In a sense, Ana María Hernando‘s entire artistic career feels like a build up to where we encounter her this month, in a new show at the Denver Botanic Gardens, centered around her voluptuous and volcanic representation of the Nusta, the mighty, female spirit of the mountains from Andean mythology.
Hernando has spent decades conjuring objects that explore the ways women empower themselves. Not how they aim to take over the world, but how they exist in it wholly, collaboratively, spiritually, vigorously. Her work, often made with fabric and thread, argues for the agency of women in sewing circles or kitchens, or in convents, for the subversive power in “traditional female” crafts and things like flowers and poetry.
For one project, she collected embroidery from cloistered nuns in Argentina; for another, she assembled a collection of petticoats crocheted by female sheepherders in Peru. She transforms these raw materials into large-scale installations that overflow with vitality and underscore the subtle and practical methods that women employ to control their destinies.
It is the sum total of all that collective energy that seems to be embodied in this Nusta — 8 feet tall at least, and erupting in smoky shades of gray, black, gold and white. Above this monstrous mound, a poofy cloud of orange and white is suspended from the ceiling. Its forcefield emanates throughout the room.
But Hernando reminds us that is it a female energy. She makes the whole thing out of tulle, flowing and abundant and, in doing so, morphs a material linked to frilly wedding gowns and fancy quinceañera dresses into a force not to be messed with.
It’s not an aggressive act, just a truthful and devotional observation about the universe delivered with artistic liberty. This exhibition, titled “Fervor,” contains several others, pulling a variety of media (from painting to spoken word, music and needlework) into an environment that flows through two rooms of DBG’s new galleries.
Hernando brings several of her projects together here. Among them is the monumental “Ecoutons,” which was developed during the pandemic. The piece was originally intended to be an in-person exercise where a group of people would head out into nature, listen to the sounds of birds, and illustrate what they were hearing through embroidery.
If you go
Ana María Hernando, “Fervor,” continues through Jan. 2 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St., 720-865-3500 or botanicgardens.org.
The logistics of doing so became impossible during a global lockdown. So instead, Hernando asked people to spend time alone in nature, observe the birdsongs and send her recordings of them. She then did the interpretations herself, creating abstract narratives using cotton thread on soft organza, a fabric so light it feels like air itself.
The exhibition’s opening room is full of these pieces and of the recorded songs themselves, representing birds across the U.S., from places like Texas, Hawaii and Florida, and from other countries, like Mexico, France, Germany and not surprisingly, Argentina, where Hernando was born and returns to frequently.
They hang loosely from the ceiling, turning the gallery into an aviary of sorts, with the wispy organza catching breezes in the room and sending the pieces into gentle flutters. It’s not an accurate re-creation of the sky or the treetops or whatever upward domain birds call home, but the spirit is there.
Because the pieces are hung a little high off the ground to examine close up, the renderings of the bird calls have been replicated in works on paper and hung on the walls at eye level, each hand- labeled in simple pencil. “Hummingbird from Ward, Colorado,” one reads. Another: “Birds from County, Wexford, Ireland.”
The exhibition becomes even more immersive in the second room, where Hernando has installed another monumental organza sculpture, this one hanging down from the ceiling and appearing as something like a cloud bursting with energy and releasing flowing tufts of fabric in in lime green and other shades that cascade toward the floor. Again, Hernando balances the forceful, and potentially fearful, abundance of nature with a reminder of the goodwill energy that flows from it. The piece is intimating and shockingly beautiful at the same time.
The room is also filled with sound, with a recording of Hernando reading three bird poems, “Wood Thrush,” “Mourning dove” and “Bobolink,” with musical accompaniment from Dreaming Fields of Action. Hernando wrote the words while “imaging the meaning of each song and the experiences of the birds that sing them.”
The text isn’t fully decipherable, though its effect is hypnotic. It invites you to linger, meditate, to find some rich connection to nature. In some ways, it is easy to give in to this proposition; Hernando’s tribute to the non-human world is seductive and sincere without feeling strained. It stands apart from all of the other immersive experiences out there these days that simply try too hard to take over the senses of visitors.
But in other ways, it must be said, this could be a challenge for folks taking in the exhibition as a sideshow to the garden’s plants, trees and flowers. DBG’s galleries are modern and efficient, though they are not exactly warm spaces. And the building that houses them, in the middle of the garden, is modern and sleek and full of hard surfaces, white walls, paneled ceiling, steel-framed windows.
Hernando has occupied the galleries with the full force of her devotional work, but the coldness of the spaces linger in the background. It’s not the perfect match of exhibition and exhibition space and it takes some effort to block out the institutional personality of the setting. A little more lighting and color and surface softness might have helped; if DBG is going to show work like this, it has to go all in.
A good strategy for seeing the exhibition is to give it some time. The longer I stayed with the work, the more it occupied me, and when it did, I was sufficiently transfixed, taken over by serenity and mysteries of the natural world, and overwhelmed by the great and undeniable mountain spirit.
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