and visually seductive. Her imagery creates a kind of running narrative of the introspective female psyche: a nude woman presiding over a group of eggs from which are hatching diminutive babies; an emaciated woman facing a wall next to another gorging on material goods; a woman made of wood; a young woman holding up a frame in which the reflection (or is it a painted image?) of her face replaces her actual visage.
This haunting mix has brought her both praise and a steady stream of exhibitions in San Diego and beyond.
Curator Amy Galpin selected de la Hoz for an exhibition in 2012 at the San Diego Museum of Art, during Galpin's tenure there. She has chosen to feature her once again in her current role as curator for the Cornell Museum of Art at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. The exhibition, "Marianela de la Hoz: Speculum-Speculari," on view through August 2, 2015 emphasizes paintings that employ mirrors as image and metaphor for self-definition and exploration. Her work will travel to the University of Arkansas in Little Rock when this exhibition closes.
"I was impressed with the strong responses her work inspires in viewers," says Galpin. "So many people were downloading the audio guide to that show, but we weren't able to do a catalog, so I felt as if we had unfinished business. I felt strong as if I wanted [to] revisit her work and introduce it to an audience that has never seen her paintings."
"I have admired her commitment to the figure, at a time when so much work has moved way from it," Galpin adds, "And in moving from graphic design to painting, she taught herself to use egg tempera. All of this makes for an engaging background story to the work itself."
The psychological intensity of de la Hoz's art goes hand in glove with its diminutive scale. She employs the power of the miniature (or near miniature), to dramatic effect. As critic Susan Steward has written in her book "On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, The Souvenir, the Collection," "The interiority of the enclosed world tends to reify the interiority of the viewer." In other words, the miniature creates a kind of direct channel between the inner state of the artist and that of the viewer.
Shrinking the scale of her work, about a decade ago, was a key development in her art.
"When I moved from working large to working small, it was so freeing," she asserts. "It has been a process of liberation ever since."
This shift in scale also elevated the visual and psychological force of her work. People may be misshapen, the incidents within them are often disturbing, but the beauty of their style seduces the eye at the same time as your psyche is disturbed.
"White violence" is how she refers to its general atmosphere. "It [the work] talks about tough things."
De la Hoz's career has evolved in two places: Mexico City and San Diego. The vision within her work has Catholic roots, with its ruminations on pain and pleasure, depravity and mystery. Precedents include the great Southern writer Flannery O'Connor and the iconic countrywoman Frida Kahlo, as well as Northern European painters in the Flemish and Dutch tradition.
She earned a bachelor's degree in Graphic Design at Mexico City's Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana and worked as a designer for a decade or so. But by 1992, she explains, she decided to commit herself to painting. She became part of a circle of painters there, one of which made a suggestion that would alter her life as an artist.
One of her colleagues suggested she tried egg tempera. De la Hoz was open to the suggestion. She picked up a book on the subject and proceeded to learn this labor intensive and unforgiving approach to painting.
"I found my medium," she says. "I like to cook and so the way you create the paint appealed to me."
Raquel Tibol, an influential Mexico City critic, became an admirer and recommended de la Hoz to a gallery, where she began to show in the nineties. She garnered critical recognition and attracted collectors.
But her husband, Raul, was convinced that they should relocate to the United States. De la Hoz was skeptical, but he was determined. So she and her family -- even their five cats and two dogs -- relocated here in 2002, living first in Rancho Penasquitos and now in San Marcos. One business opportunity sputtered, but he succeeded with another: importing foods from Spain and Italy. So they have stayed.
Her daughter, Mariana, now 33, has worked in art restoration and now lives in Sweden with her husband and five year old daughter. Her son Bernardo, 23, recently just completed a Bachelor's degree in Political Science at Occidental College.
At first, de la Hoz, now 59, felt like the proverbial stranger in a strange land in San Diego. She also had no idea of the shape of the art landscape here.
"I really thought no one would pay attention to my work," she recalls.
Fortunately, she was wrong. David Zapf, who ran a high profile gallery in San Diego at the time, was enthusiastic about her drawings and paintings; Mark-Elliott Lugo, the visual arts curator for the San Diego Public Library system until 2012, was also eager to show them. Both included her in exhibitions. Critics and collectors embraced them too.
More recently, de la Hoz has had memorable exhibitions in 2013 at the Noel-Baza Fine Art in the Little Italy district of San Diego and this year at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla. While Noel-Baza has closed its public venue, owners Tom Noel and Larry Baza are exhibiting her work in an ongoing fashion at their popup gallery space in Balboa Park's San Diego History Center.
In the last couple of years, some of her paintings have taken a softer turn. She attributes that to the joys of having a grandson, Mateo. De la Hoz calls it her "period of sweetness." She doesn't see it as any kind of permanent change, though. "I need to do other things," she says. Too much sweetness just doesn't seem true to her dark vision of painting and human nature.